Article written by Assistant Professor of the School of Labor and Employment Relations, Michael Maffey. His research focuses on workplace conflict between rideshare drivers and platforms (Uber, Lyft, etc.), including such issues as wage reductions, passenger arguments, or deactivations. Michael may be reached by contacting him via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or through his Twitter (@maffiemd).
In the past year, ‘gig’ economy workers around the world have engaged in strikes and other labor actions. Ridehail drivers on multiple continents organized collective work stoppages. Deliveroo riders organized for better pay and workplace protections. Instacart workers signed an online petition calling for pay protections and more control over their work. Worker organizations have formed unions or collectives in the UK, New York, Seattle, and elsewhere. Although the ‘gig’ economy was promised to a future of work without bosses and greater worker ‘flexibility,’ growing global labor unrest reveals serious problems in the ‘gig’ economy as its currently designed. What is driving these protests? What can policymakers, unions, and HR specialists do to improve labor conditions in the ‘gig’ economy?
What is a Platform?
Online platforms are intermediaries that link together two parties looking to enter into an exchange. The canonical example is Uber and Lyft, a service that connects riders with drivers. Although the popular press has mostly focused on Uber and Lyft, scholars have documented thousands of different on-demand labor platforms around the world ranging from on-demand marijuana delivery (Tokr) to on-demand lawyers (UpCounsel).
Initially, these companies branded themselves as online marketplaces. You can see this in their promotional materials stating that workers can “be their own boss” – they emphasized worker autonomy and control. For several years, the narrative that online platforms were merely market-clearing devices (e.g., they coordinated an exchange) took hold. Yet recent labor actions suggest that online platforms may not be about putting workers in charge. To understand why workers are protesting and some of the deeper problems in the ‘gig’ economy, it is important to peek beneath the user interface.
Designing Against Labor
Although it is true that platforms link users together, they key question is: how do they link together workers and customers? Take Uber’s now-ubiquitous “five star” rating system. This system is built on three work policies: First, customers can rate drivers between 1 to 5 stars. Second, workers cannot dispute or challenge a poor customer evaluation. Finally, workers must maintain a rating above roughly a 4.6 “stars” or risk being fired from the service.
These design decisions are a powerful statement about who the platform considers important. Since any rating below a perfect rating moves the driver closer to deactivation, this system is designed around the concept that “the customer is always right.” Without a mechanism to voice their objections to customer ratings, research suggests that this system allows customers to mistreat drivers and even harass them. In stark contrast to putting the “worker in charge,” once a worker signs onto the platform, they must obey the commands of both the platform and customers.
Ridehail platforms design similar systems to control how much drivers earn. When ridehail drivers are sent a ride request, platforms do not inform drivers where the customer is going. Due to this, drivers are must accept or decline jobs without knowing their estimated value. Since drivers are not paid for miles they drive without a passenger, this means that drivers can end up working trips where the cost of driving to the passenger and back exceeds their compensation for the job. Despite being labeled “independent contractors,” ridehail companies designed their dispatch systems in a way that workers may lose money on some jobs they work.
Why are Platforms Workers Striking?
For the past few years, ridehail drivers around the world have started sharing their experiences on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media forums. A consistent message has emerged: workers’ everyday challenges – a lack of benefits, inconsistent pay, problematic passengers, unexpected repair bills, arbitrary discipline, and others – are not outlier events but systematic problems in the industry. Using these online forums, drivers have coordinated their labor actions and planned both regional and, now, a national strike.
While labor unions typically help workers plan labor actions, ridehail drivers are currently not allowed to organize under the National Labor Relations Act. Just last week, the Department of Labor released a letter indicating that ridehail workers are not covered under most federal labor protections. This has been the longstanding position of platform companies, with Uber going so far as to call drivers “users” of their service – not workers. Without these rights, ridehail drivers cannot collectively bargain or avail themselves of projections under federal labor law.
Without the right to collectively bargain or engage in sanctioned collective activity under the NLRA, workers have formed non-traditional labor organizations. In Seattle, workers are organizing under a local ordinance that allows them to engage in collective concerted activity. In New York, the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance and the Independent Drivers Guild have taken different approaches to building worker power. Yet today’s strike is built outside of standard labor institutions altogether. Just as the teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma built worker power through connecting with one another, Uber drivers across the United States have employed a variety of new channels to spread their message about the strike.
The Future of the ‘Gig Economy’
Employee handbooks, collective bargaining agreements, or algorithms; it does not matter what you call them, they function the same: these are the rules of the workplace. Today’s Uber and Lyft driver strike demonstrates that platforms need to design for more than just themselves and their investors, but to listen to worker voice. For decades, industrial relations scholars have argued that treating labor like a commodity results in workplace conflict. Uber, Lyft, and other ‘gig’ companies have designed their platforms to treat workers as interchangeable parts – and as a result, around the world, we see a growing number of labor actions. If the gig economy is ever going to live up to its promise as the ‘future of work,’ workers will need to have a voice in how these platforms operate. Recognizing these workers as what they are -- workers – and providing them with the full rights of other employees, is the first step in building a platform economy that does not treat workers as a commodity.