Why Gig and Tech Workers Are Striking

Big employers are terrified

Key Takeaways

  • Uber paid $200 million to help overturn a California law that would grant its employees basic rights.
  • Unions need to change to keep up with modern employment.
  • 500 German Amazon workers went on strike to disrupt Black Friday shopping.
A gig economy worker delivering food to a customer.
RossHelen / Getty Images

While the gig economy is helping people stay employed during trying times, the companies that employ those workers are fighting to keep them out of unions.

On Black Friday weekend 2020, around 500 German Amazon workers went on a three-day strike to protest poor COVID-19 safety measures. Next-day shipping times slipped to several days, and then German trade union Verdi called a second strike this week. Two years ago in the U.K., Uber drivers organized a national 24-hour strike.

Why are tech workers striking? Because they are being exploited, and the law isn’t helping.

New Industrial Revolution

Comparing the plight of workers in modern-day Europe and the U.S. to workers during the Industrial Revolution is stretching things, but there are parallels. Back then, laws made it illegal for workers to come together and protest working conditions or anything else.

Today, unions are legal, but tech giants like Uber and Amazon ignore them, or try to, while other companies try to prevent their workers from unionizing. And in another twist, the unions themselves might not be up to the task of protecting the modern gig worker.

"For the most parts, trade unions still work on the model of the 'shop floor'—where people work in an environment with fixed boundaries, with a largely static workforce," Anindya Raychaudhuri, lecturer in English at the University of St. Andrews, writes for the Huffington Post. "Trade unions are ill-equipped to represent the worker on multiple zero-hour contracts, moving from one site to another, working for multiple employers at the same time, and getting stability from none."

Gig Economy Divide and Conquer

The gig economy thrives on the "divide and conquer" principle. An Uber driver is classed, by Uber, as a self-employed contractor, with none of the usual employee protections such as minimum wage, health benefits, or paid vacation time.

That’s a clear short-term economic benefit for the employer, but even better for the likes of Uber is that these workers cannot organize. If you’re scraping a living with several low-paying gigs, then you don’t have time to fight for your rights. And if you try, you’ll either be fired, or your work will mysteriously dry up. 

Prop 22

In November 2020, California passed Proposition 22, which let gig employers continue to classify their employees as contract workers. The proposition was financed by Uber, which contributed $200 million, along with money from Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart, and others.

Someone ordering a ride share in a busy street scene.
d3sign / Getty Images

This exempts these companies from having basic employment rights and protections, like a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, and everything else you get from a regular job. 

"Billionaire corps just hijacked the ballot measure system in CA by spending millions to mislead voters," writes the campaign Gig Workers Rising on Twitter. "The most expensive ballot measure in U.S. history, is a loss for our democracy that could open the door to other attempts by corps to write their own laws" [emphasis added].

Back in the birthplace of unions, Britain, this attempt to circumvent employment law hasn’t gone down so well. In October 2016, Uber drivers in the U.K. won the right to be classed as employees. The tribunal concluded that "the notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common 'platform' is to our minds faintly ridiculous," stating what is obvious to any normal person looking at the situation.

"Trade unions are ill-equipped to represent the worker on multiple zero-hour contracts, moving from one site to another, working for multiple employers at the same time, and getting stability from none."

Union Pushback

Unions are a way of people working together to empower themselves against otherwise too-powerful entities, and those entities do not like it. One person I contacted about attempts to unionize the workforce at their place of work refused to talk, because of tensions between employees and management.

If the threat of unions wasn’t apparent, Uber’s $200 million contribution to prevent workers uniting in California makes it obvious. And the law needs to change. Even if gig workers are classified as contractors, shouldn’t they still be able to unionize? The answer seems obvious to the workers themselves, but without working together, we have little power to change anything.

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