Tools for Collective Labor Action in the Gig Economy

SARAH KESSLER reports on how “Workers and activists are creating new tools” for labor organizing in the mis-named ‘sharing economy’:

The first tool she discusses is Dynamo:

“Milland took her gripes to a new platform called Dynamo, which was created by Stanford PhD candidate Niloufar Salehi as part of her research into collective action online. In the process of building the platform, in collaboration with other researchers and Mechanical Turk workers, she realized it was more than just an issue of making an online petition. Despite Mechanical Turk’s reputation as a place where people go to complete simple jobs—usually for just cents per task—in their spare time, many of them actually relied on the income to pay their bills. And they were afraid of retribution by Amazon. More than that, they didn’t always agree on what needed to be changed.

Dynamo attempted to create a space where workers could discuss and organize actions. The first action the group took was to write a set of guidelines for researchers, who often use Mechanical Turk to distribute surveys or tasks that they may have previously given to undergraduates. Sometimes, Milland says, the researchers forget they are dealing with actual humans, for instance designing an experiment in which they show a worker horrible images in order to see how long he or she will continue a task despite them. The guidelines were meant to help advise ethics review boards at universities about best practices on Mechanical Turk, in order to avoid this type of situation. According to an organizer on Dynamo, they were viewed more than 12,000 times in the first month. The second action was asking him to “see that Turkers are not only actual human beings, but people who deserve respect, fair treatment, and open communication.”

There was a bit of a media blitz around the project—The Guardian, The Verge, and The Daily Beast all picked it up—and Milland says it was a good proof of concept for Dynamo campaigns. But only about 20 people submitted letters publicly. In the end, Amazon didn’t change its platform. Nothing has been added to the discussion for about a month.”

* Then, on Coworker:

“About three years ago, Michelle Miller, who had worked with traditional labor movements for years, began to notice a pattern of spikes in attention like the one around the Amazon Turk letter-writing campaign. “A group would form around an issue for a couple of weeks,” she says. “There would be some excitement, some media coverage of the issue the workers were talking about, and then it would either be resolved or it wouldn’t be, and everything would sort of dissipate back to the way it was.”

Her answer was, a platform where workers can, like on, organize petitions, but with one major difference: The communities build not just around specific issues, but around virtual and analog workplaces. Once someone self-identifies as an employee of a company, Coworker keeps them updated about new campaigns within that company. Miller says, for instance, the site has signed up more than 17,000 Starbucks employees through various campaigns.

So far, most of the campaigns are among non-gig economy laborers. Those Starbucks employees used it, for instance, to campaign for the coffee company to change its policy banning visible tattoos (it eventually did so). It has promise to be useful to gig economy workers, as well. The California App-based Drivers Association (CADA) has used the platform to create a campaign that asks Uber to add an automatic tip calculation to all of its fares.

Of course, independent contractors are not protected under the National Labor Relations Act. Without traditional union protections, there’s no law stopping Uber from just firing anyone who participates.”