Tag Archives: Gig economy

Bessemer blues

The recent, decisive defeat of the unionization drive in Amazon’s fulfillment facility of Bessemer, Alabama can be understood to teach many lessons, not necessarily mutually complementary. First of all, specifically local conditions were in play, which can call into question the overall strategy of attempting to start the U.S. unionization of Amazon from the Deep South. The outcome, however, can equally be read as a sign that, in the current crisis economy, workers are prepared to put up with more or less any employer practices and work conditions whatsoever in order not to jeopardize their employment status, especially for jobs with efficiency wages. It can, alternatively, be seen as confirmation that giant tech companies, for all their claims to discontinuity and disruption, have mastered the traditional playbook of pugilistic industrial relations developed by old-economy businesses in the past fifty years. It can be interpreted as a statement that the progressive electoral coalition that swept the Democratic Party back into power at the federal level between November and January has not effected a sea-change in public opinion with regard to labor rights and representation. It can further be considered, in conjunction with the easy passage of Prop. 22 in California last Fall, as evidence that there is scant public belief that the ills of the soft underbelly of the tech economy can be righted by means of twentieth-century policy solutions.

Whatever the lessons learned, the unavoidable conclusion is that, in the United States at least, the power of Big Tech will not be reined in by organized labor alone (despite the fact that industrial militancy in the Amazon workforce continues, in less conventional and institutionalized ways). Nonetheless, recent media attention focused on Amazon workplace practices has created a series of PR embarrassments for the company: it remains to be seen whether they will ultimately cement a certain organizational reputation, and if such a reputation in turn can have regulatory or, especially, financial implications down the line (as has recently been the case in other jurisdictions).

Routinization of influence, exacerbation of outrageousness

How is the influencer ecosystem evolving? Opposing forces are in play.

On the one hand, a NYT story describes symptoms of consolidation in the large-organic-online-following-to-brand-ambassadorship pathway. As influencing becomes a day job that is inserted in a stable fashion in the consumer-brand/advertising nexus, the type of informal, supposedly unmediated communication over social media becomes quickly unwieldy for business negotiations: at scale, professional intermediaries are necessary to manage transactions between the holders of social media capital/cred and the business interests wishing to leverage it. A rather more disenchanted and normalized workaday image of influencer life thereby emerges.

On the other hand, a Vulture profile of an influencer whose personal magnetism is matched only by her ability to offend (warning: NSFW) signals that normalization may ultimately be self-defeating. The intense and disturbing personal trajectory of Trisha Paytas suggests that the taming of internet celebrity for commercial purposes is by definition a neverending Sisyphean endeavor, for the currency involved is authenticity, whose seal of approval lies outside market transactions. The biggest crowds on the internet are still drawn by titillation of outrage, although their enactors may not thereby be suited to sell much of anything, except themselves.

The hustle and the algorithm

Various interesting new pieces on the experience of the algorithmically-directed gig economy. The proximate cause for interest is the upcoming vote in California on Prop. 22, a gig industry-sponsored ballot initiative to overturn some of the labor protections for gig workers enacted by the California legislature last year with AB 5.

Non-compliance with the regulations enacted by this statute has been widespread and brazen by the market leaders in the gig economy, who now hope to cancel the law directly, using direct democracy (as has often been done by special interests in California in the past). Ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft have threatened to leave the state altogether unless these regulations are dropped, thus putting pressure on their workforce to support the ballot initiative at the polls.

Of course, the exploitative potential in US labor law and relations long pre-dates the platforms and the gig economy. However, with respect to at least some of these firms, it is a legitimate question to ask whether there is any substantial value being produced via technological innovation, or whether their market profitability relies essentially on the ability to squeeze more labor out of their workers.

In this sense, and in parallel with the (COVID-accelerated) transition out of a jobs-based model of employment, the gig economy co-opts the evocative potential of entrepreneurialism, especially in its actually-existing form as the self-exploitation dynamics of American immigrant culture. Also, it is hard to miss the gender and race subtexts of this appeal to entrepreneurialism. As one thoughtful article in Dissent puts it, many of the innovative platforms are really targeted to subprime markets:

[t]he platform economy is a stopgap to overcome exclusion, and a tool used to target people for predatory inclusion.

Hence the algorithm as flashpoint in labor relations: it is where the idealized notion of individual striving and the hustle meets the systemic limits of an extractive economy; its very opacity fuels mistrust in the intentions of the platforms.