Welcome to the Gig EconomyExploitive, Yes. Empowering, Too.scroll down arrow

YES! photos by Martin Do Nascimento

The Vanishing 9-to-5: Ruthless and LiberatingIn a few years, the majority of workers won’t have traditional 9-to-5 jobs. Today’s contract workers cope with insecurity and exploitation, but they’re also forging new opportunities for empowerment in collaboration and cooperative ownership.

Estelle Becker Costanzo has worked in Pittsburgh restaurants since age 15. Now 56, she is a server at The Capital Grille, a position she is proud of. “This is a good job,” she says—relative to the rest of the industry. Still, because her base wage has stayed put at $2.83 per hour for 25 years, she struggles to cover her basic expenses. “Originally, [tips] were supposed to be 50 percent of our income. Now it’s more like 100 percent.”

Paul Hampton is an independent writer living in Brooklyn, New York. In his spare time, he works to organize debtors and postgraduate researchers. He has written on debt organizing and basic income, and he is working on a series about worker-owned cooperatives.

As tips became her primary income, the demands on that income increased. As is standard in the industry, The Capital Grille charges Costanzo a fixed percentage of every bill as a tip for bussers and bartenders. The charge assumes she receives a 20-percent tip. This was workable when large parties were charged a tip by default—a policy known by the awkward Americanism “automatic gratuity” or “autograt.” Recently, however, The Capital Grille ended autograt, leaving Costanzo’s income up to her customers’ whim. When large parties reserve private rooms, they’ll often tip only a fraction of what she needs to cover her obligations. As a result, she might work for hours only to pay for the privilege.

For Costanzo, the loss of autograt is just the latest of a series of attacks on her security. At this rate, even if autograt is reinstated, she doesn’t see an end to struggle. “Retirement? I’ll be working ’til I’m 80,” she says. “We don’t really think about the future until it finally comes up on us.”


Toronto’s Kristy Milland thinks a lot about the future. Like Costanzo, Milland’s income long depended on how much the people she served decided to pay. But she didn’t work in restaurants or get paid in tips. In fact, for years, she never even met a single one of the many customers she served. Milland is one among the possibly half-million people who currently work for Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (“MTurk”), one of the largest employers in the gig economy of network platforms, like Uber or Handy, that link workers to employers one job at a time.

“Turkers,” as they call themselves, connect with “requesters,” employers who advertise fixed payment in exchange for a single task. Amazon touts Turkers as “artificial artificial intelligence” that can skillfully perform jobs that computers can’t do well: transcribe audio, categorize images, or serve as subjects in academic experiments. Pay ranges from pennies to dollars for tasks that require seconds to hours. Though wages are tiny, competition can be fierce. “Sometimes I’d get a text in the middle of the night and get out of bed to start,” Milland says. To put together a reasonable day’s pay, she would sometimes find herself working 17 hours at a stretch. Other times she might go a week without working, but that week was no vacation. “That’s still 17 hours a day looking,” she says.

“In this new age, old models for employment must be replaced. There will still be work, but there will be less of it. Will the work that remains be viciously exploitative, with workers pitted against one another in a fight for the last job? Or will workers begin to think of themselves as citizens of a new era, when the promise of technological progress can be made real?”
— John Nichols

From the Editors

Going from Jobs to Gigs

  • Stephen Miller

    Miller

  • James Trimarco

    Trimarco

  • Tracy Dunn

    Dunn

We know a bit about the gig economy from experience.

Sometimes you want a regular job, but you can’t get one. Senior editor Stephen Miller arrived in Seattle during the recession. Initially unable to land a steady job, he cobbled together rent by picking up gig work as a musician, freelancing as a writer and editor, and cleaning boats on Lake Union. Other times, you want your freedom. In the years before James Trimarco became an editor at YES!, he did everything he could to avoid having a traditional job. He worked for temp agencies doing factory and warehouse jobs. He took seasonal jobs on political campaigns or fundraising efforts, edited people’s Ph.D. dissertations, and refinished the floors in their homes. He says it was all about staying as free as possible so that he could focus on his activism during those years: the peace movement and local struggles for affordable housing in New York City.

