NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Temporary employment is not a new phenomenon. A June 2000 report by the Federal General Accounting Office on contingent workers noted the difficulty in gauging the size of this group, and that they could comprise anywhere from “5% of the total workforce, when only temporary, on call workers are included, to 30% when other categories are added.” A report last month by Moody’s Investor Service states that one out of six self-employed workers are in construction, a typical blue collar job. But Gig Economy jobs are increasingly seen as insecure and benefiting employers to the detriment of the employed and are beginning to make their presence felt in lower-paying jobs in a host of occupations—and, many believe, are driving down wages.
In the 1950s, a gig was what musicians got when they played in a nightclub, went on tour or worked in a recording studio. These rebels with a cause were generally disdainful of the 9-to-5 life—or anything else that got in the way of playing music.
Now anyone with a mobile device can have a gig in a variety of fields. As the Fusion put it, “Of all the inventions that have emerged from the current crop of Silicon Valley start-ups, the one with the biggest long-term impact is likely to be the algorithmically-controlled, smartphone-beckoned temp worker.”
The Website Zen Payroll has eschewed the term Gig Economy in favor or 1099 Economy, named after the IRS form that free-lancers must file with their tax returns. “Over the past year, the ratio of independent contractors to full-time employees has meaningfully risen among small and medium-sized businesses ” in many states and metropolitan areas, it said on its Website.
In addition, individuals filing Schedule C tax forms to report profits and losses from their homegrown businesses are up substantially since the 2000 GAO report, which didn’t take this category of work into account.
Political organizations that represent Millennials have expressed outrage at the student loan crisis, yet can seem indifferent to the Gig Economy’s pitfalls. At the Global Trends in Youth Movement panel at the Washington, D.C. Generation Progress conference, Layla Zaidane, communications director of Generation Progress, cited driving for Uber as an example of worthwhile job opportunity that dangled on an algorithm—without mentioning that when you get behind the wheel, you've become a low wage-service worker and are unlikely to make enough to pay off the average student loan, where debt at graduation is about $30,000 for borrowers with B.A. degrees.
What’s more, old-school hacks drive a cab that is owned by the fleet owner they work for. Uber and Lyft drivers must pay for and maintain their own vehicles—a big investment for most people and one that cuts into earnings. Driving your own car to deliver people isn't unlike driving your own car to deliver pizzas—except a pizza can’t throw up on the back seat or pull a knife on you.
In spite of the rise of the Gig Economy—or maybe because of it—some Millennials point to the benefits of union jobs that haven’t yet gone the way of the Oldsmobile. They run the gamut from blue collar occupations—cops, firefighters, sanitation workers—to those that require a college degree including teachers, social workers and information technology staffers that work in county, city and state governments.
At the same Generation Progress conference, Mary Ricker, executive director of the American Federation of Teachers, discussed extending their reach to workers who might not otherwise be described as professionals. “We want to tackle elevating professionalism of our own members, but strong desire to work with other workers,” she said, including domestic workers and fast food workers in the Fight for $15 movement. “We need to see the professionalism in everyone.”
Ricker seemed to appreciate that the vagaries of the gig workforce are thwarting their efforts. “We have to get jobs that don’t have a traditional union density introduced to unions,” Ricker added. Tech workers, she acknowledged, are a cohort that they haven’t been able to reach. “That’s a field that did not experience union density and we’re seeing the de-professionalizing of tech workers across the country," she said.
Courtney Jenkins, a mail processing clerk for the U.S. Postal Service and recording secretary for Local 181 of the American Postal Workers Union in Baltimore, credits the union with empowering its members. “I’m from West Baltimore, less than a mile from where Freddie Gray was arrested,” he said, referring to the Baltimore resident whose death in police custody sparked riots last summer. “I made $49,000 a year as a 20 year old, my friends can’t touch this." He said he was able to contribute to the needs of jammed up family members.
”My younger sister said, ‘Day care expenses are killing me, can you help?’ Because of my union job I could, afford to do that.”
Jenkins claimed that he now makes more than his girlfriend, who has an MBA. “My girlfriend negotiates alone," he said. "She has to hope that her manager is bargaining in good faith. If he isn’t, there’s nothing she can do. If my employer isn’t bargaining in good faith, we can take them to National Labor Relations Board.”
21st century organizing will benefit from digital technology. Jenkins described a smartphone app that can be used to contact workers anonymously.Those that won’t speak to organizers in the presence of management can get the union’s message on their phones.