Organizing Against the Gig Economy: Lessons from Latin America?

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Yves here. While i like the idea of describing success stories of organizing participants in the gig economy to secure better rights, I wish some of these examples had been fleshed out in more detail. If readers can provide more information about these or other good models, please pipe up in comments!

By Adam Fishwick, a Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies and Public Policy, De Montfort University. Originally published at Open Democracy

Workers in the so-called ‘gig economy’ face heightening conditions of precarity and exploitation. From delivery couriers to taxi drivers, this series has shown that conditions of work are increasingly deleterious and show little sign of improvement.

To combat this, innovative new strategies of organisation and mobilisation have been developed. New, and more direct, tactics of trade union struggle have been at the heart of successful disputes led by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain in London and via spontaneous strikes by Uber drivers and others across the USA, the UK, France, and beyond.

As yet, there has been less traction for these forms of the gig economy in Latin America. This may be about to change, as according to a recent Bloomberg report Uber HQ is responding to recent negative press attention by turning to the region as its new ‘Promised Land’.

Three reasons may explain why the gig economy has had little success so far in the region. First, it relies on a business model that requires particular market conditions, namely a high volume of relatively high-income consumers living alongside significant surplus labour. Such conditions are not as widespread in Latin America as in Europe and North America.

Second, there may be little need to push further precarity upon workforces across the region. The informal sector dominates in these areas and, after decades of structural adjustment and the return of a harsh neoliberalism to countries in the region, precarious work is the norm.

Third, where Uber and Lyft – the two dominant ride-sharing companies of the gig economy – have sought to establish themselves in major cities –in Argentina and Brazil, for example – a combination of worker protest and regulation has contained their ambition.

Workers in the region have mobilised through a whole repertoire of innovative tactics to confront and, in some cases, overcome the negative impacts of the increased precarity that typifies work in the gig economy. We only need to think of the variety of horizontalist organisational forms and radical practices that emerged out of the 2001 crisis in Argentina, for example, which continue to echo in in the worker recuperated factories and even the recent women’s strike.

In this article, I will reflect on some of the strategic lessons that can be drawn from Latin American workers in organising against conditions similar to those underpinning the growth of the gig economy across the global north. Specifically, I will consider what can be learnt from experiences of workplace occupation and workers’ control as a strategy for confronting the gig economy.

Workers’ Control in Latin America

The recent experience of workplace occupation and workers’ control in Latin America is wide-ranging. It encompasses hugely diverse political-institutional contexts and a vast range of economic sectors – from Socialist Production Units created through the communes and supported by the state in Venezuela, to land seizures and communal farming organised under the banner of ‘Occupy, Resist, Produce’ by the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil.

The most well-known of these, however, are the Worker Recuperated Enterprises in Argentina. Emerging en masse after 2001, according to a recent report by the Open Faculty in Buenos Aires, there are now 376 worker-controlled workplaces that employ 15,948 workers.

As has been documented by Marcelo Vieta, these worker-controlled workplaces – which range from industrial factories and hotels to park services and medical centres – have faced a range of challenges, but have overcome them through a variety of innovations.

These include gaining access to funds as collectives, through neighbourhood solidarities, and through the construction of new ‘economies of solidarity’; establishing horizontal working structures via workplace assemblies and job rotation; enforcing equitable pay across sites; open communication through assemblies, with clear detailing of tasks, work-goals, and accounts; and offering space and services – from housing to healthcare – for surrounding communities.

Importantly, these occupations and the subsequent transformations of the workplace and of social relations between workers derived, initially at least, from the independent self-activity of precarious workers operating in increasingly poor conditions. These workers then came together to resolve directly the problems they encountered at work and in everyday life.

It is this foundational basis of autonomous collective action that is vital for thinking on the significance of workers’ control as a means to confront and overcome conditions of workplace precarity and insecurity.

The Possibility of Workers’ Control in the Gig Economy

But how can we translate these experiences in Latin America to workers organising in the gig economy under very different conditions and in very different contexts? For a start, many of these examples of workers’ control relate to more traditional workplaces, with fixed sites – factories, land occupations, hotels, medical centres, etc. – that can be brought under control by entering, occupying, and limiting access to that space.

The gig economy, by its very nature, is flexible and mobile – in most instances it is represented by a virtual platform with ‘self-employed’ workers operating independently from each other, spread out across major cities and with no concrete ‘space’ to occupy.

Yet the very terms of work offered in the gig economy lend themselves to thinking about – and acting upon – utilising this independence to take control. Ann Pettifor, a UK-based financial analyst, recently called for this exact response from Uber workers:

“So the drivers of the cars own the car, they have bought the car, they have invested in it, they maintain it, they invest in its maintenance, they insure it… They pay for all of that and then they pay something for the app. They are then allowed by Uber in California, in Silicon Valley, to retain some of their allowance but why on earth should Uber be such a company? Why should it operate in this way? Why do taxi drivers not come together and form a collective?”