Cover of YES! Issue 79

Without knowing it at the time, people like us have been part of the mass migration of Americans out of traditional employment. Some of that migration has come from people trying to break free and focus their time on things that matter — their children, art, health, or community. For others the move has been less voluntary, as businesses ramp up profits by replacing traditional jobs with contracts with no benefits and no guarantee of work tomorrow.

All told, we’re at the point where roughly 40 percent of American workers are in some part of the vast, complex world of the gig economy. They’re contractors, freelancers, temps. They’re seasonal. They’re paid under the table. Only a tiny minority work for the app-based companies like Uber that get so much of the gig economy press these days. But that sector is growing fast.

As people who love creativity, we can see the appeal of freedom from old work models that rarely worked for women and families. And because we love community, we also see how this gigs-not-jobs model threatens the financial security of workers and their families. Most of this issue looks at how we might resolve these two things by creating something new, keeping the empowerment without the exploitation.

Part of the solution is to resist the temptation to think of the gig economy as new. Millions of workers — many immigrants and low-income people of color — have always dealt with the problems of precarious employment. We can learn from them. We’re already seeing Uber drivers organizing around labor centers like day laborers and domestic workers do, requiring codes of conduct for companies that hire contractors. Those are exciting responses from the grassroots.

Other workers are using the very technologies that allow companies to hire hundreds of thousands of contractors as organizing tools. Responses like these shine a light on the creativity and solidarity emerging from even the most precarious spaces of the gig economy.




Return to the story

Even when work was steady, Milland couldn’t be sure she’d get paid. Requesters can reject work with no explanation—and minimal consequences: Another Turker will take the returned task, often in seconds.

What links gig workers like Milland with tipped employees like Costanzo is that both workers’ situations can fairly be called precarious—their income, employment, and ability to meet basic needs are insecure and, increasingly, unprotected. This lack of security is self-perpetuating. Workers laser-focused on finding—and keeping—work can be unwilling to risk attempts to organize for better conditions.

Rochelle LaPlante, a moderator for Turker discussion forum “MTurk Crowd,” has publicly criticized the platform and faced recrimination—from other Turkers. She says that even some members of her own forum would prefer she stay silent. Privately, they tell LaPlante that they worry requesters might leave the platform if its poor treatment of workers is exposed. Others fear more direct reprisal: LaPlante says at least one person’s account was permanently suspended after they spoke publicly about worker conditions. That sort of retaliation is explicitly outlawed against employees, but because the work that Turkers perform—and from which Amazon and requesters derive revenue—is considered independent contracting, the company doesn’t have to comply with those labor laws.

Milland believes that with the advent of these platforms, precarity comes for us all in the end. “Teachers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, programmers, designers, authors, journalists—we’ll all be going to some platform every morning and searching for work 17 hours a day,” she says. She has lived the future that Costanzo sees coming. “We are working in the labor world of the future, and we’re coming back with bad news.”

Corporations have long tried to create precariousness. What’s different about the current moment is the technologies that undermine old kinds of employment also enable new kinds of empowerment.

To the platform owners, precarity is central to the future they want to create. In an open letter to the European Union, a consortium of 47 platform corporations argued against regulations for their industry. They described themselves as “innovators” who are “remodelling whole value chains.” To the Millands of the world, they promise “new sources of income, micro-entrepreneurship, and flexible working.” In other words: more and deeper precarity.

Corporations have long tried to create precariousness. What’s different about the current moment is the technologies that undermine old kinds of employment also enable new kinds of empowerment.

“Part of what we’re doing is expanding the sense of what’s possible,” says Michelle Miller, co-founder of CoWorker.org, a platform for workers to build labor rights campaigns. CoWorker.org’s users tend to be employees of large corporations or chains who are, like Turkers, physically isolated from both their employers and each other. The users tend to be non-unionized. But even when workers have unions, their unions can’t fight every battle. They must allocate limited resources toward campaigns that have a high chance of success. This means that some of the issues most important to workers are left unaddressed.

CoWorker.org started from a simple idea: Let the workers lead. Its tools help people like Costanzo start their own workers’ rights campaigns and build online networks to overcome isolation. Among the thousands who have pledged support for Costanzo’s campaign are dozens of employees in the same restaurant group, from cities around the nation.

