The on-demand economy is not a new concept -- however, in 2015 it has been brought to the forefront of the national conversation, especially as it pertains to the nature of our professional economy and workers' rights.
As a labor leader myself, I look at certain aspects of the gig economy as providing a fantastic opportunity for our nation's middle class. However, in the case of some on-demand companies, like Uber, we find ourselves facing many questions about how we protect the people that serve us. My own kids take Uber -- it is a fantastic service -- but I am conflicted about using startups and on-demand apps that potentially don't take into account the rights and needs of our nation's workers.
In most parts of the United States, you can get almost anything you want, at any time of day, within the hour. A few weeks ago, Washington Post reporter Lavanya Ramanathan decided to test out the gig economy by using popular on-demand apps for a week straight. While she did enjoy the convenience of using such apps, they didn't always provide the seamless experience that had been promised, and Ramanathan also missed the casual interactions that could only be attained by leaving her home and visiting restaurants and small businesses in person. "What's lost in the name of efficiency?" she wrote. "I have no friendly chats with a neighborhood barista or the owner of my favorite sandwich place. I can't explain to the dry cleaner how sentimental I've become about my fair-trade, batik-print dress from Africa."
Though many of these apps save you time, we need to proceed with caution and consider the impact they have on workers' rights. Just as the organic food movement forced us to pause and reflect on where our food came from, we must do the same for our workers.
Do you know where your labor is coming from? Do you want to know? Do you care?
In my 17 years as president of Union Privilege, I've constantly adjusted and reacted to the transforming landscape of the workplace. I'm aware of the incredible innovation taking place, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, but I always want to ensure that workers' rights are the focal point of my work. This continues to be a wealth of innovation, but we can't stop honoring the rights of those who make it possible: the workers.
This brings me to the issues arising with the on-demand gig economy. What should startups do regarding labor rights and unions? Where are the guidelines and the parameters?
There is currently no rubric for this.
The question then becomes: how do we approach this evolving economy in a socially responsible way?
I won't pretend to have all the answers, but I have suggestions for some initial steps:
● As a consumer, if you have a choice between two services, go with the one that best supports its workers. Whether it's Wal-Mart versus Target, Starbucks versus KFC, you'll often find organizations that actually support workers' rights, and this is true even within the gig economy. For instance, the workers at the grocery delivery service PeaPod successfully unionized in 2013 and increased their total compensation by an average of $1.65/hour.
● If you're a freelancer, support and join a union like The Freelancer's Union. Freelancing may seem like a very lonely profession, but there are often industry organizations within your field that will provide you with all sorts of benefits if you join them.
● I could envision the launch of an Angie's List-like service that provides neutral rankings and allows consumers to compare on-demand companies in regard to their treatment of workers.
● Legislators could pass laws that more clearly define whether on-demand workers should be considered employees or contractors. In California, for instance, the Labor Commission ruled that Uber drivers are, in fact, employees.
The realities of on-demand life aren't all negative. Startups are just beginning to be more conscious of the contracted workers that they hire. There finally are more conversations around labor rights and worker rates, and how they need to be incorporated with on-demand services. Some of these companies, like the above-mentioned PeaPod, are pro-union.
The gig economy is here to stay, and for many of us this means more convenience. But as consumers, we need to decide where we stand when it comes to workers' rights. Any luxury, no matter how cost effective or efficient, should never undermine the very labor force that makes this country so great.