Are we entering our first “Uber election”? A number of writers have speculated that the 2016 election may turn in part on the question of how we should adapt to the economic changes known as the “gig economy,” or the “on demand” economy, which are increasing flexibility for employers, employees, and consumers, but also threaten to further erode stability for middle class workers. Underlying this question is another one: How can workers retain a voice amid these economic changes, particularly since unions are already seeing their clout eroded and their structures may not be well adapted to these changes to begin with?
Tomorrow President Obama convenes what the White House is calling a “Summit on Worker Voice” that will be devoted in part to grappling with these questions. The summit, which will convene a range of workers, union leaders, organizers, employers, and experts, is designed to deal with the whole range of challenges labor faces right now, which are pressing indeed: declining membership; stagnating wages; a largely successful ongoing conservative attack on bargaining rights; and changing conceptions of what “work” means.
“Given the fact that the workforce is changing, what are creative ways to make sure that workers are able to come together and be the agents of change that are driving forward what the nature of work is going to be?” asks Cecilia Munoz, a senior White House domestic policy adviser, explaining the central challenge the Summit is designed to address. The Summit was Obama’s idea, Munoz says.
Representatives from Uber and other “gig economy” companies will be on hand at the Summit. “The gig economy is a classic example of something which is changing the nature of work,” Munoz says. “Increasingly, workers are less likely in this generation, and certainly in the next, to be spending their careers working for a company or a series of companies. And they’re more likely to be working in this kind of structure. That raises all kinds of questions: What are the right policy structures to protect workers? What are the right organizing structures to protect workers?”
“We have invited labor unions and workers themselves, along with companies that are engaged in the on-demand economy,” in order to “lift up what is a really challenging set of issues” and “get out in front of something that’s changing,” Munoz continues. How to maintain collective bargaining rights — which are at the very core of worker empowerment — amid all this change will be a pressing question.
We hear endlessly that stagnating wages and the erosion of middle class security are among the defining challenges of our time. All of the presidential candidates have paid varying degrees of attention (or, if you prefer, lip service) to both of them. Democrats in particular will be expected to convincingly address the question of how workers can reassert more positive control over the ferment and change we’re seeing in the economy, the labor movement, and in the definitions and structures of work itself. Is it through a reassertion of the relevance of the labor movement, presuming that can even be done? Or through other means? It’s noteworthy that one of the most successful recent displays of worker activism has been the “Fight for $15” push for a minimum wage hike in many localities, a movement that is not union run, though it is backed by labor. By the way, many younger organizers at unions, too, are thinking very hard about these challenges.
Representatives for the “Fight for $15” will also be on hand at tomorrow’s Summit. One topic will be what to do about the fact that unions, which played such a key role in building and stabilizing the middle class in the 20th Century, are now receding as a force just when the middle class is in need of more help today. “Fight for $15” is “not a union organizing drive, but it is accomplishing something — it’s leading a conversation on wages across the country, which is tremendously important,” Munoz says.
It’s unclear as of yet what tomorrow’s Summit will yield in terms of policy prescriptions. It may end up serving more as the start of an open ended process that articulates a series of questions that need to be answered over time.
One thing that will bear watching as this debate unfolds — and as the 2016 race unfolds — will be how, or whether, Democrats can convincingly make a case for a government role in addressing all of these changing economic and organizing challenges. Billionaire entrepreneur and activist Nick Hanauer and labor organizer David Rolf have argued that we’re in the midst of an “economic transformation” that “threatens to undermine the very foundation upon which middle-class America was built,” calling for nothing less than a “21st century social contract” that completely overhauls labor law and the safety net to ensure economic security for these new forms of work.
Interestingly, when Hillary Clinton recently discussed the rise of the gig economy with something less than a tone of uniform, awe-struck reverence, noting that it was unleashing new possibilities while also raising new questions about how to ensure protections for workers, she was attacked by Rand Paul and others as an enemy of progress. Thus, the challenge for Democrats will be to make a convincing case for a proactive policy response to these ongoing changes, in the face of critics who will cast any such prescriptions as nothing more than hostility to market-driven creativity and innovation. Tomorrow’s Summit may be the start of an effort to begin building just such a case.