Miller thinks campaigns like Costanzo’s, that use these new digital networks to regain lost protections, are absolutely critical. “We’re in a place where we have some rights reclaiming to do,” she says. But the fact that these campaigns are needed also reflects how far we have yet to go. “Our culture and our economy have reinforced for many years [that] when you go to work, you take what you get,” she says. “You’re ‘lucky to have a job.’” When struggle is needed just to maintain the status quo, there’s little hope for radically improving working conditions.

Costanzo agrees. She knows her campaign is important, but she sees the limits of the approach. “I’m not sure what recourse we have at this point,” she says. “More media attention? What happens is we do this thing, and then it just sits stagnant. We have to get stronger and more vocal, or we’ll just disappear. Somebody has to take the next step.”

Miller hopes these campaigns will be only the beginning of the beginning. She knows that, as employment becomes more precarious, issue advocacy alone isn’t going to build lasting change. “With the growth of the contingent workforce … we do need new forms,” she says. She hopes that the networks built via CoWorker.org will eventually aim toward universal guarantees not tied to an individual workplace, employer, industry, or even employment at all. “We need to have a much more imaginative, robust set of options than just what we have right now, which is you have to be an ‘employee’ to even have a single right.”

She thinks the path to this future begins by confronting the conditions of the present. “It is our civic responsibility to be active participants in our workplaces,” she says.

How can gig workers become “active participants” when their workplace is virtual?

It is our civic responsibility to be active participants in our workplaces.
—Michelle Miller, co-founder of CoWorker.org

If the Labor Force Were 100 People...

Some may be working a freelance gig plus a 9-to-5 job or multiple gigs pieced together. People are constantly moving in and out of the growing number of alternative work arrangements. Some exist in many categories at once. Here’s what we know.

Tap here to return to the story

Source: 2015 data from Krueger-Katz study; 2015 data from JPMorganChase Report; 2010 data from Bureau of Labor Statistics; 2015 data from Freelancers Union.

YES! Infographic by Tracy Loffelholz Dunn

Turkopticon is one answer. The service, built by Lilly Irani, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, and Six Silberman, a researcher and programmer, allows Turkers to collectively track requesters. Smoothly integrated with the regular MTurk interface, it allows Turkers to see whether their peers have reported a requester for rejecting valid work. In this way, Turkers created a vital check on precariousness: consequences for wage theft and worker abuse. Importantly, they did it without appealing to the platform owners or waiting for regulators to step in. Turkopticon was the first time many Turkers realized they could fight back.

For bigger fights, though, they’ll need greater cohesion. Although Turkers readily collaborated on Turkopticon, coordination at greater scale was hindered by fractured, isolated communities.

“Dynamo was a place for us to come together,” says Milland. She is speaking about the website WeAreDynamo.org, a forum in which Turkers choose actions to take collectively. I talked to Niloufar Salehi, the driving force behind Dynamo. Niloufar is a third-year Ph.D. student in computer science at Stanford University. In the heart of Silicon Valley, alongside peers who build the algorithms that power precarity-generating platform services, Salehi has different designs. In early 2013, she heard Irani present on Turkopticon and was immediately intrigued. “I had never seen research used that way before.” That fall, she enlisted collaborators, including Irani, Milland, and one anonymous Turker, known by the nom-de-Turk “Clickhappier,” to build Dynamo.

Salehi’s view of Turkers is exactly opposite Amazon’s. She believes treating humans like algorithms leaves out most of what makes us human. “Human beings want to work with other people. They want to be able to grow,” she says. “They want to have meaning in what they’re doing. There’s a lot of benefit in looking at human beings and trying to understand them as human beings.”

Following that ethos, the Dynamo project started with a listening tour. Salehi visited Turker forums to learn what features they needed. Dynamo is built with their concerns in mind. For instance, to ensure the forum wasn’t usable only by Turkers with spare time to spend organizing, Dynamo action proposals are limited to a single tweet-length message, and participation can involve a simple “up” or “down” vote. In this way, the community has inclusion at its core.

Two campaigns illustrate the promise—and the limits—of their efforts to date.

