Despite the global recession and pandemic, there are signs that a workers’ movement in the digital platform economy is developing. To mark International Workers’ Day, Ben Wray looks at key developments in platform worker struggles over the past year and what lessons they hold.
The Gig Economy Project, led by Ben Wray, was initiated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE enabling us to provide analysis, updates, ideas, and reports from all across Europe on the Gig Economy.
This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Foundation Menschenwürde und Arbeitswelt
At a national convention in Chicago in 1884, the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions proclaimed “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1, 1886”. Two years later, more than 300,000 workers took strike action across the United States on that day, starting the tradition of May Day which we still celebrate across the world as the international day of the workers.
In 1886, the United States was in the midst of a growth boom fuelled by technological transformation, as mechanisation transformed agriculture into big business while workers poured into US cities to find jobs in the newly established factories. The number of workers in industrial production doubled from the end of the 1870s to the beginning of the 20th century. This context – of rapid change in the experience of work – was the basis for a new labour movement to be born.
Today, we are also living through a technological transformation, where our experience of work is being rapidly altered. However, the dynamics of our change is somewhat different to Chicago in 1886. Rather than being brought together in factories, we are increasingly atomised from one another, as the home replaces the office as our work station, a change which has been accelerated by the pandemic lockdowns. Our alienation from our fellow worker is compounded by contractual changes, whereby the standardised employment relationship won by previous generations of workers is being replaced by temporary contracts, agency work and on-demand ‘gig work’.
And far from going through a period of capitalist growth, we are living through an era of permanent economic stagnation, bookmarked by two major recessions in 2008 and 2020. Rather than a world of new opportunities, if you are lucky enough to already have decent work you are probably holding onto it for dear life, knowing the alternative is unemployment or precarity. Bosses everywhere are exploiting that fear by tearing up contracts and demanding workers sign new ones on worse conditions or face the sack.
All of this is taking place in the epoch of the digital platform capitalist, at least as powerful as the first monopolists in the United States in the late 1880s like John D. Rockefeller in oil and Andrew Carnegie in steel. The platform capitalists control the digital infrastructure which we spend our lives on. Amazon, for example, is replacing the high street, while the likes of Deliveroo and Just Eat are replacing eating out. ‘Dark stores’ and ‘dark kitchens’ are springing up all over cities, to provide you with your consumption needs without ever having to go further than your app. The workers in the logistics centres and the delivery drivers and riders who get the goods to your door don’t have an 8 hour day as the originators of May Day fought for; many don’t even have basic dignities like toilet breaks.
Every generation of workers must fight for their rights anew, knowing that while some of the demands might change and the tactics deployed may alter, the basic principle of uniting with your fellow worker to struggle for a better life for all remains the same. Whilst the pandemic crisis has undoubtedly strengthened the power of the platform monopolists, we have also seen signs of a new movement of platform workers emerging, showing the way forward for all of us.
Amazon workers in fulfilment centres and logistics hubs are experiencing what has been called ‘digital Taylorism’, where scientific management techniques are applied in a standardised way to try to squeeze every last drop of labour productivity they can. The digital aspect is the use of surveillance and biometric techniques to monitor employees, continually updating processes to drive maximum efficiency. The consequences of this on the mental and physical well-being of workers has been widely reported, with Amazon having to issue an apology for falsely claiming that their workers did not piss in bottles to avoid taking toilet breaks.
2021 has been a breakthrough year in many countries in Amazon labour struggles, but the company has fought back, using all their power to wage union-busting campaigns. The most high profile of these disputes was in Bessemer, Alabama, USA, where workers ultimately voted against joining a union. What went wrong?
Jane McAlevey, a union organiser who has written numerous books on the subject, has penned a postmortem of the campaign which is well worth reading. McAlevey identifies a number of strategic mistakes made by the union campaign, which are important lessons for future efforts: having an accurate understanding of the workplace you are trying to unionise; being well prepared to make the case for union membership dues; focusing engagement efforts at worker’s homes, not at the plant gate where workers are monitored by their employer; running tests to make sure you are confident that there is majority support before you run the election; engaging with and understanding the local community the workplace is in, including those religious or community leaders are influential.
“Every worker in the Bessemer campaign deserved to win,” McAlevey concludes. “And if the rules for unionisation in the United States came close to being fair, they would have won. But the rules aren’t fair. Quite the opposite: They are outrageously unfair. What workers trying to form unions against immoral employers do deserve is the kind of effort that stands a chance of winning. There’s plenty of evidence of what works. Social media and shortcut digital approaches don’t work when fear and division is the central weapon.”
As Amazon workers and others in the platform economy increasingly seek to organise, the workers’ movement must make use of best practice to beat voracious employers who will use all the levers at their disposal to stop them. Defeats are all part of the learning process.
There have been some important Amazon disputes in Europe too. In Germany, unions have been well-rooted in Amazon for years now, with a four-day strike held at the end of March. A union campaign in France during the peak of the covid crisis last year was able to get Amazon factories shut down for lack of protective measures and with no loss of pay for the workers. In March in Italy, Amazon workers across the supply chain took strike action. Even Jeff Bezos appears to have been rattled by the workers’ movement emerging in his company, across borders.
