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The Future of Work

In Quest To Organize Gig Economy Workers, Unions Sometimes Clash

As labor changes, so too will labor organizations. Many unions are still trying to understand exactly how.

[Photo: Andrew Ruiz via Unsplash]

This weekend, the 3,000 member delegates of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the organization’s highest governing body, gathered together in Detroit for a convention the union hosts every four years. At the meeting, the SEIU sets its goals and priorities. One of those new goals, agreed upon through a floor vote, includes, "Becoming a Technologically Advanced Organization." The SEIU also plans to hire a "Strategic Technology Director" and build a network of thought leaders, which it has termed "the Innovation Center," to experiment with new ways to organize labor.

Like many unions, the SEIU is grappling with how to best organize workers as work becomes more decentralized and independent. "Workers' ability to influence their wages has been deteriorating for the last 40 years in the U.S.," says SEIU president Mary Kay Henry. "I think what is different is that technology gives us a leg up in being able to connect people to each other and activate them."

Technology has also allowed employers to hire workforces spread throughout the country and the world; automate jobs; and dole out task-by-task contracts on hiring platforms, a strategy often referred to as the "gig economy." Some traditionally independent jobs, like house cleaning, child care, and home care, have also moved onto gig economy platforms.

Some of America's most important labor laws were created in a very different labor landscape—one in which workers gathered in the same physical locations at the same time, and were likely to work for a single employer, as an employee. Virtually all government-mandated labor protection programs are attached to this conception of a full-time job: social security, workers compensation, disability insurance, minimum wage, overtime, and break laws. Independent workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers do not have a legally protected right to unionize. Meanwhile, the percentage of workers in general who are members of a union has been declining for more than 50 years. All of this means that unions like the SEIU—if not as literally (though vaguely, as in that union’s new resolutions)—are grappling with how to best organize workers for a future in which a lot of work will be independent and decentralized. As Seth Harris, a former deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor, told me in March, "It’s not clear that the labor movement has a unified position."

The "gig economy" has provided one particularly visible point of debate. In February, the AFL-CIO came out strongly against the notion that a new type of safety net or worker categorization (other than "employee") is needed to be created for workers who use platforms such as Uber, Lyft, or TaskRabbit. "Encouraging on-demand companies to rely on a workforce of independent contractors who lack the rights and protections of employees is bad public policy," the union said in a statement. On its blog, the union was even less ambiguous: "The AFL-CIO Executive Council affirmed that working people in the gig economy share a single common designation: employees."

Other unions, including the SEIU, have appeared more willing to experiment with organizing workers in the gig economy as independent contractors.

A few months earlier, on-demand companies including cleaning service Handy, ride-hailing app Lyft, and grocery-delivery service Instacart had collaborated with think-tank leaders and other stakeholders in the gig economy on a letter that proposed principles for a new kind of work. It called for "portable benefits," a system of safety net programs for independent contractors that would not be attached to a particular employer. Three SEIU leaders signed the letter.

The Teamsters lobbied for legislation in Seattle that allows Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize. Proponents argued that Seattle had the power to address collective bargaining in this case specifically because those drivers were independent contractors, and thus not covered by federal collective bargaining law (the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sued Seattle shortly later, arguing that the new policy violates anti-trust law). A similar law has been proposed in California.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers has perhaps taken the most extensive step toward organizing gig economy workers. Earlier this month, it announced it had reached a five-year agreement with Uber to create an ""Independent Drivers Guild" in New York. Through the guild, which is not a union, drivers will be able to appeal termination decisions and have access to discounted benefits. The Machinists agreed to hold off on trying to unionize drivers or have them reclassified as employees. "The labor movement now has an oppportunity to mold this gig economy in a way that reflects our value and support system," says the Independent Drivers Guild’s founder Jim Conigliaro, who has previously worked with the Machinists to organize black car drivers in New York. "If workers ask us for support, we should be able to help them regardless of employment status, regardless of work, and regardless of what economy they’re in." The agreement helps the Machinists get over at least one significant hurdle it faced when it came to organizing gig economy workers like Uber: getting in touch with drivers. Previous attempts have relied on canvassing airports and Facebook advertising campaigns, but in this case, Uber has facilitated Machinist access to 35,000 drivers in New York City.

Both the New York State AFL-CIO and New York City Central Labor Council supported the guild.

"I look forward to this agreement being a catalyst for change in kickstarting the broader conversation around labor and technology," said Mario Cilento, president, New York State AFL-CIO in a statement. But the debate was already well underway, and so far, it's still—like the SEIU's newly declared commitment to technology—a series of experiments.

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