Together We are Strong (On the Labor Horizon at This Moment)

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A Lyft car with the pink mustache driving in San Francisco.

Classifying workers as independent contractors leaves companies like Uber and Lyft prone to wage theft, regardless of how explicit it may appear. Is this really a "sharing economy?" Credit: CreativeCommons / SPUR.


At a dinner the other night I was talking to a good friend who works in the hi-tech industry. Knowing that I blog about economic justice issues he suggested I write about the “Uber and Lyft economy.” “The whole world is Uber and Lyft,” he said, arguing that the working conditions of Uber and Lyft drivers – wherein the company controls the working hours and working conditions of the drivers, and yet considers them to be independent contractors and therefore is not responsible for paying their social security tax, health insurance, etc. – are not exclusive to Uber and Lyft. Rather, he said, corporations in general were trying to move to a model wherein all workers were independent contractors and therefore the corporations have no obligations to them beyond basic salary.
I agreed with him that this is a serious issue. When I suggested however that it was tied to the larger labor issues in the economy – wage theft and working conditions amongst low wage workers, truck drivers at the ports and other folks – he was surprised. He didnot know that wage theft was such a problem. (In truth, this should be the reaction of any moral person. How could someone steal someone else’s wages? In the Talmud, wage theft is compared to”murder” (Baba Metzia 111b)
Wage theft occurs when an employer does not pay an employee the money that the employee is owed. Often this isa straight up refusal to pay – especially when the employee is undocumented and fearful of going to the authorities. In other instances an employee is ordered to work off the clock; to sign out for “lunch” but actually to continue working. Many car wash workers are told to show up at a specific time but are not allowed to clock in until the first car arrives – even if that is an hour or two later. If they don’t show up at the designated time, they cannot work that day. Other employees, such as the truck drivers at the Los Angeles harbors, are misclassified as independent contractors and therefore they are held responsible for truck leases, insurance, vehicle maintenance, fuel and other out-of-pocket expenses. (The truck drivers recently won a class action lawsuit against three trucking companies.) Wage theft costs workers in Los Angeles 26.2 million dollars in unpaid wages. (These are also wages for which the government is not paid taxes by either employer or employee.)
My friend was sincerely angered by the way Uber and Lyft were treating their employees, and, by extension, the way that many people in other industries are classified as independent contractors. Yet he was unaware of the broader issue of wage theft – despite the fact that there is a campaign being waged right now for stronger enforcement of wage theft laws. I want to suggest that the reason for this is that we are a divided people. We are divided in the information we consume. Or more importantly the information we assimilate. Folks who take Uber or Lyft do not necessarily know port truck drivers. When the lawsuit against Uber hit the papers it struck a chord. When the ports truck drivers filed a lawsuit and won, on essentially the same issues, the Uber riders hardly noticed.
We are at a moment in our country’s labor history where this really matters. On the one hand the wealth gap is at historical highs while union membership in private industry is at historical lows. At the same time workers are organizing or attempting to organize on many fronts. The grievances of Walmart workers – low wages, no access to full employment, no security from week to week as to what their hours might be – are actually very similar to the grievances that, for example, adjunct professors have. (Here is an explanation of the working conditions of adjunct, unfortunately delivered in a Powerpoint presentation. Please resist the Pavlovian snooze reflex.) These are very similar to the demands of fast food workers, car washers , and farm workers. The solution to many of these issues is organizing, enforcing laws that are already on the books, and creating better working conditions. These fights should not be separate fights. The people who take Ubers to jobs where their employers hire them as independent contractors despite having worked there for twenty years, or demand they finish their three hour project even though they are only being paid for two hours, need to recognize that their struggles are the same as the dockworkers’, the truck drivers’, and the McDonald’s employees’ struggles.
Recognizing that is the first step toward justice.

Aryeh Cohen, Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, is the author most recently of Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism (Academic Studies Press). He blogs at Justice-in-the-City.com.