AB5: Regulating the Gig Economy is Good for Workers and Democracy

Veena Dubal –

Poverty is not a suspect classification under our Constitution, but it is an affront to life and dignity and to democracy more broadly.  With the evisceration of the U.S. welfare state and the judiciary’s deference to political outcomes in the area of “economics and social welfare,” employment is the primary legal and political means to address economic inequality. In turn, employment is—for better or for worse—key to our democracy.  It provides access to the tools for basic sustenance in modern America: the minimum wage, health insurance, safety net protections, and even the right to organize and collectively bargain. Our capacity to participate in life and partake in politics, depends, in no small part, on our employee status. In the words of political theorist Judith Shklar, We are citizens if we ‘earn.’”  To this observation, I might add that we are citizens if we earn enough.

AB5—a bill which was just signed into law in California—is the first state law in the country to push back against an alarming trend of the last half decade: the use of app-based technology to proliferate work outside the regulatory framework of “employment.”  The potential for labor platforms relying on non-employee labor to exacerbate poverty looms large in debates about the future of work and of workers.  While the number of app-based workers remains comparatively small, the potential for this sector to grow and for industries to reproduce this model across the service economy looms large.

AB5 is the first significant step in pulling these workers back under the “employee” umbrella. It codifies the presumption of employee status under state law and puts forth an exacting, conjunctive test that hiring entities must meet if they wish to engage workers as non-employees.  Because labor platforms have posed risks to employment regimes and the security of workers the world over, the bill has been internationally lauded and states across the U.S. seek to replicate it.

How did California manage to pass this law, and what implications might AB5 hold for the relationship between work, poverty, and democracy more broadly?

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The Uber/Lyft “Workers’ Association” Debate: A Response to Dubal

N.B.: Benjamin Sachs penned this response to Part I of Veena Dubal’s post on comparing solidarity unionism with company unions earlier this week. In the spirit of debate, we’re cross-posting from On Labor. 

Benjamin Sachs –

Veena Dubal writes an important piece that raises concerns about Uber and Lyft’s suggestion that drivers in California form a “workers’ association.” Dubal worries that such an association would amount to a company union that would “necessarily impede” the development of fully independent, exclusive-representative unions at the gig firms. Given the essential role that independent unions play in our economy and our politics, Dubal is highly critical of the workers’ association idea.

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Gig Worker Organizing for Solidarity Unions

Veena Dubal – 

The “gig economy” is one place where organizing outside of traditional trade unions is undoubtedly happening in surprising and perhaps unexpected ways. For example, on May 8, 2019, a group of independent app-based drivers in Los Angeles called the LA Rideshare Drivers United organized and launched an unprecedented international picket and work stoppage against Uber and Lyft. They were joined by similar driver groups all over the United States (including in New York City) and as far off as Nigeria, Australia, and the United Kingdom.   This was an incredible feat given that, as my co-authors and I have argued, gig workers—particularly those who work for a platform-based company—face unique hurdles to organizing. Among other factors, these workers are unusually dispersed, atomized, and differentially dependent on gig work.

Having studied gig workers for over a decade, I was surprised by the magnitude of the May 8 strike. Two things stood out to me. First, I was struck by the large number of driver-led groups in the U.S. which participated in the coordinated work stoppages. Drivers’ groups from Boston, San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C. issued a joint statement calling their action a “strike” (not just a rally or protest) and announcing themselves “united as one joint council of grassroots driver labor organizations with the shared goal of winning job security, livable incomes, and respect for App drivers.” Not all drivers’ groups that participated in their regions signed onto this statement—presumably because of the legal risks of calling this action a “strike.”

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Solidarity Unionism v. Company Unionism in the Gig Economy

Veena Dubal – 

The CEOs of the two top-competing gig firms—Uber and Lyft—penned a June 12, 2019 OpEd in the San Francisco Chronicle in which they claim that after over six years of local, state, federal, and international law-breaking, ignoring the concerns of drivers, and viciously fighting any efforts to achieve living wage and benefits, they are ready to compromise…in California. They claim that in exchange for getting rid of a bill that just passed the state assembly—which would extend California labor protections to many “gig workers” by making it easier for them to claim employee status under state law—they will agree to establish a wage floor, a “workers’ association,” and potentially, a deactivation appeals process.

Why, after six years of legal and political intransigence, are these companies so ready to come up with a salve? And what should we make of their concessions?

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