In one, a team of Turkers collaboratively wrote guidelines for academic requesters. The guidelines establish basic standards for decent behavior—“identify yourself,” “provide reasonable time estimates”—and, importantly, fair wages. That campaign was a success: The guidelines are widely embraced and even adopted as official standards at some universities.

In a second campaign, Turkers aimed to change the platform itself and found visibility has limits. They organized a letter writing campaign to Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, hoping he would see they were “human beings, not algorithms.” Despite media attention, the plan backfired. Soon after the letters, Amazon raised fees dramatically—effectively reducing wages—and, Milland says, appears to have banned communication between internal employees and Turkers. She says the last time anyone openly identifying as an Amazon employee posted to her forum, TurkerNation.com, was May 2015, just before fees were raised. The timing of the changes was suspicious, and Milland believes the letters were a major factor. “I think we pissed [Bezos] off.”

Amazon’s stonewalling prompted many in the Turker community to look for new ideas that go beyond appealing to platform owners to change. As Milland puts it, “We’ve got to look for alternative points of pushing back. This is just the start.”

Part of what drives Turkers forward is that, for many, there is no going back. Because of medical issues and family responsibilities, “I can’t have a [full-time office job],” Milland says. She thinks the same is true for the vast majority of Turkers, and LaPlante agrees. “Some care for children or elderly relatives at home. Some cannot find employment in their rural areas. Some have felonies on their record. Some do not have transportation.”

Like Milland and LaPlante, some Turkers hope the decentralized, inclusive communities they are building can create something entirely new, something that reflects their principles. Milland has a very clear goal in mind: “We need worker-run platforms.”

Trebor Scholz, associate professor of culture and media at the New School in New York City, agrees. He thinks platform services reveal a flaw in the way we measure progress. “How is something innovation if it benefits 50 people in Silicon Valley?” he asks. Scholz sees the move of work to platforms as an opportunity to build new services owned not just by the designers, but by everyone who uses them. With ownership, he says, “you have more control.” Such platform cooperatives should be more likely to treat workers well, be good members of their surrounding communities, and generate shared wealth.

The idea is based on worker-owned cooperatives, which have found success throughout history. Generally, cooperatives succeed when they are protected—by geography, regulation, or culture—from competition with corporations. For instance, several taxi cooperatives have existed in cities around the United States for decades. But while these services may carve out local niches, they can’t aspire to the resources and visibility of a globalized platform like Uber.

At least, not alone. The promise of platforms for cooperatives is that they can provide increased scale without taking away worker ownership. Arcade City is one such service that promises to cut out the middleman and connect drivers directly to riders via a single, cooperatively owned app.

Beyond duplicating existing platform success stories, Scholz’s broader aim is to link many different kinds of cooperatives into a networked community, an ecosystem in which food co-ops work together with startups and with cooperatively owned social networks. Critically, he says, this linking up has to be part of a political movement organized enough to turn its collective influence into regulatory and legislative power. In Scholz’s vision, this would entail a whole different kind of economy, in which resources are allocated and shared via platforms that participate in markets but also function as a firewall against them by, for instance, providing mutual guarantees of material support. For example, workers on a cooperative gig platform could earn shares at the food co-op. In this world, everyone would be an owner, and the benefits of innovation would always be shared.

The gig economy is often seen as the dystopian future of work. But there’s not much new about the underlying economics. What is new is that the global network enabling the current wave of dispossession also allows workers unprecedented connectivity and reach. While connectedness alone won’t bring revolutionary change, movements can now coordinate and build at unprecedented scale while remaining inclusive and democratic.

CoWorker.org and WeAreDynamo.org are two early examples of tools for building democratic, worker-led network communities. Right now they focus on issue advocacy, but Miller sees them as a stepping stone to a new way of working together: “I think the internet is not a set of tools. … It’s a place and a culture. It requires us to behave differently. And if we can do that, we can do amazing and incredible things.”

The nascent networks of worker movements that come together via these tools could be the first adopters of new platform cooperatives. What kinds of services can thrive on the cooperative platforms and whether they can create a new kind of economy are questions that can only be answered through practice. Scholz agrees that no one yet knows where platforms will take us. “I’m as curious as you are as to what will happen.”

