Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Oddly Enough, It Works. How to Cure the "Gig Economy."

He's possibly one of the greatest American public intellectuals you've never heard of: Gar Alperovitz. The social economist/historian is the author of "What Then Must We Do?" a title he lifted from Tolstoy.

What Then serves as an answer to our federal government's capitulation to a future of "job churn" for our descendants, the road to the precariat life of living from job to job, cheque to cheque, and trying to survive the gaps in between. The focus is on democratizing the economy in a non-confiscatory way by shifting the means of production from the ledgers of the rentier class into the hands of the working class.

Alperovitz demonstrates that some businesses fail because the owners treat it as a cash cow and neglect the challenges of management. When the business falters they may shut it down, take the write offs, and put the employees out onto the street.

In his book, the author provides examples of this very situation, companies about to fold, where the work force, aided and supported by the community - local businesses, banks, churches who also have a vested interest in keeping those jobs in the neighbourhood - buy the company from its indifferent owners and, working together, bring it back to profitability.  As owners, the employees not only ensure their job security, decent wages and benefits, but they also earn a return on their investment that can eclipse whatever they could get from a small savings account. As owners, the employees often demonstrate far better management of the business than the former, absentee owners. And remarkably, Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, have provided tax measures to facilitate this very process.

For those who find the Leap Manifesto too vague, Alperovitz has an alternative, a brochure entitled, "What Then Can I Do." If you still can't shake off the allure of Plutocracy and imagine yourself one day in its rarefied ranks, or you buy into the "job churn" crap as inevitable, this is probably not for you. However...

In today's Guardian there's an encouraging item about another response to the gig economy. It's the story of a British courier firm, DPD, that has offered its drivers the option of becoming "proper" employees, workers with benefits.

No more contracts for what looks remarkably like conventional work minus all the conventional benefits, unless that’s what drivers want. And no more insisting that people who wear your uniform, drive your liveried vans, and show up every day to help deliver your £100m annual profits don’t really work for you as such. What DPD has done allows us to test the gig economy’s own defence of its model, which is that some people genuinely do want to work this casually; that given a choice they’d prefer not to be tied down, to keep it as a side hustle or a halfway house between work and retirement rather than a proper job. Well, now they have that choice, let’s see what people make of it.

The catch – for there’s always a catch – is that those choosing the “worker” deal will be paid a lower rate per delivery than those on freelance conditions. But at least it’s clear to everyone what rights they’re signing away for the money, which was always the deal with genuine self-employment. And crucially, this case isn’t quite the outlier it seems. It’s part of a wave of small, hard-fought wins racked up by unions, activists and a broader swath of civil society over gig economy employers, which have shown that a race to the bottom is not inevitable; that companies make choices every day, and can be nudged into making better ones.

What does seem to be working ...is a pincer movement orchestrated by unions and activists, involving pressure from both the bottom up (the GMB led a driver walkout at DPD just before Christmas over threatened changes to conditions), and the top down, whether by taking test cases through the courts or lobbying the respectable high street names now tarnished by association with the couriers they employ. Do Marks & Spencer or John Lewis really want to be dragged into these scandals, to look complicit in such misery? If not, why don’t they use their clout as contractors to do something about it? The newly formed union the IWGB has used similar tactics to get several cycle courier companies to pay the London living wage.
These are all baby steps, easily reversed, taken by companies whose workers have had ample reason not to trust them. Nobody’s pretending everything is rosy. But small points of light in the darkness still matter, as they can be seen from a long way off. Even tiny victories can help to convince gig economy workers that they don’t have to sit back and take it, that the risk of being victimised if they organise should now at least be weighed up against the risk of being exploited if they don’t, that they aren’t as powerless as they think.

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