It is this option – of coming together through a shared, precarious experience of work and developing a collective, cooperative form of work organisation – that represents a clear possibility for contesting the vagaries of the gig economy. Workers’ control may seem a distant dream, but it may be that – as Marx envisaged – the contours of an alternative mode of organising work and life can be seen already within the innovations of capital.

Cooperatives in the US, for example, have been successful in challenging the dominance of Uber. Taxi cooperatives formed in Austin and in Denver, have shown how drivers can compete with – and win against – the ride-sharing firms of the gig economy. Moreover, the precarious conditions of work experienced across the gig economy are clearly analogous to the experiences of precarious work in and across Latin America and so they can offer some important strategic lessons for organising.

In a recent article, Maurizio Atzeni explores the possible new grounds for solidarity that have emerged amongst precarious workers in Buenos Aires, focusing on theatre technicians and – most interestingly for discussing the gig economy – motorbike couriers. Building on a concept developed in his earlier writings, he outlines the conditions for new modes of solidarity that emerge from the ‘living encounter’ that occurs in the workplace.

Atzeni shows how, despite the fragmented, diffuse, and increasingly precarious modalities of work, it is in their shared experience of this labour process overwritten by the specific institutional and historical contexts of labour organisation in Argentina that the foundations of collective action can begin to emerge.

It is from similarly increased precarity – from threats of unemployment and heightened insecurity in work – that the examples of workers’ control previously highlighted in Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil developed. Seemingly spontaneous decisions to mobilise, occupy, and repurpose workplaces were enabled by comparable new solidarities emerging ‘from below’.

In combination, these factors may point to new strategic directions for workers in the gig economy. Shared grievances and emerging solidarities amongst these precarious workers can find expression in the new tactics mobilised by trade unions, but it can also offer foundations for establishing collective forms of ownership modelled on experiences in Latin America.

As capitalism changes – pushing heightened insecurity and deepening exploitation – so too do the foundations for collective actions and the terms on which workers can begin to fight back. Latin America provides a useful signpost for how to establish new ways of living and working, and to building workers’ control in face of the insecurity and precarity of the gig economy.

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  1. Arizona Slim

    First thing that’s needed in this country is a hostile takeover of the NYC-based Freelancers Union. As currently constituted, it is little more than a faux union and a publicity vehicle for its founder.

    After the takeover, time to get down to business and become a real union. With naming and shaming of companies that stiff freelancers or take forever to pay. This could take the form of picket lines. Or massive publicity campaigns. Whatever works.

    Oh, while we’re at it, how about apprenticeship programs? These would help young freelancers avoid the cost of student loans incurred while attending private, for-profit colleges. They could also provide industry-standard training like the kind we see in, say, the building trades.

    Others have also noticed the shortcomings of the current Freelancers Union. Reference:

    1. Carla

      It’s my impression that the FLU may be an arm of the insurance industry masquerading as a benevolent organization — like AARP, for instance.

  2. oho

    sorry to be a debbie downer—-Uber-Lyft drivers have been trying to organize (both work slowdowns and unions) for years with no success outside of Seattle, Austin, NYC. (wouldn’t count Denver) (see the organization forums at uberpeople dot net)

    problems: workers’ don’t have the capital to organize a viable alternative unless there is a very pro-driver local govt/regulatory system (eg, Austin). Austin is literally one of the few municipalities who didn’t buy Uber-Lyft’s Orwellian it-aint-a-cab-it’s “rideshare” nonsense.

    Yes, while the app can be replicated—-Uber’s moats are ultracheap/subsidized fares, regulatory capture, a global network and user inertia as Uber is the go-to app.

    More problems: atomized workforce; lots of part-timers who have different incentives v. full-timers; (sorry if this sounds awful) desperate or innumerate natives or recent immigrants who don’t mind working at/or below minimum wage as it’s > $0; drivers are commodities easily replaced, lack of support/indifference from customers; customers are addicted to low fares and don’t want to care about the externalities (like Americans are with cheap meat); people had a low opinion of the taxi industry.

    Bottom line; many drivers have been thinking these problems for a while it’s David v. Goliath and his lobbyists and his investor cash hoarde.

    Cite: I was a driver who completed literally thousands of rides.

  3. Left in Wisconsin

    Gig workers won’t organize into unions – until they do. Something will spark it, it will happen first in Seattle and the other places where the organizing infrastructure is in place, and then it will happen lots of other places all at once, well ahead of any drawn out organizing activity. This is how it happens, how it always happens.

    Because we have an existing private sector labor law that says independent contractors are not employees, the legal part will be awkward and confusing. But when the spark is lit, that won’t really matter. The law will, eventually, accommodate itself to the reality.

    The only question is whether this happens sometime in the next two years or in the next twenty years.

  4. FidderHill

    Actually, I gave up reading the article after the first paragraph (skipped right to the always insightful comments section). Anyone who uses the words ‘precarity” (I don’t even think that’s real word) and “deleterious” in the first two sentences is someone whose clarity of thinking is immediately suspect. Inflated academic jargon has become the death rattle of the university intellectual class. A long time ago Joan Didion hit the nail on the head: “As it happens, I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language.”

    1. Albacore

      Do please get over yourself. Precarity is in the dictionary and absolutely rife in reality.