Having spent a decade pioneering the future of work, there might not be anyone more curious—or more ready—to create something new than Milland. “What does it look like if we build it today? I don’t know. We’ve got to try it.”

Paul Hampton is an independent writer living in Brooklyn, New York. In his spare time, he works to organize debtors and postgraduate researchers. He has written on debt organizing and basic income, and he is working on a series about worker-owned cooperatives.

Meet the TurkersA face-to-face look at Amazon's invisible work-for-hire labor pool

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk labor force is always online and hungry to work. Some fit it in as a side job. Some do it as their main job. Members of this “artificial” artificial-intelligence network work in isolation for as little as pennies to carry out tasks from “requesters.” It’s a situation that sidesteps minimum wage laws and can leave workers hanging when “employers” don’t pay. Turkers, as they’re called, have forged online communities that empower them to share advice, boycott bad requests, and build the kind of relationships found in traditional workplaces.

We hired a few Turkers to tell us about their work.

Just the Facts

Why the Gig Economy Is Growing

YES! infographic
YES! infographic
Featured Art

I Am the Gig Economy48 hours of working job-to-job in Austin

Shooting this assignment and meeting folks doing gig work all over Austin, Texas, I was surprised by the variety of perspectives that people have on working in the gig economy. Ask two rideshare drivers or two day laborers and you’ll often get two completely different answers. One will tell you they love the flexibility, the variety of the work, and being their own boss. The other will tell you they can’t stand the uncertainty or the relentless competition with their peers.

Martin do Nascimento

Martin do Nascimento is a freelance photographer and videographer based in Austin, Texas, who stumbled upon his love of visual storytelling while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua. Since then, Martin’s work has appeared in national and international publications.

As a freelance visual journalist, my own experience is that you can love the flexibility and dread the uncertainty. You can savor the variety and wish for more stability.

For this project I spent a fast-paced 48 hours photographing gig workers around Austin, which along with Los Angeles has the nation’s highest rate of 1099 jobs. I hired rideshare driver Raymond Ledesma, featured in the portraits. Since Uber and Lyft don’t operate in Austin anymore, a good number of rideshare drivers organized independently to offer city residents similar services but without the middleman. Drivers and riders coordinate through “Arcade City Austin” and “Austin Underground Rideshare Community” groups on Facebook. Raymond and I drove all over town—from Miss Grace’s Airbnb to Eric’s pedicab workshop to Rat’s South Austin bungalow—visiting with folks and taking pictures of them before running back to the car, tossing the camera gear in the back, and taking off for the next stop.

Keeping It RealOld-school on-demand workers taught us the value of organizing.

YES! Photo by Martin do Nascimento

Germán López Aguilar, a day laborer from Honduras, comes to an Austin-area Home Depot parking lot on his days off from his unsteady construction job in the hopes of getting work for the day. The work typically ranges from construction to gardening. YES! Photo by Martin do Nascimento

Nelson Gamio gets up at 6:30 a.m. each morning. After putting on his usual t-shirt and jeans, he sits in the chair and laces up his paint-splattered boots. He has just enough time to run across the street to grab a $1 cup of coffee with a piece of bread and to feel a bit of San Diego’s gentle sun before he starts work at 7 a.m.

Sylvia A. Harvey

Sylvia A. Harvey is an independent journalist and reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

In 2010, the labor market was still recovering from the recession, so Gamio was happy to have a two-month-long assignment remodeling an upholstery store. “I enjoy doing construction jobs,” he confirms. “I like building things.” Whether it was laying carpet, painting, or re-stuccoing, Gamio took pride in transforming spaces and nodded at his own craftsmanship when he saw the once-drab store take on new form. What he relished most was that he was in the seventh year of being his own boss. “I work like an independent worker, and I feel happy.”

The backdrop of lively music, working alongside his comrades, and his passion for the project helped the 12-hour shifts pass by. Working long hours had become common for Gamio, who agreed to a flat rate of $50 dollars a day, plus lunch. It was less than the minimum wage, “but it was near Christmas and I had to send money home,” Gamio recalls. “It was a big recession at the time.”

