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How the Sharing Economy Could Make the Labor Movement More Relevant

The development of the sharing economy and more freelancing may create a new golden age for labor.
Photo via Flickr

Amazon's announcement earlier this month of its new Home Services platform, in which independent contractors can be hired to install shelves or fix a toilet via Amazon's website, could be the catalyst for a new golden age of labor unions, according to some labor experts.

Labor experts told VICE News that the rapid explosion in businesses like Uber and TaskRabbit that rely on independent contractors rather than full-time employees has created a new class of workers that may make labor unions relevant again, and Amazon may be the one to accelerate that.


"I think this is part of the new ways of getting work done, and I think there are going to be many more of these kinds of arrangements, but the question in my mind is, Who will be able to guarantee the best quality and reliability of service and provide decent employment opportunities for people coming in to do the work?" said Thomas Kochan, co-director of MIT's Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research.

"Amazon has sort of a checkered history of dealing with its authors and paying royalties that go to different book publishers, so the worry I would have if I were a cleaner or a repair person or handyman is, Can I trust Amazon, or do we need to organize in a way that guarantees we will get a fair wage and won't undercut each other by bidding down our prices? That to me is a market yet in the making, and a set of institutions that are likely to grow up in this market to protect the consumers and the workers who provide these services," Kochan said.

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Kochan and others pointed to Uber as the classic example of how a new technology platform affected the taxi industry and created a new class of workers—part-time independent contractor drivers—who began organizing in response to their new industry.

"Uber's been a fantastic thing for people who need transportation… and for drivers that are part of Uber, picking up more money on the side or even full time, who otherwise wouldn't have had access to that job, it's been good for them too. But for taxi drivers, their value diminishes. They are the clearly identifiable losers," James Sherk, senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., told VICE News.


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In response to the development of Uber, the National Taxi Worker Alliance became officially affiliated with the labor union AFL-CIO in 2011, while Uber drivers in California have worked with the Teamsters to form the App-Based Drivers Association.

But Uber is only one example of how labor unions may be getting a resurgence of energy and interest in the new economy. Other workers, like those who use Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform, created an online platform in which workers rate employers so that they could help protect one another from bad employer practices, Kochan said.

"So you have a community of people organizing to protect the interests of providers of these services. I think we'll see a range of those institutions developing," he said.

Traditional labor unions are also rapidly trying to adapt to changes in the marketplace and prove their usefulness to younger, more technology-based workers. The Freelancers Union in New York was created to help freelance writers, designers, developers, and tech workers navigate the marketplace. The Service Employers International Union last year created the Worker's Lab, an incubator for entrepreneurs who want to develop new ways for workers to organize and protect themselves, which offers funding of up to $150,000.

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"For a long time labor was a little bit resistant to change in a lot of ways, they blamed a decline in membership on a lot of things: globalization, employer resistance, hostile politicians. And there's merit to all that, but the one thing they didn't blame was themselves, and that's changing. They realize it doesn't help to fight things that are happening, they can't fight technology and globalization, they need to figure out how to adapt to it and to ensure that changes are implemented in a fair way," Philip Dine, a labor expert and author of State of the Unions, told VICE News.

The unions have tried to change their messaging and reach out to a new generation of workers, Dine said.

"A lot of young workers think that labor's not relevant for them because they're not miners or truck drivers, and labor knows it's got work to do to change that image and appeal, and get across that labor is just as relevant to them as their parents and grandparents. The easiest way to do that is to show that historically whenever labor's been strong, the middle class has expanded, the economy and workers have done better. When labor's on the defensive or declining, the middle class is under assault, as it is now. Labor's got a very good case to make, they just have to make it to younger workers," Dine said.

"We're in a period where I think we're going to see a lot of innovation, from workers developing apps and systems to advance their interests and make sure they are treated fairly as well as people founding these new platforms. The difference is the Amazons of the world have enormous advantage [in creating apps and platforms quickly] as opposed to the worker groups," Kochan said.

Photo via Flickr