What Does A Union Look Like In The Gig Economy?

Without the right to unionize, gig economy workers risk exploitation. But organizing 21rst century workers is no easy feat.

What Does A Union Look Like In The Gig Economy?
[Photo: Flickr user OFL Communications Department]

At first glance, the idea of a gig economy labor movement seems like a contradiction in terms. Uber drivers aren’t legally employees, so they don’t have the right to organize with the protections and bargaining privileges that most labor unions have.


That hasn’t stopped them from organizing.

Drivers who work on Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar have started “App-Based Drivers Associations” in at least two states. The California branch teamed up with local Teamsters in August for “organizational and lobbying assistance,” and in September, after Uber drivers in New York created a Facebook Page called Uber Drivers Network NYC, some of them went on strike over Uber fare cuts.

All of these efforts, however, get dragged down by a simple reality of the gig economy: tactics used by trade unions to win better working conditions in decades past are hard to implement when your work is doled out through an app.

Often workers don’t know who are their peers on the apps, let alone how to contact them.“Unfortunately some drivers are out there working today,” wrote one organizer on the Uber Drivers Network NYC Facebook Page during the September strike. “NOT because they just want to cheat themselves and us, but because our message has not reached them YET.”

Uber worker organizers also called for a “global day of protest” in October, during which it urged drivers to turn their phones off for a three-hour period. But when that day came around, the app, according to Mashable, still showed plenty of available vehicles in New York and San Francisco.

“It’s just impossible,” says Kristy Milland, an organizer among Mechanical Turk workers, who, like Uber drivers, are independent contractors. “We don’t know how many Turkers there are,” she says. “How could we get even a majority of those to vote on movements? We can’t guarantee someone striking, because we can’t even see them. For so many reasons, a union just can’t work.”


Like it or not, employment in the United States looks different than it did 50 years ago–at least 30% of the workforce are independent contractors, the ratio of part-time workers to full-time workers is still higher than before the recession, and there are 2.87 million temporary workers, a record number. Some argue that the gig economy–comprised of companies like Uber, TaskRabbit, Postmates, and Handy, who coordinate independent contractors on a task-by-task basis instead of hiring employees–is a promising development in this conundrum. It offers flexible supplemental income the regular economy is not supplying. Others argue it’s a return to the piecework system that exploited workers before the modern concept of “employee” came on the scene.

But either way, it’s clear there’s a lot of potential for exploitation in the set-up. Examples of unhappy workers abound, like people who work full-time at cleaning service Homejoy and still can’t pay their rent, horrific treatment of temp workers, or even, on a less upsetting scale, Uber drivers who say that the app takes away their tips.

The things that are usually on the table for preventing worker exploitation, The Fair Labor Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and The National Labor Relations Act, don’t apply to independent contractors of the gig economy.

But workers and activists are creating new tools.

Milland took her gripes to a new platform called Dynamo, which was created by Stanford PhD candidate Niloufar Salehi as part of her research into collective action online. In the process of building the platform, in collaboration with other researchers and Mechanical Turk workers, she realized it was more than just an issue of making an online petition. Despite Mechanical Turk’s reputation as a place where people go to complete simple jobs–usually for just cents per task–in their spare time, many of them actually relied on the income to pay their bills. And they were afraid of retribution by Amazon. More than that, they didn’t always agree on what needed to be changed.

Dynamo attempted to create a space where workers could discuss and organize actions. The first action the group took was to write a set of guidelines for researchers, who often use Mechanical Turk to distribute surveys or tasks that they may have previously given to undergraduates. Sometimes, Milland says, the researchers forget they are dealing with actual humans, for instance designing an experiment in which they show a worker horrible images in order to see how long he or she will continue a task despite them. The guidelines were meant to help advise ethics review boards at universities about best practices on Mechanical Turk, in order to avoid this type of situation. According to an organizer on Dynamo, they were viewed more than 12,000 times in the first month. The second action was asking him to “see that Turkers are not only actual human beings, but people who deserve respect, fair treatment, and open communication.”


There was a bit of a media blitz around the project–The Guardian, The Verge, and The Daily Beast all picked it up–and Milland says it was a good proof of concept for Dynamo campaigns. But only about 20 people submitted letters publicly. In the end, Amazon didn’t change its platform. Nothing has been added to the discussion for about a month.

Update: Yesterday, Amazon Mechanical Turk made one change mentioned by two of the letters in the campaign. It allowed Mechanical Turk workers in India to accept payments by direct deposit instead of checks.

About three years ago, Michelle Miller, who had worked with traditional labor movements for years, began to notice a pattern of spikes in attention like the one around the Amazon Turk letter-writing campaign. “A group would form around an issue for a couple of weeks,” she says. “There would be some excitement, some media coverage of the issue the workers were talking about, and then it would either be resolved or it wouldn’t be, and everything would sort of dissipate back to the way it was.”

Her answer was, a platform where workers can, like on, organize petitions, but with one major difference: The communities build not just around specific issues, but around virtual and analog workplaces. Once someone self-identifies as an employee of a company, Coworker keeps them updated about new campaigns within that company. Miller says, for instance, the site has signed up more than 17,000 Starbucks employees through various campaigns.

So far, most of the campaigns are among non-gig economy laborers. Those Starbucks employees used it, for instance, to campaign for the coffee company to change its policy banning visible tattoos (it eventually did so). It has promise to be useful to gig economy workers, as well. The California App-based Drivers Association (CADA) has used the platform to create a campaign that asks Uber to add an automatic tip calculation to all of its fares.

Of course, independent contractors are not protected under the National Labor Relations Act. Without traditional union protections, there’s no law stopping Uber from just firing anyone who participates.


The only way for independent workers to really benefit from the platforms that use their labor, argues Janelle Orsi, a lawyer who specializes in sharing economy issues, is for them to own the platforms themselves, in what she calls a “freelancer-owned cooperative.” Since these platforms would by definition treat workers better, she thinks they could challenge companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Homejoy by essentially stealing their workforces. “The companies themselves have very few assets,” she says. “They don’t own cars, and they don’t own infrastructure, they don’t own hotels. They just own a software platform and a lot of clout. And if that clout goes away, then they just have software. And lots of people can create software.”

Needless to say, some people find this unlikely. “The barrier is not so much the number of people who want to do that, it would be the tech talent to do that,” says Denise Cheng, who studied labor issues in the gig economy for her masters thesis at MIT. “These are actually complex systems. It is not easy to get really talented engineers to work at a company like that.”

But what also seems unlikely at this point is the thing that would give these gig economy workers the rights of a traditional union: that they will all just be reclassified as employees. Even some who feel that independent contractors are sometimes treated unfairly in the gig economy see how applying the laws of traditional labor to them could be awkward: How do you apply concepts like minimum wage and overtime to gig economy workers who log on sporadically throughout the day or who work for several platforms at a time? “I have a lot of sympathy with the push to make them all full-time employers, but I’m not sure that’s an actual realistic solution,” says Miller, “We have to think about expanding the definition of employment and come from the place of how we introduce stability into the lives of the people who are working in this new economy and go from there. Because that’s how we got the laws in the first place.”

About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.