Though Gamio had accepted the rate, he was shocked when his employer refused to pay him—an issue he had never experienced before. He refused to take the loss without a fight. For the first time, he decided to reach out to a local association of day laborers to learn his rights. He later filed his case with the California labor commissioner and won.

Many of the current benefits and protections for workers like Gamio can be traced to the tireless grassroots organizing that came before him. Day laborers and domestic workers have long struggled in an on-demand and shift-work economy. These are some of the original gig economy workers, and they have decades of experience organizing in the absence of the job security, health benefits, and retirement plans afforded by traditional workplaces.

Today, the scope of on-demand labor is expanding. Most of the new jobs created since the 2008 financial crisis aren’t traditional jobs at all but some form of contract or temporary employment. The growth has been especially fast among those who find work through smartphone applications like Uber, Lyft, and TaskRabbit.

As these millions of newcomers struggle to organize, they can look to those who’ve come before for guidance. One of the most effective tools has been worker centers, where participants can learn their rights, get work assignments, earn certifications, and develop new skills. Large coalitions like Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), and the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) are examples of effective mass organizing of informal workers.

The key has been moving from the individual to the collective, which is challenging because these workers are used to seeing themselves as lone entrepreneurs. But when independent contractors begin to face labor-related challenges, they realize they need support and seek alliances. “You start organizing by selflessly helping workers,” says Mark Day, executive director at San Diego Workers Center (SDWC), “whether it’s wage theft, social security, immigration, domestic violence, or health and safety questions.” Gamio is one of the workers Day helped, and today the two co-run SDWC.

Day isn’t sure the most recent crop of gig economy workers realize they need that kind of organizing yet. Uber drivers, for example, may be too “individualistic,” he says. But they could start by having local house meetings to establish their common concerns and goals and then branch out.

Hard-won wisdom

Omar Leon, workforce development coordinator for NDLON and a former Los Angeles day laborer, says workers’ commitment to assembly meetings has been crucial to their success. Skilled in landscaping, carpentry, construction, demolition, and more, these workers contribute to many construction projects.

Day laborers who stand on the corner waiting for work are often a part of an “organized corner” supported by a day laborer center. “This is our workplace,” says Leon. “We have rules. We’re going to keep it clean. No one will be disrespectful, no drinking, no one goes out for less than the minimum agreed wage, and everyone participates on cleaning day.” If a worker violates the rules, the center will give him a warning, a one- to three-day suspension, or a permanent ban, depending on the offense.

The centers help regulate their industry by setting and enforcing standards. During assembly meetings—held in coffee shops, at workers’ homes, or at work centers—laborers participate in the decision-making, speak up about their needs, and decide which actions and campaigns to support. The meetings serve as a platform to discuss issues and ways to grow. “Even though this is an informal economy,” Leon says, “the workers learn about marketing, brand strategy, work ethics, and customer satisfaction.”

Just like the makers of Etsy and the drivers of Uber, many day laborers say independence is a draw. Day laborers set their own schedules, work with a variety of employers, and decide what jobs work best for them. In many cases, they earn more than their counterparts in factories, says Leon. “Workers are part of these day laborer centers, but they’re still independent and autonomous.”

Building connections among the autonomous is part of the foundation for organizing old-school on-demand workers. Barbara Young, a domestic worker for 17 years, is a national organizer for the NDWA. She says she felt called to work on behalf of fellow domestic workers after receiving an informational leaflet while sitting in a Brooklyn, New York, park with the child she was tending. She later attended a Domestic Workers United (DWU) meeting.

“They offered CPR training from the American Heart Association, which was great, but [they also discussed] the history of the domestic workers in the country,” said Young. “It was about the exclusion that we faced. I was so interested and I just wanted every domestic worker in New York to know what was going on.” Soon, Young began handing out newsletters to domestic workers she encountered at bus stops and park benches.

Abuse in the industry inspired Young and other domestic workers—alongside unions, employers, clergy, and community groups—to organize for labor protections they had been specifically excluded from. Although many domestic workers were sent out by an agency, that didn’t mean they were safe. Young realized this after a housekeeper told her an employer in the Hamptons had said she could leave the worker to die in the basement and no one would know.

