This week on the podcast, we have the pleasure of speaking with Jess Kutch, co-founder of CoWorker.org. We focus on building worker power and the unique ways technology is both removing worker voice and strengthening it in various sectors of the economy.
CoWorker.org is a digital organizing tool used by tens of thousands of American workers. Through it, workers at giant corporations like Starbucks and Uber have improved working conditions for themselves and their fellow employees.
Digital organizing is especially crucial for Americans employed in the burgeoning “gig economy.” Although the gig economy provides increased job opportunities and flexibility, it often comes at the price of worker autonomy and voice. Gig workers are at the whim of their employers and are denied benefits like health insurance because of their contractor status.
“With the gig economy, you don’t even have the protections of traditional employment law,” Jess told us. “And so gig workers in particular, I think, are doing some of the most interesting organizing and experimentation and building power.”
The gig economy hurts workers in several different ways: forcing them to work arduous hours at low wages while simultaneously gouging the end consumer, isolating them from their fellow workers, and reserving the right to terminate them at a moment’s notice. In an age of precarious labor, the gig economy worsens conditions and stability for those it employs.
Recently, California passed Assembly Bill 5, a key piece of legislation fighting for workers’ rights. Under it, most gig economy and rideshare contractors in America’s largest state would become qualified employees, making it much harder for companies like Uber and Lyft to deny better wages and employment rights to drivers.
Rideshare companies were, predictably, extremely upset. Their ire was further piqued when a federal judge struck down their challenge to the law. Uber and Lyft would still rather fight the law than give their workers employment status, and they’ve launched a ballot initiative to that effect.
California’s Prop 22 would exempt rideshare workers from AB 5, freeing the companies who spurned the creation of the legislation. Companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash are responsible for a large percentage of California’s gig economy, and Prop 22 would let them continue their exploitative business practices.
With so much to lose, these tech giants aren’t playing fair. They know they have a captive audience relying on their apps, and companies like Uber are exploiting their position by making users watch a pro-Prop 22 ad before hailing a ride.
These rideshare giants aren’t just pushing back against AB5 because they’ll lose money. If Prop 22 fails, they’ll lose power. Workers in the gig economy suffer from a paucity of rights because they aren’t full-time employees and therefore don’t qualify for most basic employment rights. Prop 22 would permanently shift power into the hands of the rideshare corporation paying the wages, while sticking drivers with the risk and expenses of maintaining a car and paying for gasoline.
Making Uber drivers employees would also give them more of a collective voice. Currently, gig workers are purposefully isolated, and organizing is heavily frowned upon. Making contractors employees opens the door to collective bargaining and shift more power to workers. If Uber workers organized the same way San Francisco taxi drivers did a hundred years ago, the company would be forced to provide benefits, worker security, and living wages—all of which cuts into their bottom line.
Prop 22 would entrench the economic model of the gig economy and represent a further decline in the rights of workers. Prop 22 is not what America or California needs. Instead, we need legislation giving power back to workers and making it easier for them to express their needs and wants to employers who will listen.
“I’m basically a proponent of anything that allows more workers to have a voice,” Jess said in our interview. If we want to make sure gig workers in California get their voice, we need to oppose Prop 22.
“AB-5 Was Drive-by Shooting Legislation; Prop. 22 Will Let the Intended Target Get off Scot Free.” Manteca Bulletin – Manteca Bulletin, www.mantecabulletin.com/opinion/local-columns/ab-5-was-drive-shooting-legislation-prop-22-will-let-intended-target-get-scot-free/.
Bell, W. Kamau. “Opinion: Why the Gig Economy Is a Scam.” CNN, Cable News Network, 9 Aug. 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/08/09/opinions/united-shades-of-america-gig-economy-kamau-bell/index.html.
“Calif. Beats Uber, Postmates’ Constitutional Fight Over AB 5.” Law360, www.law360.com/articles/1311843/calif-beats-uber-postmates-constitutional-fight-over-ab-5.
Department, Employment Development. AB 5 – Employment Status, Employment Development Department, edd.ca.gov/Payroll_Taxes/ab-5.htm.
Dubal, Veena, The Drive to Precarity: A Political History of Work, Regulation, & Labor Advocacy in San Francisco’s Taxi & Uber Economies (February 21, 2017). Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, Vol. 38, No. 1, 2017, UC Hastings Research Paper No. 236, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2921486
O’Brien, Katie. “How the Gig Economy Denies Its Workers Basic Rights.” A Better Balance, 13 Aug. 2019, www.abetterbalance.org/how-the-gig-economy-denies-workers-basic-rights/.
Staff, Veronica Roseborough |, and Veronica Roseborough. “CA Prop. 22 Will Determine Fate of App-Based Drivers.” The Daily Californian, 12 Aug. 2020, www.dailycal.org/2020/08/12/ca-prop-22-will-determine-fate-of-app-based-drivers/.
“Uber App: Watch This Prop. 22 Ad.” MSN.com, www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/uber-app-watch-this-prop-22-ad/ar-BB19qFQQ.