Workers’ Rights in the Gig Economy

The Worker Institute sponsors conference on the gig economy,
Erica Smiley Speaks on a Panel with Dawn Gearhart and Daniel Gross at the Gig Economy Conference
Tuesday, May 22, 2018

On April 27th and l 28th, 2018 the Worker Institute at Cornell University hosted a conference titled, “Workers’ Rights in the Gig Economy: Policy and Organizing Responses to Precarious Work.”  The conference explored the extent and impacts of precarious, non-standard work and how new technologies have facilitated the expansion of an entirely new economic sector of “gig work.” The two-day conference brought together a wide array of stakeholders from government agencies, labor unions, worker centers, non-profit organizations, foundations and scholars.

Participants discussed how precarious work has been effectively organized in the past and the impact technological advances have had on the labor movement. They shared and explored innovative strategies in policy-making, enforcement, and labor organizing that are currently being tried and implemented around the country to tackle the issue of non-standard, gig work.

The conference is a part of the Worker Institute’s ongoing effort to research and support contemporary labor issues. Participants were chosen for their diversity of perspectives and the conference provided a neutral space for attendees to engage in lively debate with a robust discussion of the issues.

The conference began with a keynote speech from the New York County District Attorney, Cyrus Vance. His speech highlighted the work the District Attorney’s Office is doing to prosecute companies who exploit non-standard workers for safety violations and wage theft. He was followed by Bhairavi Desai, of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, who addressed the impact companies like Uber and Lyft have had on the everyday lives of workers, including the recent suicides of four New York City taxi drivers.

One of the main focuses of the conference was the rise of technology in accelerating and exacerbating labor issues within the gig economy. Panelists discussed the romanticizing of gig economy work and how companies like Uber, Lyft, Handy and others use marketing to put a new face on old capitalist forces. They highlighted research showing how these corporations spend significant capital on political lobbying and how successful they have been in passing anti-union legislation in states around the country.

“At a time of historic income inequality, the Uber CEO makes over 500 times more than the average Uber driver. It is a business model predicated on the worst, most exploitative aspects of our economy today.” - Bhairavi Desai, New York Taxi Workers Alliance

The conference looked to address these challenges head-on by bringing together actors who could speak to the innovative policy, enforcement and organizing strategies that are currently being explored around the country to fight back against anti-labor forces. Panels featured labor leaders like, Dawn Gearhart, who spent six years organizing Uber and taxi drivers in Seattle, Daniel Gross, who spoke about attempting to unionize Starbucks employees, and Erica Smiley who oversees the organizing department at Jobs With Justice.

There was extensive discussion of the role the rule the law can play in addressing wage theft and workplace safety for precarious workers in the gig economy. Diana Florence, of the New York County District Attorney’s office, spoke about prosecuting companies to hold them criminally responsible for workplace violations and how harsher penalties could deter this type of employer behavior. Liz Vladeck, from the Office of Labor Policy and Standards, discussed the passing of the Freelance Isn’t Free Act. The first law of its kind in the nation, it protects the rights of freelance workers who are a major component of the gig economy and aren’t covered by the existing legal framework for organizing.

“Wage theft and safety violations are a business model, and when I started looking at them as a business model, I saw criminal violations.” - Diana Florence, New York County, District Attorney’s Office

Worker advocates, government agencies, researchers and foreign country consulates, sat together to discuss the ways they are working to improve labor standards and implement co-enforcement. The District Attorney’s office talked about its partnership with the Consulate General of Ecuador to reach workers who are in need of justice and information on their rights. They discussed the ways their different agencies can work together to hold employers accountable and how progressive labor forces can work together more effectively to meet the needs of the moment.

“If each entity thinks they're going to solve this problem alone, they’re kidding themselves. We need to come together, work together, confront tensions and barriers that exist and understand there’s a bigger picture of advancing the future of workers.” - Mark Erlich, Labor and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School

There was also discussion of the ways that technology can and is being used productively to empower the labor movement, and bring together workers that are isolated from one another. New apps are being created that connect and provide support for precarious workers. Social practice artist Sol Aramendi, spoke about the Jornalero App, created in conjunction with the Worker Institute, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and unions affiliated to the AFL-CIO. The app helps combat wage theft and workplace violations by enabling day laborers to keep track of and report working hours and helps ensure they collect the payment they rightfully earned.

“Workers generally fight when they have hope. Our job is to give them the hope and equip them with meaningful strategies that help them win.”  - Larry Engelstein, Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ

Organized by Maria Figueroa, Director, Labor and Policy Research at the Worker Institute, the conference was a unique opportunity for a broad array of stakeholders from government agencies to workers centers to come together and discuss the history and urgent concerns of gig economy, and share strategies, tactics and research to address the needs of today’s rank and file workers.

“It is on our shoulders that the future of our nation’s workforce rests.” - Elizabeth de Leon Bhargava, Esq., Deputy Secretary for Labor & Workforce, Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo