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Union organizers challenged by new gig economy work models

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For more than a century, union recruiters could rely on a standard model, organizing them by location, employer or industry.

No more. As more workers join the so-called gig economy — some reports say it accounts for about a third of all U.S. jobs — unions may have to get more creative.

Gig workers may work for multiple employers on an as-needed basis, often working from home as they hop from job to job. The U.S. Department of Labor refers to the gig economy as an “alternative employment” arrangement that includes independent contractors, freelancers, on-call workers and others.

The common denominator is that they can serve both sides — as their own boss as well as providing the labor — which can put a wrinkle into the concept of union representation.

“The question of the kinds of representation needed in the gig economy is a complicated one,” said Charles Heckscher, a Rutgers professor and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Collaboration in Work and Society. “In the U.S., labor unions were originally based on a fundamental distinction between managers and workers in large companies, but that format’s not as relevant in a gig economy.”

The Independent Drivers Guild, an International Association of Machinists affiliate, represents 65,000 “app-based” drivers from Uber, Lyft and other companies who are technically independent contractors. Successes include a campaign in New York City, where the IDG convinced Uber to add a tipping option to its ride-hailing app.

Other initiatives, such as coworker.com, provide indirect support by offering an online forum that lets non-union workers and others rally around a common cause, launching petitions and other advocacy campaigns.

“One coworker.com campaign persuaded Walmart to rethink the way it assigns shifts,” Heckscher said. “Another convinced Starbucks to improve sick leave for part-time employees.”

Charles Heckscher, professor, Rutgers University.
Charles Heckscher, professor, Rutgers University.

He added: “There’s still a lot of abuse among freelancers, because there are many types of contingent or gig work. High-level workers, like a CEO consultant, probably don’t need a union to protect them. But independent contractors who get work through sites like Amazon Mechanical Turk [which generally let businesses post quick-hit tasks like answering surveys] often earn below the minimum wage or may not be able to collect the payment that’s due to them, since Amazon disclaims any liability for the job postings.”

“In the U.S., labor unions were originally based on a fundamental distinction between managers and workers in large companies, but that format’s not as relevant in a gig economy.”

Charles Heckscher, Rutgers professor

Unite Here Local 54 President Bob McDevitt said his Atlantic City-based union is working on “how to make benefits, work environment and other gig issues relevant to a union contract.” But his efforts could be complicated by a surge of millennials who may reject traditional employment arrangements.

“At this point, younger people don’t necessarily think that much about benefits like health care and pension, the way their older counterparts do,” McDevitt said. “They’re not hostile to unions, but it’s just not at the top of their radar right now. I think after five or 10 years in the workforce these issues will become more important to them and they’ll appreciate the protections a union can offer.”

The shift could come even sooner, said one academic.

“Sociologists tell us that millennials are generally less likely to join formal organizations,” said Adrienne Eaton, dean of the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “[But] we can see indications that young workers are becoming more engaged and active in leading local unions and protests and demonstrations.”

She also thinks alternate forms of organizing may evolve.

Said Eaton: “Traditional unions and new forms of organization are experimenting with different models. One interesting example of this is coworker.org, an internet platform where workers can organize campaigns against particular companies. If we counted all the workers involved with worker centers — which often focus on the needs of particular groups of immigrant workers and mobilize around low-wage work and issues like wage theft — and the workers organizing campaigns on various internet platforms, and added those numbers to traditional union members, we’d see a larger labor movement than we see with traditional measures. This would be an interesting exercise which to date no one has tried.”

The gig economy is even affecting college campuses, where academics tend to be represented by unions such as the AFL-CIO affiliate American Federation of Teachers or the New Jersey Education Association.

“In academia, there is a concern for our gig workers – adjunct faculty who tend to be paid less, have no benefits and little say in class scheduling,” said Stockton University Economics Professor Elizabeth Elmore, who’s represented by the AFT. “Such workers have been called ‘gypsy scholars’ as they must travel from campus to campus to earn a living. The American Federation of Teachers has been negotiating for no decrease in the ratio of full-time faculty to student ratio.”

Still, some union leaders don’t seem too worried about implications of the gig economy.

“The gig economy may not affect the construction industry as much as some others,” said Greg Lalevee, business manager of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 and chairman of Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative.

“Construction is a very structured kind of industry,” Lalavee said. “You have to gather workers at a particular site at a particular time to get a job done.”

Could the structured nature of construction turn off millennials? “They seem to enjoy freedom and portability and mobility,” he acknowledged. “Certain aspects of that might not necessarily gel with construction or manufacturing. But we’re trying to open up to new generations. [We’re] working to turn our own training facilities into a technical community college to bridge the gap between blue-collar trades and the drive for advanced degrees.”

As for the service sector, Kevin Brown, New Jersey state director of service workers union 32BJ SEIU, said that the gig economy “may change the kind of work that’s done, but there’s always a need for service workers.”

Added Brown: “It may be more difficult to organize in some cases, but the service area as a whole has many small-work areas. For a long time, we’ve worked across sites and employers.”

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