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Protesting the “Gig” Economy

Seth Sandronsky
November 30, 2015

by Seth Sandronsky

Phone cell updateIN MID-OCTOBER, UBER DRIVERS nationwide protested the ride-hailing firm to demand higher pay and a tipping option. Drivers urged customers to refrain for one weekend from using the app-based business which allows the owners of private cars to give rides for pay, a market that taxis had dominated.

“We always welcome feedback from driver-partners,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement in anticipation of the protest. “Each week, tens of thousands of drivers across the U.S. begin using the Uber app to make money on their own time, to reach their own goals.”

Writer Steven Hill saw the driver protests as more than “feedback.” “After having their pay slashed multiple times by Uber, drivers are protesting for better wages,” said Hill, author of Raw Deal: How the “Uber Economy” and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), in an e-mail. “That should hardly be surprising. They also want a minimum fare because the streets are getting so clogged with Uber drivers that short rides leave the car stuck in traffic and so short rides are unprofitable.”

Uber had 160,000 drivers in the U.S. in December 2014, according to company figures. The drivers work not as company employees but instead as independent contractors. Reports of the sharp growth in self-employed workforce is overrated, however, according to Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC.

“One way to track growth in the ‘gig’ or Uber, economy is to identify the share of workers that are self-employed,” he writes.

As Justin Fox has written, self-employment has actually fallen, contradicting the notion of an exploding gig economy in which everyone will soon be a freelance worker. In 2014, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that only 10.1 percent of those with jobs identified self-employment as their primary work. This is down from 11.1 percent in 2007 before the recession and from 10.7 percent in 2000 and less than in any year in the 1990s or 2000s. Some analysts claim that the BLS data do not reflect the many people working gig jobs on a part-time basis or as an extra job. Perhaps — but if this is true, then the unmeasured gig workers do not consider gig work their primary job and there is no reason to believe that ‘gig’ work will soon be a dominant form of primary work activity.

UBER DRIVERS PICKETED the company’s headquarters in San Francisco, where the ride-hailing service launched, to kick off the weekend protest. In addition, the “Uber Freedom” Facebook page listed driver protests in Raleigh, North Carolina; Denver, Colorado; and Dallas, Texas.

Jay, a part-time Uber driver in Houston since July 2015, didn’t participate in the recent labor action there and reported just “a handful of strikers” in the city. Jay declined to use his last name for fear of company retaliation, e.g., disconnecting him from the mobile app that links Uber drivers and riders. Without that digital connection, drivers can’t earn income. Clearly, his need as an income-earner part-time with Uber looms large.

David Ryan, a part-time Uber driver in Los Angeles, Orange County, the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento, California, since April 2015, also didn’t take part in the nationwide strike. “There was very little talk among passengers or the local media,” he said via e-mail.

Historically, labor’s capacity to withhold its services has been its main bargaining tool for better working conditions and compensation. However, the self-directed efforts of Uber drivers to improve their working lives face considerable challenges. The U-6 measure of unemployment, which includes the unemployed, underemployed, and “discouraged” (those no longer looking for jobs) was 10 percent in September 2015, versus 11.4 percent the previous September, according to the U.S. Labor Department. These are more discouraging figures than the U-3 unemployment numbers that grab headlines: 5.1 percent in September 2015 compared with 5.9 percent in September 2014. The reality is that there are still more job-seekers than jobs, so companies can and do hold pay below what their workers seek. It is a matter of supply and demand — not insurmountable in current conditions, but nonetheless formidable.

Strength in numbers counts, and can create its own momentum on the ground and in the public’s mind in the conflict between labor and capital. Uber might have won this battle, but the final page of the conflict between the $51 billion company and its dissident workers laboring to make ends meet is unwritten. The struggle continues in the so-called “gig” economy.

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. He can be reached via email.