Gig Free

gig utopias, taxi co-ops, and anti-labor noir

In the weeks leading up to November 3, Uber drivers in California were told, daily, of utopia. “We believe,” reads one message the tech company pinged to its workers, “a better way to work is possible.” One without “upper limits,” another message promises. One without schedules, without a boss. One—even!—with a meager health care stipend. 

This is, of course, referring to the precarious, exploitative business model that Uber already employs, as outlined in the rideshare company’s outlandishly expensive marketing campaign for Proposition 22 in California. Uber, Lyft, and other gig companies poured millions into their crusade for the ballot measure, inundating Golden State residents with billboards, faux progressive mailers, and ads set to Maya Angelou poems. At the crux of the campaign, however obscured by corporate babble, was this something better; an implied freedom from the trappings of work, a promised self-determination.

Prop 22 passed by a stunning 17-point margin last Tuesday. This is a devastating blow for labor rights, and it’s a cruel loss for the gig workers and other grassroots groups that fought the measure—and were outspent 10–1. The legislation will allow Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare companies to evade California Assembly Bill 5, which classified gig workers as employees; which means they can now evade providing their workers with basic employee benefits and protections. 

Prop 22’s implications will ripple outward from California. Lyft, Uber, and Door Dash have all said they will work to craft similar legislation elsewhere. And for other tech companies, Prop 22’s success is a strong incentive to shift their businesses to the “independent contractor” model of gig work, splitting open the fissured workplace even further.

Should Prop 22 pave the way to a swollen gig economy—which, it’s important to note, began decades before Uber, and includes workers in many other industries—the future of work will not look like Lyft’s rosy commercials. Uber and Lyft drivers, the majority of whom work full-time, will continue to be subject to psychological coercion, invasive surveillance, and low, unpredictable wages, all while their cars depreciate and customer prices climb higher. Workers of color will be disproportionately harmed. This is just the price you pay, these companies will parrot, again and again, for flexibility. For that better way to work. 

What are we to say, though, to these assertions? However misleading, there is undoubtedly an allure to Uber’s vision for labor; it claims, on the surface, to be providing an escape from the typical, factory-floor exploitation of a workplace. In the face of such promises, employee designation feels like a wanting response.

A few years ago, in need of a second job, I spent a summer working for Amazon’s MTurk platform, a tool that lets firms contract out small tasks to workers online. These “Human Intelligence Tasks,” as Amazon calls them, often take just seconds to complete and pay in literal pennies, allowing companies to crowdsource work at an astronomically low cost. A company might, for instance, transcribe an hour-long audio clip by paying hundreds of workers to each transcribe a ten second chunk. 

MTurk is a paragon of the gig economy, perfectly optimized, its labor chopped up so fine that there’s no need to pay workers for the breaths they take between tasks. The work is tedious and, at times, bizarre; I once was given a set of hundreds of human faces and told to assign each an emotion (paid by the face, of course). It’s exploitative in the way that most gig work is: you can scrape a few bucks an hour if you sit glued to the screen, without pause, and if you’re lucky enough not to have a company reject your work without reason (there’s little recourse if that does happen). My time on MTurk was temporary, but for a growing number of workers, many living outside the U.S., it’s a primary, long-term source of income.

More than a source of cheap labor, MTurk is how many companies train their machine learning technology. It is, increasingly, a major source of data for Ivy League social science researchers, who pay workers $2 an hour to fill out their surveys. And the platform was one of the little-known causes of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, though Amazon escaped with its reputation untarnished. Gig labor already underlies everything—our systems of information, our personal data—all while keeping workers hyper-alienated, from each other and from their work.

Still, many MTurk workers I have spoken to, while quick to criticize the system, scoff at suggestions that Amazon treat them as full-time employees. Likewise, a not-insignificant number of rideshare drivers supported Prop 22, and though Uber and Lyft certainly fabricated much of that support via dubious, coercive polling and propaganda, it is incorrect to pretend an employee designation is what all drivers—or, indeed, gig workers—ultimately want. We can fight for fair wages and employee status, while also acknowledging the need for a bigger kind of reimagining, the language of which Uber has, bizarrely, co-opted as it fights to keep its unprofitable business slightly less unprofitable.

It’s important to note, here, that Uber’s claims that employee status will spell an end to workplace flexibility, which were central to its Prop 22 campaign, are deceptive. As many have written, there is no legal requirement that Uber institute fixed hours or force drivers to take certain rides, were the company to classify its workers as employees. Uber has full control over that choice. (And, obviously, the company’s claims of workplace autonomy are tenuous to start.) Still, the business models of these companies are predicated on hiring drivers in excess, to reduce customer wait times, and not compensating them for the time they spend waiting for a ride. It’s difficult to imagine that, were rideshare firms forced to provide drivers a minimum wage and benefits, this “flexible” model would remain sustainable. It’s not even sustainable now. Drivers, who know that Uber cares only about its bottom line, are right to worry that employee designation would bring significant change.

This is not a new debate. As scholar Veena Dubal writes in her brilliant study on employee misclassification litigation, gig workers have been split on this issue for decades; many in the industry have organized for employee status while others have resisted it. Crucially, Dubal finds, such legal designations alone have frequently failed to win workers the protections and benefits that were promised. When FedEx employees, in 2014, were ruled to be employees, the company moved to a “franchise” model, which essentially replicated the precarity of gig work under an independent service provider system. Uber has floated such a franchise model as a solution to its own employee designation woes.

