On Labor Day, most of us will think more about barbeques than jobs. But worries about the future of work and job security in a changing economy will loom in the background.
In California, there has been a great debate over the gig economy. The state Assembly in May passed Assembly Bill 5, which would strictly define who is and who is not an independent worker. The lawmakers hope that if Uber and Lyft drivers are defined as traditional employees, then they would have better economic security.
But job security is already long gone. For decades, in ever more insidious ways, employers have made workers disposable. Part-time work, for instance, is becoming more the norm as businesses try to avoid paying for benefits or overtime. Uber has not created this precarious economy; it was made possible because of it. The choice for these drivers is not between driving for Uber and working on a unionized assembly line. It is between Uber and flipping burgers or slinging lattes. Uber is possible because shift work for employees has become so insecure — and because Uber flouted local regulations in its breakneck expansion.
Over the last few years, cities such as New York have tried to hem it in, with licenses and background checks for ride-hailing app drivers, but could not stop the expansion of these new services. Enough riders and drivers and lawmakers came to see the benefits of these services to support their growing economic and political power. New laws may be able to manage the margins of this digital economy, but they cannot stop the forces propelling it — any more than a law could have stopped industrialization.
Even if we reclassify all gig jobs as traditional work, we would be missing the larger point: the need for economic security and the need for control over our time. In traditional jobs, workers gave up autonomy for security. Drivers can now drive or not drive as they see fit, but that kind of control over work lives is impossible in a traditional job. We should be rethinking all of our work lives, trying to combine the good part of gig work (flexibility) with the good part of traditional work (security).
So what can organized labor learn from Uber?
Historically, we have confronted this kind of disruption before. Until industrial unions came to power in the 1930s, factories were a great place to work if you wanted to stay poor and maybe lose an arm. No law changed that reality. Laws may have supported workers’ demands, but more important were audacious — and illegal — sit-down strikes that crippled corporate supply chains. Like Uber, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a federation of unions, asserted its power to remake the economy.
Those who can break rules, are the ones who, in the end, have the power. In today’s economy, workforces are more distributed and firms more subcontracted. If unions are to succeed in this version of capitalism, they, once again, need to learn to disrupt those supply chains.
The irony, of course, was just as unions became stronger, so did the corporations. A virtuous cycle kicked off in postwar America that, for at least a few decades, delivered a better life for many.
Still, we should not be too nostalgic for this industrial past, or for the labor protections that came out of it. For those excluded from those jobs — women, Latinos, African Americans, new immigrants — the rest of the economy was not so glorious, even as their work helped make that economy possible.
Those left out became the transitional labor forces to this new precarity. The New Deal protections may have remained on the books, but in the workplaces, the laws no longer mattered because worker power steadily eroded. In the end, even white men were not protected from this new reality.
Passing laws such as AB 5 will not be enough to restore good jobs to this country. Workers need new power, not laws, and that power needs to include everybody this time around.
On Labor Day, it’s worth imagining what a good work life would be. I doubt it would look like an assembly line. Even for the white men who had the “good jobs,” working on an assembly line was dehumanizing and backbreaking. The challenge for the 21st century will not be defending jobs that can be automated, but discovering how to organize an economy that values humans and actually works for us instead of working us over.
Louis Hyman is an associate professor of history at Cornell. His most recent book is “Temp: The Real Story of What Happened to Your Salary, Benefits, and Job Security.”