Gig Economy Project Podcast – Workers’ inquiry and the global class struggle: interview with Robert Ovetz

A burgeoning literature is seeking to understand 21st century capitalism from the perspective of work, the working class and class struggle. This ‘workerism’ tradition, historically associated with Italian marxism in the 1960s, starts from the workplace to identify where workers have power and how they can maximise it.

Robert Ovetz is one of those contributing to renewing this tradition of labour research and activism. Ovetz is a lecturer at San Jose State University in California, USA, and is author of ‘When Workers Shot Back: Class conflict from 1877 to 1921’ (2018). He is also editor of the book ‘Workers’ Inquiry and Global Class Struggle: Strategies, Tactics and Objectives’, published by Pluto at the end of 2020. Ovetz is also assistant editor for an upcoming handbook on the gig economy to be published by Routledge, and is writing a chapter on Proposition 22 in California.

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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

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The Gig Economy Project’s director Ben Wray spoke to Ovetz about ‘Workers’ inquiry and global class struggle’ and much more in this podcast, which is segmented as follows:

1:49: What is a “workers’ inquiry?”

5:52: The global class struggle today

20:29: Prop-22 and the development of class struggle in the gig economy

28:51: Home-working and the gigification of academic labour

33:53: What demands should workers be making about algorithmic power?

39:54: Class struggle and the pandemic


The Gig Economy Project: What is a “workers’ inquiry”?

Robert Ovetz: Workers’ inquiry began with Karl Marx at the very end of his life. He published a 100-question survey in a French newspaper to inquire about different elements of work and community of workers in France. Sadly he never got a response, but it was picked up in the 1950s by French and Italian marxists. It kind of died out in the 1970s, but it is going through a resurgence.

Workers’ inquiry follows the principle of Ed Emery’s point that ‘there is no politics without inquiry’. It is both a method and a theory to look at both the composition of the working class and the composition of capital, and trying to understand what kind of strategies capital has implemented in the workplace, restructuring work through automation, outsourcing and so forth, and how workers have been fragmented, disorganised and decomposed, and then by understanding the re-organisation of work and capital strategies, workers then develop new tactics and strategies to re-compose their power. The ultimate objective is to find the weak points where leverage can be applied in the class struggle, to disrupt capitalist production and move us beyond capitalism.

We’ve seen over the last 40 years or so that unions and workers are getting their asses kicked, all over the place. And part of the reason is that we are leaving the workplace – we are moving into different types of strategies like mobilisation, or advocacy, and we are not organising where workers have power, which is in the workplace. And what a workers’ inquiry does it allows workers themselves to understand how work is organised, so we can develop tactics and strategies to adapt to those changing conditions.

The Gig Economy Project: Give us a flavour of the main findings of the book.

Robert Ovetz: The book covers a range of different sectors of the workplace. There is a section on logistics; truckers in Argentina, warehouse workers in Italy. There is a section on education; university lecturers in the US and teachers in Mexico. There’s a section on the service sector; platform workers, cleaners and game-designers. And there’s also a section on what you could call old industry – mining and manufacturing – in China and South Africa.

What the contributors to this book have done, covering nine countries in three continents composing more than half the world’s population, is to start creating a global workers’ inquiry. And of course that situation is changing constantly, so if we don’t move faster we are going to have to start this all over again because capital is constantly adapting, especially with algorithmic management and platform work.

I think the main findings of the book are that across these different sectors we are seeing incredible innovation in terms of the tactics and strategies that workers are coming up with. They are increasingly able to cross different boundaries of jobs classification, to overcome race and gender divides in the workplace, cope with different geographical barriers, and so forth.

The Gig Economy Project: Our work has shown us that gig workers are talking with one another and organising cross-borders, including cross-continents. As communication becomes easier, will international organising – across what are often global supply chains – be an increasingly important tool of worker organising?

Robert Ovetz: I think Amazon workers, who are really co-operating and collaborating across borders and continents. are one of the most impressive examples of this. We launched a webinar series called ‘how we organise’, and the first book was on Amazon, and they had worker-organisers from Spain, the US and Poland, and they all know each other. They do remote meetings, a regular e-mail network where they are sharing information with one another, I think they also meet in-person in Europe.

A lot of attention was given to Alabama, that terrible catastrophe where the warehouse worker union rushed through the vote [on unionisation], without doing any on the ground organising apparently – didn’t even do door-knocking, some of the basic stuff. The same day as the vote was supposed to come out, there was a wildcat strike in a Chicago warehouse of Amazon workers. And people probably just think ‘oh that was probably just some disgruntled workers that walked out’, and that’s because we are not getting the full story about how these workers for the last few years have been co-ordinating and sharing tactics and strategies with one another.

