A Shit Job for One Is a Shit Job for All

Last week’s passage of a bill in the California state legislature ending the rampant misclassification of workers as independent contractors was a huge win. The bill was animated by the spirit of unions fighting for the entire working class — the exact principle that should animate all unions.

Rideshare drivers hold signs during a protest outside of Uber headquarters on August 27, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Last week, California legislators passed Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), expanding legal protections to more than a million workers, including gig workers like rideshare drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft, who had been misclassified as “independent contractors.” The misclassification scheme is popular in Silicon Valley as well as industries like trucking, construction, and even adult entertainment, because it shifts risks and operating costs onto workers while maintaining company control over the price, pace, and style of labor.

Worst of all, misclassified workers are legally barred from organizing unions. As part of a broader divide-and-conquer attack on worker organizing, companies have exploited misclassification to slash unions’ membership rolls and undermine wages, benefits, and protections for all workers.

Naturally, Uber, Lyft, and other companies fought tooth and nail to block AB 5. Instead of accepting defeat, they’re escalating their resistance by threatening to bring a ballot measure to undo the law in 2020 while promising lawsuits to delay its implementation.

While AB 5 ends the relegation of gig and other workers to a hyper-exploited underclass (assuming companies’ efforts to roll back the law fail), other inequalities between workers will continue to undermine workers’ organizing. These inequalities — including on the basis of race, gender, skill, and geography — not only hurt workers directly, but empower companies to pit workers against one another, because a divided working class allows for an unchecked ruling class.

That’s why it’s essential that organizers bring lessons from the AB 5 victory into all sectors while uniting unions and militant workers to fight for the whole working class.

The Solidarity Strategy

How was AB 5 won in California, despite the immense pressure of major companies and even public lobbying on their behalf from former Democratic senator Barbara Boxer?

It turns out that even in Silicon Valley’s home state, organized labor — with 15 percent union density in California compared with 10.5 percent nationally, and far less in Southern states — can still throw its political weight around to great effect. Outside the legislature, AB 5 was championed not only by militant but mostly unorganized gig workers, but also major unions, including the Teamsters and the building trades, in conjunction with their statewide umbrella group, the California Labor Federation.

While gig workers are not unionized, unions recognize the need to fight for those workers’ rights for two major reasons. First, newly reclassified employees of Uber, Lyft, port trucking “dispatchers,” and other companies can now be organized into unions like the Teamsters (who already represent truck drivers, among others), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) (who could organize food delivery workers at DoorDash or Postmates), and building trades unions (who can now organize formerly misclassified construction workers).

More profoundly, these unions have an interest in protecting and expanding the rights of all workers, union and nonunion alike. The old motto of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), “an injury to one is an injury to all,” isn’t just a statement of morals — it’s also workers’ best political strategy. California Labor Federation leader Art Pulaski invoked the spirit of the IWW in a statement celebrating AB 5: “The misclassification of workers creates a corrosive effect that ripples through our entire economy, undermining our laws to protect and support working people.”

Companies use the misclassification scam to pull workers out of the legal framework protecting workers and out of the unions helping enforce those protections. “Traditional employers” are then able to pit these hyper-exploited workers against union workers: those “independent contractors” are getting paid below minimum wage and working terrible hours, so either you can accept a worse contract now or expect your job to be misclassified into the gig economy sooner or later.

In cases where misclassification allows pay so low as to sustain businesses that wouldn’t survive paying at least minimum wages, companies are able to use the threat of layoffs to bully workers and legislators alike into protecting the status quo. Meanwhile, standards for workers fall across the board.

An Injury to All

This divide-and-conquer approach is how employers have beaten worker organization time and again, from erecting racial disparities in compensation and skill to threatening to relocate to China (and horribly mistreating and underpaying Chinese workers) if unions don’t accept lower wages and shattered benefits. There is some truth to companies’ threats: differentials in compensation allow companies paying less to charge customers less, and they put pressure on better-paying employers to cut their wages and benefits and increase demands on worker productivity.

Since the 1980s, unions’ approach to these attacks has been primarily defensive: concessions are made, further divisions are sown, and membership has plummeted to a third of its 1950s height. At their worst, unions like the politically conservative building trades have even encouraged these divisions while backing employers’ political efforts.

Unions are crucial institutions for defending workers, but they often revert to defending their own narrow interests in their sector or for their own dues-paying members, instead of fighting for the whole working class. Weakened unions are only able or willing to protect their dues base, which often means giving concessions to their members’ employers to give union companies a competitive advantage. The result is a race to the bottom for workers everywhere.

In fact, in July we learned that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was in secret talks with Uber and Lyft to help them kill AB 5. In return, SEIU would ostensibly receive neutrality in their own bid to win union representation rights for those workers, in a company-friendly scheme that would not reclassify drivers as employees.

Today in the United States, some unions oppose Medicare for All, which would help all workers and dramatically empower all unions once implemented. Why? Because in the immediate term, universal health care eliminates the relative advantage of union-negotiated health-care plans, which organized labor relies on in part to sell union membership. (Also, given the precarious position so many union members are already in, with their members’ health-care plans under attack, defending the status quo feels safer than striking out into the great unknown of Medicare for All.)

This nearsighted strategy is ultimately self-defeating: by only protecting what little we’ve won from the boss so far, we narrow the constituency of our movement and demobilize the organized sections of the working class.

