Written by Dennis Deslippe, Lancaster Township. This piece has been submitted for publication. Reprinted here with permission from the author.
We’ve become accustomed in recent years to other Americans doing the things that we used to do for ourselves. Once the purview of the elite it has become an expectation for a large swath of the public. The so-called “gig worker” gives us rides to our destination, delivers our food, and opens their house to us for overnight visits. They provide a panoply of services, from folding our clothes, to cleaning our basements, to raking our leaves. Powerful companies have, through innovative platform applications, created a novel service workforce that can be summoned at a moment’s notice. It is a misnomer to call this a “sharing economy” since it is usually desperation that motivates the “gig worker.” Indeed, they are not “sharing” their automobile or spare bedroom: we pay them, however insufficiently. The narrowed employment options in an era of deepening inequality and eroded workplace rights force many Americans to do this work as a second, or even third, job.
As last month’s referendum result in California illustrates, we are not willing to afford these workers the protection due to employees. That state’s Proposition 22, a ballot measure to reclassify rideshare drivers as “independent contractors,” passed with 58.6% of the vote. As a result, in the midst of a global pandemic, drivers will be denied sick days and local laws passed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose to protect drivers during COVID-19 will be retroactively undone. Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Instacart, and Doordash succeeded in the spurious argument that their companies are mere platforms rather than employers for “gig workers.” It is a puzzling claim, one that flies in the face of the common sese definition the California Supreme Court provided in their Dynamex ruling in 2018, that a worker is an employee, rather than an independent contractor, “if his or her job forms part of a company’s core business, if the bosses direct the way the work is done or if the worker has not established an independent trade or business.” Polling data indicates that voters were swayed by the $210 million campaign of major gig companies who argued that consumers would pay higher prices for services.
This privileging of our consumer self-interest over supporting workers’ rights has its roots in the nineteenth century. A new middle class began to purchase novelty items. They perused the Sears catalog for a universe of goods and shopped in the new palatial department stores with vaulted ceilings. As the economy shifted in emphasis from industrial to service work, Americans paid increasingly less attention to the plight of workers in general. Where once they acknowledged industrial workers and farmers’ labor as being both tangible and valued in the production of goods and crops, they were untroubled by the service sector’s chronically-underpaid workforce that lacked sufficient benefits as well as scarce government health and safety regulations. Policy makers and business leaders succeeded in portraying them in many consumers’ minds as a fleeting, younger, and less-deserving workforce.
The familiar consumer role emerged in the post-World War II period. Americans, weary of the Great Depression and World War II rationing, purchased washing machines, new automobiles, and television sets. Shopping for nonessential items became a meaningful activity in a mass consumer economy. It lay at the heart of the “American Way of Life” in the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Where worker rights and wages dominated economic and public discourse the first part of the twentieth century, consumerism focused on prices, convenience, and variety now came to the fore. Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen writes in her A Consumer’s Republic (2004) that, “Material goods came to embody the promise of America, and the power of consumers to purchase everything from vacuum cleaners to convertibles gave rise to the power of citizens to purchase political influence and effect social change.” While consumerism could be deployed in the interest of workplace rights, as it was in the United Farm Workers’ boycott of grapes and lettuce in the early 1970s, consumer interests usually prevailed over workplace justice concerns. Cohen observes that, “despite undeniable successes and unprecedented affluence, mass consumption also fostered economic inequality and the fracturing of society along gender, class, and racial lines.”
For all of its power, consumerism has not completely overwhelmed workplace advocacy. The living wage movement that began in Baltimore’s campaign in the early 1990s has been one of the most visible manifestations of support for worker rights. Over 125 cities and counties approved their own living wage measures between 1994 and 2010. Its success has continued in recent years with the visibility of the “Fight for $15” and “$15 Now” national campaigns. Support for workplace rights defies easy political labels. While California voters, who backed the Biden-Harris ticket with 63.5% support, thwarted gig workers’ “employee” designation, the voters in Florida—who gave Trump-Pence a 51.2% win—approved Amendment 2, which will raise the state’s minimum to $1 an hour until it reaches $15 in 2026. Most impressive are the efforts of gig workers themselves to organize into unions. The most recent is a group of Instacart employees in Skokie–a suburb of Chicago–who voted to unionize earlier this year. This is a landmark victory for gig worker activism. It represents the first time employees of a tech company that relies predominantly on contract labor have formed a union to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.
It is time to rethink ordering consumer preferences over the status of workers. In 2020 we depended, more than ever, on gig workers. As COVID-19 reorders our lives their place as an employee, not an “independent contractor,” should be secured in 2021 in our legal and economic arrangements.
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