I think that is one of the most important findings from our book: if you have a good understanding of the workplace – you understand it’s history, how the company strategy has got to where it is, and how workers have got to where they are – you can find these choke points, whereby even a small number of workers can have dramatic ramifications on the entire supply chain. That was one of the lessons on the chapter on warehouse workers in Italy, and that is what the Amazon workers are finding.

The Gig Economy Project: Is there a pattern of union organising emerging world-wide in the most dynamic struggles? So for example we know of workers organising solely through WhatsApp groups, but is there also examples of unions which emerged in a different era renewing themselves with new workers in new industries?

RO: I think it’s both. Within unions there is a lot of upward pressure from the rank-and-file to democratise their decision-making in how they decide on tactics and strategies. We are going through that in our union. We’ve seen that with the Chicago teachers’ union, for instance – folks get together in their own union and transform them from within.

And then we see on the other side, where workers don’t really have a functioning union because they might be in a ‘right-to-starve’ state (as I like to call it), for example in West Virginia, where workers use WhatsApp rooms which gets transformed into on-the-ground organising. As much as I dislike what we are using to talk just now, Zoom, because of the data surveillance aspect, at the same time I’ve been in so many meetings with people all around the world. There was this short-lived online magazine called ‘fever struggle’, which had worker-organisers writing from all around the world about how they were organising struggles in the pandemic. One of the most impressive was how gig workers in Brazil started organising themselves and had these general strikes. We’ve seen instances of this in India as well.

So both are happening, but the unfortunate thing is a lot of the established unions are resistant to that. There is a lot of inertia and conservatism, and let’s not forget that a lot of unions around the world are tied to various neoliberal parties. In Europe many of them are tied to social democratic parties, in the US many are harnessed to the Democratic party, and therefore they become an adjunct to turn people out to vote, and there’s really no organising going on. On the otherhand, a lot of people are now saying ‘we don’t even want to affiliate, we just want to march on the boss’. So I think there’s this exciting duality going on at this time.

The Gig Economy Project: Six months ago we had the passing of Proposition 22, which was a low-point internationally, but since then we have seen a lot of good news: important court cases and regulatory changes to provide gig workers with workers’ rights, especially in Europe. We are also seeing platforms respond to that through a sub-contracting model which accepts that drivers and riders are workers but still keeps them at a distance from their real employer. How do you see the development of class struggle in the gig economy?

RO: Clearly there have been a number of significant judicial victories and regulatory victories, and we can see that as an important tactic – these regulatory changes will make our lives better at work. But there are also some dangers and limits to that. We saw that most visibly in California, where the legislature – responding to union advocacy and mobilising pressure – passed AB-5, and it was immediately challenged by these massive corporations which essentially poured hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting Prop-22.

We have looked at years of continual defeat, including in my own union, and the reason is we are moving away from organising and into advocacy and mobilising. I think we have to be careful about the legislative-regulatory-judicial route, because it can make great changes, but as you said, then the employer changes their strategy, and they go to outsourcing. And the platforms say ‘hey, we don’t have any employees because we’re getting them from somebody else’. We’ve seen this kind of dance, where workers adapt to new conditions, come up with new tactics and strategies, and when they are successful, capital comes up with their own new approaches in response. And so we constantly have to be changing those, because if we get locked into the regulatory route, what happens is we get a short victory, and then they either gut it through death by a thousand cuts – so that it isn’t enforced – and then those workers are gone by the time you get a court ruling. Or they come up with another tactic: ‘we are not actually hiring anybody, they are all sub-contracted’.

So we have to be focused on organising where we have power, and that is in the workplace. Some of the most effective tactics and strategies have been used by the Deliveroo workers; they studied how that black box algorithm works, they worked out where everybody stops to wait for their pick-ups and then they used old-style organising: they had a written newsletter, had group chats, and stayed in touch. And they worked out how to game the algorithm, so they could have a disruptive effect when the company most had a need for riders. And they basically engaged in old form class struggle: the tools are different, but the strategies are the same.

In my first, Workers Shot Back, I talked about the origin of personnel and human relations in corporations, and you can trace it back to the 1877 railroad strike in the United States which shutdown much of the country. And after that strike companies started creating HR departments, tracking workers from one employer to another. Then we had later efforts from Taylor and his stop-watch and his time-motion studies, to try to figure out how to get the most out of workers. The whole algorithmic approach is the tool for how to discipline and control workers in the workplace. It’s not just in the gig sector. It’s happening in higher education, the legal field, the medical field – all over the place. This is the new tactics and strategies of employers. And I think focusing on the legislative approach can be a great tactic for the short-term, but we have to build on it by focusing on where we have the most power.

The Gig Economy Project: You have written about ‘the algorithmic university’, whereby the rapid move to online education is creating new forms of management control over academic labour. Is there a potential for a much wider gigification, or platformisation, of the working class than what we’ve seen until now?