Gig workers – from legal victories to algorithmic power
On-location gig workers like Uber drivers, Deliveroo ‘riders’ and caredotcom domestic carers and cleaners have experienced the roughest edge of this crisis, with the lack of job security and health & safety rights leaving them exposed in every possible way to the pandemic. A significant rise in the number of gig workers over the past year has also squeezed the earnings capacity of each worker, as over-supply reduces demand per capita. Stories of riders cycling around cities for hours in search for one gig are not uncommon.
Despite this, the past year has also seen major breakthroughs for gig workers, as the legal and political argument – that they are workers for the platform companies, not independent contractors – has been won in many European countries, with clear signs that the United States (despite the Prop 22 defeat in California) and even China are also moving in that direction. This is an achievement that was only possible because of a persistent gig-worker led union movement over many years, which has brought cases to courts and pressured governments to regulate. Nonetheless, there remains a long way to go before these workers can be said to be in decent-paid, secure jobs.
Spain is a useful example of both the progress made on gig workers’ rights and the distance still to go. The Rights for Riders (‘RidersXDerechos’) movement in Spain has won over 40 court cases, and in February the Spanish Government agreed to new legislation for a ‘Riders Law’, which sets a new legal presumption that riders for platform companies are employees, and also allows unions to access information about platforms’ algorithms.
The legislation is the first of its kind in Europe and has led to a furious response from Glovo, Spain’s leading food delivery platform. Yet RidersXDerechos were left disappointed, partly because the Law limited its scope only to food delivery workers, when original plans were to include all gig workers, and partly because it included clauses allowing digital platforms to sub-contract their legal obligations to their workers to third-party entities.
Evidence from Spain and Germany appears to indicate that sub-contracting is the response of platforms when forced to accept that drivers and riders are workers. In France, the government has said it is considering a similar model after commissioning a report on the topic, while gig work sub-contracting is already in place in Portugal. The EU is set to come forward with legislation on platform workers’ rights by the end of the year.
What this highlights is the limits of legal and even regulatory victories for gig workers solely on the basis of employment status. As long as platforms retain their economic power and exclusive algorithmic control, digital platforms will always find ways to adapt to a new employment status so that labour exploitation is undiminished. There is no substitute for organising gig workers to use their industrial strength to win victories, and the political debate has to shift from talking about employment status to algorithmic control, so that workers can have some power over the mechanism which dictates their working lives.
Workers’ power on the cloud
Cloud work – work conducted solely on the internet – is the part of the platform economy which is probably the hardest to build workers’ power in, because the potential labour market for this work is global and it is not necessarily easy to meet and organise with other workers. Nonetheless, there have been important recent examples of worker organisation that provides hope of more to come.
The Alphabet Workers’ Union (‘the Google union’) set-up at the start of the year with an initial membership of over 400, after a year of organising in secret. AWU won its first victory in February, over-turning an attempt by Google to fire a sub-contracted worker for raising issues about wages and other working conditions. We’ve also seen a “Youtubers’ union” develop and build links with the German trade union IG Metall.
Perhaps the most remarkable development in recent years has been the ways in which workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk have found ways to communicate and organise. Workers on AMT, ‘Turkers’, complete micro-tasks like identifying specific content in an image, and in return receive micro-payments. But if employers are not happy with their work they can refuse to pay, on average Turkers earn about $2 an hour, and they have no clue about what the micro-tasks they are completing is contributing towards (like, for example, the Pentagon’s battlefield drones), since the companies using AMT are anonymous.
Platforms for Turkers, including ‘Turkopticon’ and ‘Dynamo’, have been developed to allow them to communicate with one another, give feedback on employers, and organise to improve their pay and conditions. Research has found that 58 per cent of cloud-workers communicate with one another at least once a week. There are always ways to fight atomisation if there is a will to do so.
As more and more workers start home-working permanently, we can expect exploitative practices to ramp up: the intensification of digital surveillance, pressure to work longer hours, and expectations that the cost of work (computers, internet, electricity) will be met by workers themselves. In this context, we may see union organisation and workers’ power emerging in surprising parts of the cloud, and in equally surprising ways.
With the support of two small grants from the Lipman-Milband Trust and the Human Dignity and the World of Work Foundation and the help of many gig workers, union organisers and researchers, for the past year The Gig Economy Project has been able to document the development of the workers’ movement in the gig economy in Europe. All of that work has been hosted by the BRAVE NEW EUROPE website (and can be accessed here).
One thing we have learned from that experience is that the rapidly evolving nature of platform capitalism means that it is dangerous to build artificial walls between types of platform worker exploitation, as the situation is changing all the time due to the resistance of platform workers themselves and the reaction to that resistance by the platform giants. On-location gig workers can become sub-contracted workers, while those previously in stable office jobs can suddenly find themselves thrust into the precarious world of online gig work.
We need to focus not just on the common experience of exploitation and alienation which binds all these workers together in the platform economy, but more importantly on what power they all have in common. We have seen in the response of corporations and governments to the clear injustices revealed by the pandemic that exposition is not enough: the powerful will only change if their power is threatened, and to do that requires organisation and solidarity. Wasn’t it ever thus?
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