News & Commentary

December 10, 2015

There is no question that gig firms like Uber are increasingly shaping the contours of “our rapidly changing labor market.” As Uber CEO Travis Kalanick would see it, his company is in the business of empowering workers to take “control over their time.” Yet the question, says Time‘s Rana Foroohar, is “how much control on-demand workers really have, and what they give up for it.” Foroohar holds the company up to a set of principles released yesterday by the AFL-CIO for the growing gig economy. On some principles, such as the promotion of “race and gender equality,” Foroohar questions whether Silicon Valley “really embrace[s] anyone aside from young male engineers willing to work 24/7.” On other principles, such as the provision of mobile benefits, Foroohar suggests that the company is generally supportive: she notes, for example, that Kalanick “is a fan of Obamacare” because he finds “[b]enefits that move, with people, regardless of where they work, [to be] a very empowering thing.” Who will pay for those benefits is a larger, more complicated discussion that David Plouffe, Uber’s public relations chief, says the company “want[s] to have, and will be having.” Nevertheless, Foroohar concludes by acknowledging that for all of its talk about empowerment, “the company also captures all the fear of the broken social compact in America. Uber drivers can turn on their app and work at will. But they also get no pensions, no health care, no worker rights protection, and are at the mercy of metrics, constantly graded by stars (as are riders), eating only what they kill each day.”

Nontenured instructors at the University of Chicago have become the latest group of academics to join a union. Per the Chicago Tribune, the instructors — which includes those who teach both full-time and part-time — voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining SEIU Local 73. “Unionization is not just reasonable, but necessary,” said Professor Bruce Lincoln, a tenured faculty member of the Divinity School who supports the instructors’ efforts. “Either you’ve got a revolving door or you’ve got people with no real security and no promise of advancement and low pay, and they become demoralized in those positions.” The instructors’ vote comes, of course, against the backdrop of a growing shift in university hiring practices that favors “contingent” faculty over tenure-track professors.

New York has moved one step closer to adopting a $15 minimum wage for fast food workers, reports the Wall Street Journal. On Wednesday, the state’s Industrial Board of Appeals upheld the wage increase, finding that objections raised by the National Restaurant Association were “without merit or not properly before [the Board].” In the immediate aftermath of the Board’s decision, the trade group has promised to bring its challenge to the courts.

One place that the Fight for $15 apparently hasn’t reached is the Senate cafeteria. According to ThinkProgress, contract workers who feed the senators and clean their offices went on strike on Tuesday to protest low wages and other grievances. “I’m here today because we are fighting for $15 an hour, a union, and benefits. But really, we are asking for justice and equality,” said one worker.

There’s a new “right-to-work” bill making its way through the Ohio state legislature, and workers throughout the Buckeye State are “starting to do something about it.” Writing in the Cincinnati Enquirer, AFSCME executive board member Carolyn Park notes that “a broad coalition of working people is mobilizing against” the bill. “Ohanians have had enough with the failed policies and empty rhetoric that got us here,” Park writes. “It turns out that most people understand that strong unions make for a strong middle class. . . . In an economy where wealthy corporations and CEOs are calling the shots while many ordinary people feel stuck, unions are a path forward.”



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