Some building trades unions have voiced strong opposition to the Green New Deal on grounds it would hurt the companies that pay their members. In California, some of the same union leaders that helped win AB 5 protested against the Green New Deal this summer. Meanwhile, workers in every industry across the world face an existential threat from climate change caused by those same companies.

The reality is that it’s rational for workers to fear that risky workplace action and radical politics will cost them. With the union movement weak and on the defensive, many workers are not convinced that it’s possible to fight back and reverse the losses of the last forty years.

The AB 5 fight shows the better angels of organized labor, including among unions like the Teamsters and the building trades that are not generally known for their progressive and inclusive vision. If we want to see this sort of ambitious and progressive unionism become the norm, we will have to fight for it.

Kicking Ass for the Working Class

How can unions and the Left consolidate and build upon the gains of AB 5 in California and beyond? One answer is clear after these last two historic years: strikes.

Nearly half a million workers went on strike last year, including hundreds of thousands of teachers fighting not just for their own jobs but for the education and well-being of their working-class students. Teachers in West Virginia and Arizona violated state laws against public-sector strikes. This sort of militancy has more often than not come from militant rank-and-file currents within the labor movement, leading some socialists to argue for a rank-and-file strategy for revitalizing and democratizing unions from below. Democratic, militant unions have the confidence and power to fight for the whole working class.

We saw this in rank-and-file-driven strikes across the country. In West Virginia, teachers fought against the union bureaucracies’ internal divisions to include all school workers in their strike. In Los Angeles, teachers won huge gains for students, including smaller class sizes and an end to racially discriminatory “random searches.” The reformer-led Massachusetts teachers union, after hard-fought victories against billionaire-backed privatization campaigns, called for a national teachers’ strike to demand a Green New Deal.

Now it is the task of the Left and progressive labor leaders to follow these teachers’ lead and put forward a compelling plan for militant, solidaristic resistance that can win workers away from the conservatism of shell-shocked union bureaucracies and to a radical vision of a working class united in struggle.

But there will always be intense structural pressures working against radicalism in unions as long as capitalism demands that companies’ — and therefore unions’ — survival depends on competitive profitability. As Barry Eidlin argues, labor-based political parties in Europe, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere have created a national basis for a sense of working-class solidarity beyond the confines of individual workplaces and unions. These workers’ parties have articulated the common political interests of all workers as a class.

Without having ever established a major independent labor party, the US working class has been unable to unite unions and workers of all kinds into a cohesive and powerful movement fighting for the interests of all workers. As a result, US unions are considered merely one petty “special interest” among many.

One horrendous example of the price US workers have paid for not having a labor-based party is that, while the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s mobilized millions of working-class people of all races in a fight for social and economic justice, conservative union leaders failed to seriously back the movement — and in some cases actually opposed it. The damage that this division between the labor and civil rights movements has caused since cannot be overstated.

Meanwhile, as Eidlin argues, in Canada, a labor-based political party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), helped to integrate the new social movements of the 1960s and ’70s with the labor movement, revitalizing the latter while investing the former with massive social power. The party has turned rightward in recent years, like many workers’ parties around the world. But even so, the presence of such a party has kept alive in Canada what Eidlin calls the “class idea” and the organization of Canadian politics around the struggle between the working class and the employer class. One result: the successful generations-long fight, led by the NDP and its predecessor the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), for universal, single-payer health care.

A mass working-class political party could help to unite workers across sector, geography, and identity, even as capitalists devise new and creative ways to undermine workers’ solidarity and displace operations around the world. Over the long run, American workers will need their own political party to represent their interests and reinstall class struggle at the center of US politics. As the slogan of the 1990s American Labor Party went, “The bosses have two parties. We need one of our own.”

It will take years to build a national independent labor-based party. But unions and progressive workers can fight now to build the movement around Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. In addition to his most well-known plans for Medicare for All and tuition-free college, Sanders’s proposed Workplace Democracy Plan will not only establish the rights of AB 5 in federal law, but, through sectoral bargaining, a $15 hourly minimum wage, universal “just cause” for termination, and repealing Taft-Hartley and “right to work” laws, will help undo the laws that allow employers to divide and conquer workers.

And Sanders’s proposed Green New Deal would create 20 million union jobs to construct a new, clean-energy economy. This would effectively end unemployment in the United States, taking away the threat of jobless destitution that employers use to scare workers from organizing.

Not only is Sanders’s the most radical and ambitious platform of a major presidential candidate in memory, but his campaign is helping to build an independent current of working-class resistance and organization in the United States. His lists are used to turn out supporters to local picket lines. He condemns the leaders of both major parties for being beholden to the obscene wealth and power of what he regularly calls an “oligarchy.” In the wake of his 2016 campaign, Democratic Socialists of America has grown tenfold into an organization able to run an independent campaign to support Sanders’s run in nearly every state. True to his campaign slogan — “Not Me, Us” — Bernie Sanders is inspiring a new generation of disaffected workers of all races to have confidence in their own ability to organize and fight back. And this is exactly the confidence the working-class needs if it is going to overcome the divisions capitalism sows among our ranks.

The AB 5 win shows that unions can forcefully assert the interests of all workers in a political system that is, most of the time, preoccupied with protecting employers’ profits and pitting workers against one another. Unions in California fought for nonunion gig workers to build a stronger working class. We can extend that spirit of solidarity much further.