Worker protections? There’s no app for that

The tech-driven gig economy is running afoul of employee rights

June 11, 2015 2:00AM ET

Susie Cagle

One Florida man’s unemployment claim could help take down a unicorn.

In April, Darrin McGillis filed for unemployment benefits from Uber, claiming that he was unable to continue driving for the company after his vehicle was damaged. Uber is already facing a handful of lawsuits alleging that drivers should be classified, treated and paid as employees, but McGillis effectively jumped the line. With his claim approved by the state, he is effectively Uber’s first employee driver — and a forerunner of likely more legal trouble to come for the growing app-based service economy that relies on legions of underpaid and underprotected contract workers in order to boost their profits.

The companies of the gig economy, the on-demand economy, the 1099 economy — whatever you want to call it — have proved the most financially successful and most ethically and legally vexing of Silicon Valley’s recent startup surge. The apps may be new, but the contract work arrangement keeping these companies humming is hardly a unique or recent innovation. Hiring contractors to lower tax and legal liabilities has been a business strategy for decades. Taxi drivers were freelancers long before Uber disrupted personal vehicle travel, and they joined blue- and white-collar freelance workers across a variety of industries, from home health aides to truck drivers to engineers.

Potential class-action lawsuits like the ones pending against Lyft and Uber in California may chasten the fast-growing app-based service economy and raise awareness of worker misclassification. But the other millions of freelancers who bear the higher cost of independence with few if any of the protections that come from having a staff job will be as precarious as ever without reforms.


A Distributed Live Streaming Solution

The Goldilocks Paradox and the Challenge of Live Online Broadcasting
by Erik Schwartz on March 2, 2015

Online live video broadcasting is complicated and expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. A distributed solution can provide scalable online livestreaming that doesn’t cost more for each additional viewer.

Scaling-CostsEarlier today BitTorrent CEO, Eric Klinker spoke at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, talking about the live online video broadcasting protocol known as BitTorrent Live. Below we’ve embedded his presentation, but I want to reiterate a few of the main points that show how big the problem and opportunity around online live broadcasting are.

Consumers continue to evolve how they are consuming content. Trends continue to show a shift toward spending more time on phones, with 86% of that time in apps compared to the browser. In general, consumers want options, including watching time-shifted content, and other alternatives to traditional TV. (Nielsen)


Virtual Labor Organizing


All around us, online technology has disrupted business models and entire industries virtually overnight, dramatically changing the landscape for consumers and workers alike.
With just one click, you can summon a cab through Uber. At two clicks, Venmo allows you to instantly send cash to your kid away at college. At three clinks, Turbo Tax is preparing your returns, and at four clicks, you are on LegalZoom drafting your last will and testament. What if with five clicks, you and your coworkers could petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to schedule a union election?
Due to a little-known, but far-reaching change made by the NLRB last year, virtual labor organizing by employees is now sanctioned by law in many situations and could possibly be transformative in the workplace.
Many employees want more clout at work—to leverage better pay and benefits, but also nonmonetary things, such as more predictable work schedules, or a stronger voice in workplace safety or procedures. And it is a good bet that many would join a union, if signing up were easier for workers to do, and harder for employers to stop.
The problem today is that joining a union at work is decidedly last century—clunky, contentious, confusing—and companies such as Walmart and McDonald’s want to keep it that way.
But virtual labor organizing could change that.

Political Ideology, Social Media, and Labor Unions:

Political Ideology, Social Media, and Labor Unions:
Using the Internet to Reach the Powerful, Not Mobilize the Powerless
jenInstitute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, France
How does ideology shape digital activism? The implication of existing scholarship is that ideology is less relevant in the digital era or that radical groups have the advantage and thus will have higher levels of digital engagement. By conceptualizing organizing ideology as an articulation of ideas, practices, and organizations, this study harnesses qualitative research to understand the ideological mechanisms of differential social media use between two labor unions. Going deeper than a simple left or right political
orientation, this study demonstrates that ideological differences in political strategies shape digital activism. A top-down reformist union had much more of an active Internet presence. It practiced representative democracy and embraced the Internet primarily as a conduit to those in power. A radical union was bottom-up and participatory, yet had low levels of digital engagement. This union viewed the Internet as just one of many tools to organize the powerless rather than a way to reach the powerful.

Keywords: labor unions, political communication, ideology, digital activism, democracy,
social media, Internet

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