RO: I think it’s already happening. Where I put a lot of my focus on is in higher education. We are seeing it in these discrete stages that a lot of people have not fully understood. For example if you go back to the 1980s, publicly funded research was allowed to be privatised in the US. That began the process in which universities were transformed into for-profit companies. The next step after that, starting really in the 1990s, was transforming the faculty into primarily contingent, platform-based gig workers. Which is essentially what we are. I’m on an annual contract, and in another place I teach I’m hired quarter by quarter. So the University labour force was transformed into long-term skilled gig workers.

Then the latest stage of the strategy is to move teaching into these portals of on-line education, and the pandemic accelerated that and made it universal around the world. And working in this portal allows ubiquitous data collection on workers. We are already seeing where that is resulting in the rapid de-skilling of academic labour.

I’ll give you a concrete example: In Arizona, there’s an all-online community college, 97% of the faculty are part-time, the only handful of full-time faculty workers are the ones that manage hundreds of these part-timers. They never meet, they’re all online, and the courses are taught in so-called ‘modules’. Just as Harry Braverman talked about how the Taylorist approach broke down and de-skilled industrial work, essentially these tools are being used to breakdown and fragment and disperse different aspects of skilled academic labour.

What this system does is it means every module can be taught by a different person. They bring in non-academics, they bring in off-the-shelf content, like textbook publishers, and the students are going through these modules and it doesn’t even have to be a professor anymore teaching it: it can be an expert in the field, they can be someone hired in India or the Phillipines, and they go through the whole course with multiple people.

So I see a direct connection between the gig sector and these skilled sectors. The algorithms were developed by academics, and then people learnt that and went in and used it for their corporation, and now it is coming back into academia, which is being gigified, essentially.

The Gig Economy Project: What demands do workers need to be making around issues of algorithmic control?

RO: I think there are a number of different approaches. I think about it in terms of tactical defiance and strategic rigidity. So tactical defiance where we resist further datafication of our work, and at the same time we have a rigidity where we don’t allow it to be implemented. I focus on academia, but wherever you are in your workplace a workers’ inquiry can help you figure it out.

There are a number of different universal things that we can try. The first is transparency. We need to get copies of the contracts they have with these companies and see what they are doing with the data. We also need to get control over the data, just like consumers in Europe through GDPR can access their data, workers should be able to do that too. We should be able to see all the digital information about us.

But I think the most important thing is we need to organise the tech workers. That’s starting to happen in Silicon Valley, for example, but in the workplace we need to include people who are running these data-gathering systems, who are monitoring us, we need to include them in our organising. Because they are the ones who understand how it works, and if they are working with us in solidarity we can understand new tactics and strategies to deal with it.

The Gig Economy Project: Is algorithmic technology something which innately tips the balance of forces towards bosses and away from workers, or is this just another technological change that workers have to get their head around and once they do they implications for class struggle will balance out?

RO: I think of it as Taylor’s digital stop-watch. Taylor was this American engineer who essentially invented the assembly-line. Just like he had the primitive stop-watch and clipboards and tried to break-down every activity the workers undertook and disperse it, that’s what the algorithm does: filtering, grading workers.

The real danger with algorithms is that it is information that is easily transferable, so it can follow us for our entire lives. We are already seeing that now with how algorithms have in-built into them a kind of racism. Students, for example, or in policing, people are being overly targeted because of the racism that has been built into how the algorithm works. And the same thing can happen to workers, because we don’t know all the data that has been accumulated on us. These companies own it, they have commodified it, so it’s something they are making money from, and that information will follow us for our whole lives. So we need to understand better what the algorithm is, how it works, and then from there develop new tactics and strategies to respond to it.

The Gig Economy Project: Finally, how has the pandemic and recession impacted class struggle in our current conjuncture?

RO: One of the most important lessons of the pandemic is that re-productive labour – healthcare, education, nurturing – is not only critical to our survival, but it is also increasingly profitable for capital. It’s central to the way our global capitalist system works. Not only the unwaged portion of our work day, but the unwaged portion of life – that is profitable to capital.

The so-called ‘essential workers’ actually had incredible powers of disruption. They were ‘essential’ but also disposable for their employers; many were dying in large numbers. When they decided to organise and strike, it had an incredibly disruptive impact on the economy. In fact it was so disruptive that the right-wing Trump administration pushed through trillions of dollars of Covid relief, increasing unemployment payments by 125%, the first-ever paid childcare release time, and sick leave. It took these workers in the re-productive sector to get those kind of changes. They’re temporary of course, but it is an indicator of how even a small number of well-organised workers in a strategically important place in the economy can have incredibly disruptive power.

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