Organizing Precariat Workers Presents Problems

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Unions worldwide face problems organizing workers due to “dismemberment of full-time employment” by firms from Silicon Valley and elsewhere creating the new “gig economy,” an anthropologist who recently finished a comprehensive book on it says.

Mary Gray brought that message and her book, Ghost Work, co-authored with a colleague from India, to the AFL-CIO’s “Ideas@Work” seminar on July 24. But – other than legislation in California empowering workers to organize and extending other rights – there are few solutions yet.

Grey and her colleague interviewed workers in the new economy of Silicon Valley in California and the Pacific Northwest, plus southern India, home now to dozens of call centers and other enterprises transferred from the U.S. The transfers occur because the firms can take advantage of low Indian wages and lax environmental laws.

But individual workers, such as Uber and Lyft drivers, also do much of the ghost work. They’re arbitrarily classified as “independent contractors” under U.S. labor law, and deprived of all rights. California’s AB5 reclassifies them as “employees” with the right to organize and other protections.

The problem unions face in organizing such ghost workers “is that our policies were built around assembly lines,” where organizers could find the workers to talk with, Gray explained.  The ghost workers aren’t on assembly lines. And nobody knows exactly how many of them there are, because reliable methods of counting them haven’t been developed.

The non-assembly line problem isn’t new, though. Even when Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act, “there were doctors, lawyers and other professionals” who were – and are – virtually still unorganized and unorganizable.

“But now there’s been this notable quiet shift to information services work” worldwide. That makes organizing problems even worse, as many workers toil one by one, out of their homes, when they feel like it and on their own, Gray explained. “Much of that work is done in supply chains” for larger firms.

Their employment is precarious, though. “Nobody has a sense of where their paycheck is coming from,” Gray noted.

“We have to redefine what it means to be a worker,” to organize ghost workers, Gray said. Unions also must appeal to those workers’ goals of working in order to live, not living around work. Ghost workers “are both competitors and collaborators” with each other in various job-related causes.

“Unions can be their identity keepers,” using issues such as paid family and medical leave, portable pensions and benefits, and campaigns against sexual exploitation on the job to bring the ghost workers in. The recent worldwide 1-day forced strike against Google over its toleration and acceptance of sexual harassment on the job is one example.  The workers also need widespread community backing for their causes.

“I’d much rather see a union…do that than a corporation,” Gray said.

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