Before there was Uber, there was the Long Island Press. It was the local newspaper of my boyhood, and I worked for it — at least I thought I did. I was a paperboy, around 12 or so, and happy to emulate the paperboys of old, the Great Americans whose posters adorned the place where I picked up my papers. These included Dwight D. Eisenhower and Roy Campanella , the peerless catcher for my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. In my eyes, Campy was at least as great as Ike.
It has dawned on me that my relationship with the Long Island Press was similar to that of an Uber driver to Uber. In other words, I was not an employee but an independent contractor. I even had to put up a bond, $50 as I recall, lest I abscond with a ton or so of newspapers.
So every afternoon after school, I would report to a storefront called “the shack,” pick up my papers, arrange them in my bag, attach the bag to my bike’s handlebars and take off, pursuing an honest dollar and the American Dream. I rode my Schwinn high in the saddle, peddling down the same trail as Ike and Campy and countless others — even, I think, Jackie Robinson and Gen. Omar Bradley , the last of the five-stars. On Sundays, I went to work around 6 a.m. I hated getting up so early, but I did it. Golly, gee, I was pretty wonderful.
Then on a Thursday, disaster struck. That day’s paper was called “the shopper.” It bulged with inserts from supermarkets and the paper itself was plump with ads from all sorts of stores. Each newspaper must have weighed a pound. My bag was heavy — seemingly as heavy as the bike itself. I took off at a wobble.
It was raining hard, a powerful storm. The roads were slick and here and there huge puddles, virtual ponds, blocked my way. At one point, I came around a corner and a gust of wind caught me. The bike veered. I fought for control, but it was no use. I flipped over. All my papers slipped out of the bag and into a huge puddle. They were ruined. I picked them up and dumped them somewhere.
A week or so later, I went to collect. This was never any fun. It was the day a paperboy learned that the American Dream for some meant cheating a 12-year-old kid, putting him off — lying and procrastinating and just plain being bigger and older. That week it was particularly bad. I had to collect for the paper I hadn’t delivered in the storm. Most of my customers would not pay. No paper, no money, kid.
Recall that I was not an employee. Like Ike or Campy, I was an independent agent. The papers were mine. I had bought them, and I was going to sell them — only I couldn’t. The Long Island Press said, Pay up! My father examined my ledger. He went over what I had taken in and what I owed the Long Island Press. “You’re bankrupt,” he finally said. He seemed kind of proud. Some people take a lifetime to go bust. I did it at age 12.
Years later, covering the Maryland General Assembly for The Post, I would chuckle as the occasional bill was introduced to make paperboys actual employees and give them benefits. These bills were known as “bell ringers.” They were intended not to become law but to induce newspapers and others to hire lobbyists and defeat the proposed legislation. Certain members of the legislature furiously denounced the bills as anti-American. They proclaimed that being a paperboy built character, patriotism and entrepreneurship. Don’t tinker with what works, they pleaded. The bills always failed.
Now Uber is making the same arguments. Its drivers are independent agents, it says. The California Labor Commission the other day begged to differ. It ruled that a particular driver was not really an independent agent, but an employee. It ordered Uber to reimburse her for $4,152.20 in expenses.
Whether the ruling will be applied to others is something I do not know. But I do know that as former independent agent for the now-defunct Long Island Press, I’d sure like it to happen — and be applied retroactively. I have nothing against Uber, use it frequently and fully appreciate its wonders. But I know from experience what the term independent agent really means: When things go bad, you’re on your own.
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