Initiatives of Unionizing Gig Workers

From the mid-1700s until about 1840, the world went through incredible change in the way it worked and earned income with the Industrial Revolution. The transition from hand to machine-based production led to the creation of countless new jobs in economies that were once dependent on agriculture and handicrafts. 

About a century after the end of the industrial revolution, a new paradigm shift emerged. 

The digital revolution, beginning with the advent of the microchip and then the internet, has gifted us with the gig economy. This new market model makes it possible for workers to create better work-life balance by opting to work as it suits their schedules. Workers have the ability to tear down the traditional 9-to-5 workday model and rebuild it into something that fits their personal lifestyle. 

Much like during the industrial revolution, gig workers are demanding better work conditions, hours, rates and more fair use of the powerful algorithm technologies that pair laborers with end customers. To achieve these ends, they are turning to unionizing strategies. 

Trade unions for gig workers still seem to be a fairly new phenomenon. According to recent reporting from the Financial Times, union membership in the United Kingdom is still heavily skewed to middle-income workers in more traditional full-time, permanent jobs. Additionally, they found that workers with non-standard jobs, like gig workers, were 50 percent less likely to be members of unions. 

This also is at a time where overall union membership is dwindling. According to the Wall Street Journal, the proportion of American workers who belonged to unions was just 10 percent in 2019, down from 35 percent in 1954. 

Some new industry groups and unexpected partnerships are working to fill this gap, to provide collective bargaining power adapted to the dynamics of the gig economy. 

Take Italy, for instance. In 2016, a group of Italian Foodora riders staged a public protest against a new pay rate policy introduced by the platform. They also contested elements of their employment contract, which classified them as independent contractors, in an effort to achieve standard worker benefits. 

The workers’ conflict with Foodora began to quickly escalate. In an effort to maintain negotiating power, the riders teamed up with the traditional worker union SI-COBAS. The partnership was even able to extract some concessions from the platform. 

In India, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions has spun off a special initiative designed to organize platform-based workers. The All-India Gig Workers Union differs from other union groups in that they view worker strikes as a first response mechanism, rather than a last resort. Their strategy is to quickly get the attention of the platform, the government and the customers, in order to affect change. 

New trade groups are beginning to form in the United Kingdom, as well. There, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain has already led several successful campaigns to ensure better conditions for gig workers. 

In the US, gig workers still face several hurdles on the path to unionization — most notably, labor laws. In 2019, the National Labor Relations board released a memorandum that confirmed Uber drivers were to be considered independent contractors rather than employees. 

This had ripple effects for workers across the gig economy. Since they were recognized as independent contractors, gig workers were ineligible to organize under the National Labor Relations Act. 

However, new industry groups are continuing to form in order to provide a collective political voice to America’s gig workers. Gig Workers Rising is a collective of Uber and Lyft drivers who oppose California’s Proposition 22. The law, which passed a statewide vote in 2020, made app-based transportation companies exempt from another Assembly Bill 5 – a law mandating gig workers must be classified as employees rather than independent contractors. 

Despite the Prop 22 setback last year, Gig Workers Rising is continuing its efforts to organize Uber and Lyft drivers, along with their riders. Their aim is to continue to put pressure on lawmakers in order to grant gig drivers the same rights as employees, while also informing drivers of their rights as workers under the new law. 

There may be some hope on the horizon for gig workers around the world. In February of 2021, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers must be counted as workers rather than self-employed. As such, they are entitled to a variety of mandated employee benefits like minimum wages, paid leave and more. The ruling is expected to have knock on effects for Uber itself, as well as the wider gig economy.