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We are all gig workers


I have been a gig worker for almost two decades.

You might be wondering how a professor could be a gig worker. After all, isn’t a gig worker someone who is employed through an app?

Yes and no.

Because every state allows “at will” employment, we are all really gig workers if our boss wants us to be. This means an employer can fire or lay us off at any time for any reason. The only limit is that the firing cannot violate state and federal law, such as for racial, gender or sex discrimination, and any existing  collective bargaining agreement.

These limits mean that the employer must “show cause” whether it be that the employee does not do their job or there is no more work for them, among other reasons.

The increasing attention given to gig work as the “work of the future” such as at Uber, Lyft, Amazon Turk, etc. are pretty much the same as the gig work of the past. One big difference is the technology used to employ and control them is different.

The term gig work comes from musicians and performers who have long called their performances gigs. Performers show up, do their thing and then leave for the next show.

In recent decades we called workers who did their thing and left “temps,” “freelancers,” “independent contractors” or “adjuncts,” such as in higher education.

Today, there are two types of gig workers, according to Sarrah Kassem, a lecturer in political economy at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

Some gig workers are employed and managed by the app on a cellphone or computer. Apps are computer programs automated by mathematical operations called algorithms that are always monitoring and watching the worker’s every move. These types of gig workers call the app their “boss” because most have never had contact with a human boss. They are not only paid by the piece or task but they are required to work in certain locations, provide all their own tools, almost never meet their co-workers, and are constantly on-call. This is the Uber and Lyft model.

The other types of gig worker are similar in all but one important way. They can work from anywhere and submit their work through the app. This is the Amazon Turk or Fiverr model.

The gig work model is preferred by many private and public employers who keep large numbers of workers on temporary contracts. Employers love this model because it means they can hire someone when they have the need and dump them when they don’t. As fictional non-employees, they don’t have to keep them on their payroll, they do not get the rights of “permanent” employees under labor law, can’t join the union, and get inferior pay and benefits, if any.

To change this workers have been getting organized to demand they be reclassified as employees. Although some efforts have been successful, it hasn’t changed the reality that they can still be paid by the task.

Behind the hype and jargon, the “new” gig work is “same as it ever was,” as Talking Heads sing in “Once in Lifetime.”

Gig work is simply a way to treat workers like cost factors who can be hired and thrown away to serve the boss’s interests. Hiring several gig workers to do the work of a “permanent” full-time employee is cheaper in the short and long term. It also gives the boss more control over all the other workers.

Today estimates vary from a low of 10 to a high of 30 percent of U.S. workers do some type of gig work. According to the International Labour Organization, globally 60 percent of workers are gig workers. U.S. employers would like to make it the same here.

While gig work is growing more common here it’s hardly new.

Until unionization of non-skilled workers became more widespread in the 1930s, most workers were gig workers. Landless agricultural workers have long worked by the season or harvest. Mining and railroad work was temporary Because you were fired when the demand fell and then rehired when it picked up again. Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic 1855 novel about mill workers, later turned into the UK TV show North & South, is a stark reminder of how widespread gig work was.

The secret of capitalism is that it always needs an “army of the reserved” who are kept around to scare those who have jobs to make them work faster and to keep their wages down.

Capitalism relies on job status, pay, racism, sexism and anti-immigrant hatred to give a false sense of superiority to some workers to make them feel better about being exploited slightly less than others.

I am one of the approximate 70 percent of professors in higher education who are gig workers. For nearly two decades I have been hired by the class or the semester or quarter, sometimes working at three or more institutions spread across five counties. Only in the past few years have I been hired by the year, and more recently for three years at a time. Ultimately, I can still be laid off if there is “no work” — which is allowed by my union contract.

Look around and you are sure to find gig workers doing the same work as you. We are often kept invisible to keep us divided. The “permanent” staff ignore us at their own peril. One need not fall far to become one of us.

Many unions ignore this two-tiered system at their own peril. UAW locked it in decades ago and is now a corrupt shell of its former glory.

The Teamsters caved into two-tiered decades ago and were decimated in the trucking industry. Having learned from this mistake they are once again targeting the two tiered system at UPS and are threatening to strike this year.

But demands need to go further than full time pro-rated pay. It should include first right of refusal of work, identical benefits, automatic promotion to full time, strict time limits on gig work when current staff are not available, and bans on gig workers doing the same work.

All organizing, bargaining and contracts need to make abolishing the two-tiered system the top priority. Anything less means you are next.

Robert Ovetz is an associate editor of “The Routledge Handbook of the Gig Economy,” editor of “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle” and the author of  “When Workers Shot Back” and the new book “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few.” Follow him at @OvetzRobert


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