As the entire economy starts to get a taste of on-demand workers’ lives, Jayaraman says it’s an opportunity to recognize the concerns shared by all on-demand workers—whether they get their work on the street corner or on their smartphone.

The NDWA’s original goal was to make agencies accountable for workers’ safety by keeping a three-year record of all workers dispatched. But the campaign ultimately led to greater achievements. In 2010, after six years of organizing, the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed, giving these workers the right to overtime pay, a day of rest every seven days, protection under the state’s human rights law, and more. The NDWA later successfully spearheaded the fight that led to the implementation of similar bills of rights in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Oregon.

Some new on-demand workers are following the same path of grassroots organizing that Young credits for much of the NDWA’s success. In 2015, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to give workers for Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing apps the ability to unionize. The road to victory was fraught with obstacles, says Daniel Ajema, an attorney and former Uber driver.

Drawn in by the flexibility and independence, many drivers in Seattle started out happy at Uber. They felt in control and like an integral part of the company. But soon, Ajema says, drivers started to feel that the company was more concerned about its own bottom line than with workers’ lives. “Whether it was disciplining, firing and hiring, or the percentage they took from the driver, they had all the power, and the changes they implemented on a daily basis maximized their income as a company.”

Seattle Uber drivers shared a common goal of job security and decent wages. Drivers wanted to act, but they didn’t know where to begin, says Ajema. Many feared retaliation from Uber and didn’t want to lose their jobs. “I needed to do some convincing and make them believe that we would make more impact as a group than individual,” says the Ethiopian native. First, he needed a list of all Seattle-based Uber drivers—a list Uber refused to distribute. So he stood outside of the company’s Seattle headquarters and spoke to drivers as they came and went. Soon, he assembled a cadre of drivers who began distributing flyers, using social media, and holding political forums to get the word out. After two years, Seattle’s contract drivers became the first in the United States to win the right to unionize.

Some on-demand workers have also achieved success by forming alliances outside their industries. In 1999, when janitors in Los Angeles went on strike, some of the cleaning companies went to the corners and workers’ centers where day laborers gathered and tried to hire them. But the day laborers didn’t take the jobs and marched alongside the janitors instead. Each corner held an assembly meeting, took a vote, and decided to refuse all work from employers facing strikes, Leon recalls. Later, when car wash workers picketed because businesses failed to pay the minimum wage or abide by basic labor and safety laws, day laborers refused to accept their enticing offers of $10 an hour.

“We always respected the picket lines and respected the struggle,” Leon says. “No matter how much need we are in, even if we haven’t paid our rent or worked for two weeks, we decided we wouldn’t take the jobs.”

Most recently, NDLON supported a Raise the Wage campaign in Pasadena, California, which fought to gradually increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Leon believes allegiance across occupational lines aids all informal and low-earning workers because they’re more likely to gain leverage if they are unified.

New workers, new power

Gig economy workers aren’t necessarily that different from traditional employees, says Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of ROC United and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “There is a bit of an idea that ‘Oh well, we’re moving to a world in which nobody really has an employer and people transition from one place to another, and we’re all sort of in an independent contractor world with portable benefits.’” She says that thinking fails to hold companies accountable.

“They’re not just independent contractors. There is an employer. There are corporate actors involved —even if they are in Silicon Valley.” She suggests a “low road, high road” strategy, in which organizers simultaneously name and shame and campaign against the low-road actors that dominate these industries, while lifting up those doing it ethically.

As the entire economy starts to get a taste of on-demand workers’ lives, Jayaraman says it’s an opportunity to recognize the concerns shared by all on-demand workers—whether they get their work on the street corner or on their smart phone. “The whole on-demand economy has become a lot more prominent, a lot more central, a lot more mainstream, as higher-income on-demand workers have now started to deal with the instability and insecurity of being on-demand,” says Jayaraman.

Ajema agrees. The more the gig economy’s labor force diversifies, he adds, and particularly as it includes people with voting power, the stronger chance there is for legislative change. And that’s the ultimate goal.

Sylvia A. Harvey

Sylvia A. Harvey is an independent journalist and reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.