Unmasking the Gig Economy

By GREGORY N. HEIRES

What does the growth of the gig economy mean for American workers?

Years from now, how many of us will earn our livelihood as online contingent workers without stable jobs?

Those questions were addressed on May 6 by a panel called “Unmasking the Gig Economy: Harmful or Helpful?” at the 41st annual convention of the Metro New York Labor Communications Council, an organization that represents labor and community communications professionals in the New York City area.

Once upon a time, most American workers could count on finding a steady full-time job, even a unionized one. But the age of manufacturing is no longer as the United States transitions to service economy.

Panelists discussed the growth of the gig economy at the Metro New York Labor Communications Council convention on May 6. Photo: Molly Charboneau

Panelists discussed the growth of the gig economy at the Metro New York Labor Communications Council convention on May 6. Photo: Molly Charboneau

In the Information Age, workers are increasing employed on their own, in part-time gigs that lack regular schedules and don’t include benefits or a union. This presents a challenge to unions, whose outdated organizing model is too often based signing up workers at big companies and confined workplaces.

The gig economy is receiving a lot of attention these days as economists look at businesses like Uber car service and Airbnb hoteliers.

The JP Morgan Chase Institute estimates 3.1 percent of adults earned income through online work between October 2014 and September 2015.

Optimists predict online businesses are growing rapidly and workers will increasingly find their niche in jobs in that sector. Some analysts believe the gig economy is an answer to the failure of the economy to produce good jobs since the Great Recession.

Annual Convention of the Metro New York Labor Communications Council

But panelists questioned that optimistic viewpoint.

While acknowledging that employment in the gig economy may represent what many workers face in the future, panelists warned of the abuses, low wages and exploitation that accompanies this process. Without government oversight and regulation, the gig economy could just be a continuance of four decades in which workers have experienced declining and stagnating wages while inequality skyrockets.

The Pollyannaish view is that the gig economy reflects our freedom to define ourselves and fulfill our sense of entrepreneurship and creativity through the free market. But on the other hand, this “flexibility” opens the door to exploitation.

“Is this the end of employment?” the moderator, investigative reporter Robert Hennelly, said.

“Companies are not investing in hiring in people,” Mauricio Niebla, 3rd vice president of the National Writers Union, said. “They are only hiring vendors.”

A lot of exploitation goes on in today’s economy. These days, the work college graduates find are sometimes poorly paid or unpaid internships. Years ago, of course, companies employed college students in the summer to provide them with work experience in exchange for a little help.

“People don’t know the rights they have and what they have to do to fight for their rights,” Niebla said. He said employers will tell applicants, “We are not going to pay you but you are going to have some experience.”

In the gig economy, workers will need to look after themselves by bargaining for their pay and rights and learning how to analyze contracts. Meanwhile, unions should adapt to the new economy by reaching out to these workers.

A positive sign was the decision of writers at Gawker online media to vote for a union last year. Other online journalism businesses have followed.

“Our primary task is to push back,” said panelist Katie Unger, a writer with City Limits.

In opening remarks at the Metro convention, Public Advocate Letitia James said that as the economy changes, it is critical to monitor how the process impacts workers.

 

Awards

District Council 37 won a number of awards at the Metro NY Labor Communications Council’s annual contests.

  • Best Work by a Rank-and-File Member – Class B*

2nd Place, “Building the next wave of the labor movement,” Lorraine Barcant, Public Employee Press

  • General Excellence – Class B

3rd Place, Public Employee Press

  • Best Feature/Historical – Class B

2nd Place, “The strike that transformed public sector Unionism,” Mike Lee, Public Employee Press

  • Best News Writing – Class B

3rd Place, “Health Dept. hires 37 for the City’s rat wars,” Diane S. Williams, Public Employee Press

  • Unique Performance – Class B

1st Place, “Ebola series, ” Diane S. Williams, Public Employee Press

2nd Place, “Save our libraries,” Gregory N. Heires, Public Employee Press

  • Best Video – Class B

3rd Place, “PEP officers protect Battery Park City,” Chris Policano, Clarence Elie-Rivera, Joe Lopez and Rudy Orozco, DC 37 Communications Dept.

  • General Excellence–Web– Class B

3rd Place, www.dc37.net

*The Class B category is for unions with more than 25,000 members.

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