  5. Madeleine

    Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis made The Take about a recovered auto parts factory in Argentina. The website for the film has reporting and follow up on worker recovery actions in various countries.

  6. Sound of the Suburbs

    Globalization is falling into a black hole of its own ignorance and we have probably already gone through the event horizon.

    At the very heart of globalization, myths and superstitions abound as to the very nature of money and debt.

    A recent study has shown monetary theory has been regressing for the last one hundred years.

    Credit creation theory -> fractional reserve theory -> financial intermediation theory

    “The movement from the accurate credit creation theory to the misleading, inconsistent and incorrect fractional reserve theory to today’s dominant, yet wholly implausible and blatantly wrong financial intermediation theory indicates that economists and finance researchers have not progressed, but instead regressed throughout the past century. That was already Schumpeter’s (1954) assessment, and things have since further moved away from the credit creation theory.”

    The globalization project was undertaken at the worst possible time.

    The monetary system works in a defined way, but no one seems to be sure what it is.

    There are some members of the BoE, who know how it works and are familiar with the “credit creation theory” of money, but are unable to develop the theory to realise its full implications.

    “Although commercial banks create money through lending, they cannot do so freely without limit. Banks are limited in how much they can lend if they are to remain profitable in a competitive banking system.”

    The limit for money creation holds true when banks keep the debt they issue on their own books.

    When they can securitize bad loans and sell them into the market they can create money freely and without limit as they attempted to do in the run up to 2008.

    The full implications of the “credit creation theory” of money help you to understand why austerity has been such a disaster in Greece. If the private sector start paying down debt and not taking out new loans, the money supply contracts. You cut Government borrowing, the money supply contracts even faster leading to debt deflation.

    When you understand money, everything becomes so much clearer.

    Richard Koo can talk you through the post 2008 world in terms of the money supply, money and debt and show why Greece can never recover with the ideas coming from the Troika.

    You need to understand the “credit creation theory” of money first, probably why the Troika are in so much trouble.

    The ubiquitous neo-liberal, real estate booms and busts play out across the world with no one able to see the real dangers. Australia and Canada will soon find out.

    If you haven’t established the way the money supply, money and debt really work what can you build on these foundations?

    A globalisation that gets sucked into the black hole of its own ignorance.

    From this fundamental ignorance, you develop an economics that doesn’t look at debt in its models.

    Those that were looking at debt, the core of the new enlightenment, saw 2008 coming before it arrived.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      Myth and superstition abound.

      Today’s ideal is small state, raw capitalism, which has existed before so we can look back to see what it was like.

      All Adam Smith had to do was observe small state, raw capitalism in action.

      Adam Smith had seen it all before in the 1700s.

      Adam Smith on rent seeking:

      “The labour and time of the poor is in civilised countries sacrificed to the maintaining of the rich in ease and luxury. The Landlord is maintained in idleness and luxury by the labour of his tenants. The moneyed man is supported by his extractions from the industrious merchant and the needy who are obliged to support him in ease by a return for the use of his money. But every savage has the full fruits of his own labours; there are no landlords, no usurers and no tax gatherers.”

      So, landlords, usurers and taxes all raise the cost of living and minimum wage. They suck purchasing power out of the real economy.

      Western housing booms have raised the cost of living and priced Western labour out of international markets leading to the rise of the populists.

      Trickledown, no it trickles up.

      Adam Smith on price gouging:

      “The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens.”

      So this is why hedge funds look for monopoly suppliers of drugs.

      Big is not beautiful in capitalism, it needs competition and lots of it.

      The interests of business and the public are not aligned.

      Adam Smith on lobbyists:

      “The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.”

      Not surprising TTIP and TPP didn’t go down well with the public.

      The interests of business and the public are not aligned.

      Adam Smith on the 1%:

      “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”

      2017 – Richest 8 people as wealthy as half of world’s population

      They haven’t changed a bit.

      Adam Smith on Profit:

      “But the rate of profit does not, like rent and wages, rise with the prosperity and fall with the declension of the society. On the contrary, it is naturally low in rich and high in poor countries, and it is always highest in the countries which are going fastest to ruin.”

      Exactly the opposite of today’s thinking, what does he mean?

      When rates of profit are high, capitalism is cannibalising itself by:
      1) Not engaging in long term investment for the future
      2) Paying insufficient wages to maintain demand for its products and services

      Today’s problems with growth and demand.

      Amazon didn’t suck its profits out as dividends and look how big it’s grown (not so good on the wages).

      “Income inequality is not killing capitalism in the United States, but rent-seekers like the banking and the health-care sectors just might” Angus Deaton

      A 21st century Nobel Prize winning economist begins to catch up with the 18th Century Adam Smith.

  7. JTFaraday

    “They are then allowed by Uber in California, in Silicon Valley, to retain some of their allowance but why on earth should Uber be such a company? Why should it operate in this way? Why do taxi drivers not come together and form a collective?””

    Exactly. There is no particular technological value in Uber. It is a cheap app that people found convenient. Anybody can do this. I have been in amazement at the Uber hype for years. It’s a joke.

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