01 May 2020
Today is May Day, International Workers Day, and #EssentialWorkersDay. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, it becomes increasingly clear how much our economy depends on the workers who have been deemed “essential”. Yet these workers are rarely given the protective equipment they need — not to mention decent wages or benefits — proving that “essential” really means “sacrificial”. Chris Smalls, an Amazon warehouse worker and organizer fired last month, shared a video montage with dozens of essential workers protesting for better working conditions at Instacart, Shipt, Amazon warehouses, and your neighborhood Whole Foods. Today, they are on strike with a list of demands.
The Worker’s Perspective
There’s no other way to say it: solidarity is a struggle.
Today, on May Day, what can any of us do to help our fellow workers win their demands? It’s a complicated question for any of us, even in our own neighborhoods. It’s one thing to share mask-wearing tips, DIY PPE resources, or even a list of global and US grants for artists. It’s another thing to commit to working through things, together, especially with distances and divides between our communities and workplaces. The Reveal’s recent podcast on COVID-19 in Amazon warehouses quotes one worker as saying, “Until Amazon and Jeff Bezos starts realizing there’s real people that are going to die in his warehouse, that’s not going to stop. And we need the customers to speak up. We can’t do it alone.” Customer boycotts are part of the fight to support Amazon warehouse workers, and solidarity from other workers goes a long way, too.
A handful of volunteer organizers in TWC have been talking with collectives of delivery and ride-hail drivers about ways to show our support and help one another. Restarting this newsletter is one small way to organize ourselves in response. (You can subscribe here! But it’s not easy to pressure these powerful companies to treat their frontline workers better. One way tech workers and allies might be able to provide material support is by helping to simplify the process of applying for unemployment insurance. Another is to pressure tech companies – especially gig economy companies – to pay their workers what they’re owed, instead of allocating $110 million to fund a counter-proposal that would ‘guarantee’ drivers just $5.64/hr.
Learning about how we’re all connected and building relationships to make positive change across the industry is a slow but necessary process. This is why we need to stay in the struggle, together.
In The News
Meredith Whittaker, a core organizer of the Google Walkouts, lays out the cruel irony of our striated society in Understanding the Tech Gig Workers’ Revolt: “The lowest paid and most vulnerable workers realize they are being used as cannon fodder while the executives are at their Connecticut mansions issuing thoughts and prayers.”
Ben Tarnoff, tech worker and co-founder of Logic Magazine, writes that These Are Conditions in Which Revolution Becomes Thinkable: “In a crisis, the parameters of political possibility expand.”
Although many dine-in restaurants are now closed, the ones that remain open pose safety risks to their workers. In California, fast-food workers are going on strike. Meanwhile, as Yelp usage declines, the company has responded with layoffs and furloughs – 2,100 in total. Companies like Yelp love to pretend that their workplace is like a family, but when it comes time for layoffs, Yelp’s tech workers have a lot more in common with the fast-food workers on strike than they do with their multi-multi-millionaire CEO.
Meanwhile, Amazon is facing worker dissent at all levels, and it’s responding about the way you’d expect. As Shirin Ghaffary and Jason Del Rey write for Vox: “Amazon’s corporate employees have started to question the e-commerce giant’s business and labor practices more than ever before. In response, the company appears to be cracking down.”
What is a gig, and where did it come from? In Italy, the freelancer network Doc Servici likes to say that musicians are the original gig workers, playing gigs for tips. In Malaysia, the arrival of Grab and Uber got half-hearted sympathy from users who acknowledged the poor driver pay and conditions, but just couldn’t see beyond a cheap and easy ride.
Solidarity with all gig workers gets complicated when customers enjoy the goods and services they get on-demand without paying the full cost. But no matter the benefits for customers, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the situation for workers is untenable. As these companies increase in size and stature, worker pay continues to drop, demonstrating that the promised “innovation” simply extends the trends of exploiting workers. Something has to change.
Veena Dubal, Associate Professor of Law at U.C. Hastings, explains the history of the gig economy for the upcoming issue of Logic Magazine:
Samy, an Iranian refugee who emigrated to California in the 2000s, described the terrible conditions that he and many of these “independent contractors” face. Unable to afford the Bay Area, he lives a hundred miles away from San Francisco, and rather than commute to the city daily, he sleeps in his car between shifts, sometimes not returning home for several days in a row. “We have no freedom,” he told me. “I sleep in my car. I eat in my car. I work in my car. That is not freedom. That is not flexibility.”
While taxi companies had pioneered independent contracting in an earlier moment, technocapital’s flamboyant forms of neoliberal risk-shifting have catalyzed a powerful resistance to both the corporate practice of eschewing direct employment and worker reliance on state structures for security. The second neoliberal turn brought on by Uber and Lyft eradicated both municipal regulations and the limited sense of agency that workers had over their livelihoods. Ironically, this purge of state structures in the 2010s that drivers could leverage stirred new—but old—forms of collective activity. For the first time since the early 1980s, employment status—and more importantly, shared worker power built through the threat of employment status—has become a way for ride-hailing drivers to resist extreme economic insecurity and to collectively imagine better futures.
Workers are turning to one another to build power and effect change. Through protests, strikes, and other direct actions that have emerged through the fight for employment in California, drivers have found a much-needed source of friction that can stop, or at least slow, technocapital’s assault on their lives: solidarity.
Two songs this week:
Your river flows again, my love I know you’ve been choked A loosened clamp around your beak While crowds and parties mock the weak
A sudden fatal tenant Seizes room Didn’t grasp what I had until It was robbed absent too soon
Says the band, “All profits from Bandcamp will proceed directly to Médecins Sans Frontières who right now are doing their best to provide aid where it so urgently is needed the most.”
We goin’ on strike (strike) We goin’ on strike (all day) We goin’ on strike (all night) ‘Till they get this shit right.
We goin’ on strike so you better listen We ain’t bout to keep workin’ under these conditions Working in a hot plant with no air conditioning (it’s hot as hell) And they got the nerve to tell us that there’s fair conditions (yeah right)
If they don’t work they ass off, they gonna get fired Temps workin’ like slaves and don’t get hired The supervisor don’t care if they get tired (they don’t) They just trying to make sure them sales get higher (keep goin’)
Bonus: read the video comments, they’re actually good!