But more crucially, gig workers across industries have spent decades lobbying for something beyond employee status. In the late 1990s, taxi drivers working as independent contractors in Oakland, California organized, demanding better working conditions, and were swept into an employee designation lawsuit. Yet their goal, Dubal writes, was never to be employees: “Their primary goal was cooperative self-ownership,” she notes, “but this objective was never embraced either by city regulators or by the union that supported them through the litigation.” The taxi drivers envisioned a worker cooperative, not an employer. This mismatch hindered employee designation organizing: such advocacy often failed to sustain, in part because it did not align with workers’ own visions. Now, years later, app workers are launching their own worker-owned platforms, in a similar upturning of gig labor.

Ridesharing companies, obviously, do not want worker cooperatives. They won Prop 22 by waging a propaganda war on watered-down promises of self-ownership and freedom, which they will never actually provide; by appealing to the untapped potential of gig work to reimagine systems of labor. In the wake of the ballot measure, we should not be duped by their claims. But we should fight for a better way to work. Uber, after all, has already told us it can be done.


virtual past

Quiz: Corporate Training Video or Anti-Labor Film From the 1900s?

  1. Alice’s Egg Plant (1925)

Alice is the lady boss at an egg factory, where everything is running smoothly until a disruptive foreign chicken, Little Red Henski of Moscow (with a bag sporting the International Workers of the World Union acronym) shows up to stir the pot. As a part of his nefarious agenda, he goads the other chickens to strike, demand shorter hours, and lay fewer eggs. But don’t worry, Alice’s entrepreneurial spirit saves the day. By arranging a public fight between two chickens and charging eggs for admission, Alice fools the gullible workers into giving up their labor for free! 

  1. Target Employee Information Video (2013)

Doug and Maria are happily employed at Target. As they navigate the many aisles of their workplace, they learn the good intentions of their CEO and become aware of the dangers of unions, which as they find out, are obsolete. They discover a graph that shows union membership to be significantly lower because all its possible accomplishments—restricting work hours and stopping child labor—are already enshrined in law. Though cheerful at first, the film quickly adopts a noir tone with the help of special effects (twenty dollar bills flowing onto the words “A Union is a Business”) and an original score (creepy synth music). 

  1. Our Leading Citizen (1939) 

In a small town, a factory owner unfairly cuts wages, angering workers and causing a strike that wreaks havoc. Enter the cops, scabs, and of course, a foreign agitator who calls everyone “comrade” and wants the strike to be violent. The “leading citizen” of the film’s title is a good-mannered, well-spoken, calm, and moderate lawyer, Lem Schofield, who comes to fix the chaos. His idol is Abraham Lincoln and his motto is to do things “the American Way.” With a few patriotic aphorisms and platitudes, he drives out the radical foreigner (who turns out to be conspiring with the strike-breakers anyway), and encourages the workers to get back to work. Even in 1939, the New York Times called the film’s approach to the “labor-capital situation”  “confused, synthetic, and full of balderdash.” 

  1. Amazon Informational Video (2018)

In this animated film, two nameless protagonists address the audience in monologues on organized labor. A central metaphor of the film is unionization as a disease, with “warning signs,” and symptoms, which can include suspicious language (“living wage,” “contract,” “representation”), workers hanging out together, and increased negativity. The film suggests remedies for employees hoping to cure fellow workers who have lost their way, mostly in the form of corporate-speak acronyms and bullet-point suggestions on things like how to subtly intimidate those who want to unionize, or how to find out more without “interrogating.” Some of the language even sounds pulled from a self-help book: “Use the power of silence,” “Don’t commit to anything other than communication,” and, ominously, “Remember—it’s almost always better  to listen than to speak.” 

  1. FedEx anti-union sitcom (1990s)

A summer barbecue goes sour when FedEx drivers Mike, Pete, and Steve have a disagreement about the benefits of unionization. Steve is pro-union, mostly because he thinks it will make him rich “like frickin’ Donald Trump.” Pete, on the other hand, believes in freedom, and therefore is anti-union. He wants to set his own hours, and be his own boss (while being an independent contractor for FedEx). Luckily, a neighbor conveniently passing by is there to explain how useless unionization really is. A thirty-person strike will accomplish little in a company of thousands of employees, he tells Steve. Plus, drivers are replaceable. FedEx could always hire new ones! Sounds like this neighbor read his Marx. At the same time, Mike and Steve’s wives stumble upon a video cassette with a similar explanation. The characters in this sitcom don’t quite have the chemistry of Friends, though one of the actresses is experienced in the anti-union informational video genre (she also appeared in one from Walmart). 


what we’re looking at

Getting Back In Touch in The Believer: Touch technology and the fight against corrosive loneliness.

Grin and Bear It in The Baffler: Hettie O’Brien on contemporary bite-size, self-help stoicism.

Cyberpunk? In My Neighborhood? in Soft Punk Magazine: Tiana Attride on the return of cyberpunk.

The Tuttle Twins and the Case of Really Bad Libertarian Propaganda in Current Affairs: A truly inspired look at free-market children’s books.

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