Solidarity and the Gig Economy

It seems almost quaint to talk about class and solidarity and things like that in the 21st century. After all, workers have spent most of the past three decades learning how to compete for work, in much the same way that companies compete for business. A whole new industry has developed around improving job interview techniques. Curriculum Vitae have become personal branding exercises. Employment agencies serve as mass filtration systems. Sites like oDesk, Elance, Clickworker, TaskRabbit, Hello Alfred, Handy, Upwork, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk operate as international auction houses for work. This is an environment which can only offer a declining role for organizations such as unions, which have been traditionally defined as “free associations of employees”. In many countries, this industrial role is codified into law — unions cannot legally operate within the gig economy!

The results are already becoming clear, especially in wealthier nations where workplace relationships changed the fastest. Nowadays, the union movement has become a battleground not an army.² After more than thirty years of neo-liberalism, we have only just managed to turn a rout into a retreat. Now a new storm is gathering. The current transition to an online platform economy will massively undermine unionism in every respect, creating a whole new generation of membership decline and internal disputes.

Anyone who has read Paul Mason’s “Post-Capitalism” will have sensed that there is a way forward. Unfortunately (and understandably!) Mason does not talk much about unions. However, we can look to writers and activists like Janelle Orsi to join the dots. Orsi has argued for a transition from investor-owned to producer and customer-owned platforms (more). Such a shift is clearly in the wider social interest but, of course, that does not mean it will happen. If and wherever it doesn’t, Orsi argues, we should begin to set up our own co-operative versions of these platforms (more). In the parlance of industrial unionism, labor should be preparing to enter into direct competition with capital.

Pie-in-the-sky? Absolutely not. After all, who has built these new platforms? It is not the directors or the investors. In taking up a challenge such as this, working people would also have some natural advantages. Firstly, by far the majority of consumers are workers. By and large we are the market; both the buyer and the seller. All profits from co-operative enterprises are returned to members, or reinvested for them, rather than being taken out of the system – another huge business advantage. Along the way, the co-op’s members would also act as guarantors for a minimum hourly rate, thus attracting other workers away from the “race-to-the-bottom” that is already evident in other platforms. And in many countries workers’ platforms (eg “T-corporations” in the USA) are exempt from tax. Solidarity makes extremely good business sense!

Read the rest at the New Unionism Network Blog


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