Robots vs. Apps: What’s an Organizer To Do?

Aside

When I started writing this blog, around this time last year, I wanted to get more folks in the economic justice community thinking about technology, and the ways it is changing work. Historically, the labor movement has been painted as a foe of technological change, and I didn’t (and still don’t) think that’s an accurate picture. But I also get that the rapid pace of technological change makes all but the most tech-savvy nervous, at times. And those times seem to be increasing.

In the intervening year, it feels to me as if this topic has gotten a lot more coverage in the mainstream, particularly when it comes to the apps of the sharing economy. There was a little worry, a year ago, about Uber and what it might do to the taxi industry–but there hadn’t been, yet, local government taking action against the company (or Lyft, or any of the other big ride-sharing apps). There was some concern about what AirBnB might mean for hotels, but there hadn’t yet been regulatory action pushing them to pay taxes, or to protect their users. It feels, now, like we are starting to have more of a conversation about the gig economy and what it means for workers today–and I’m happy to have played some very small role in that conversation.

But I’m also worried that we haven’t started yet having the bigger conversation, which to my mind is not about apps, but robots. I’m going to use the term “robot” here pretty broadly–basically meaning any mechanization of work that was formerly done by humans.

If you haven’t yet watched this video that was linked in this week’s newsletter, go do it.

Our movement can be great at reacting–and it’s easy to feel, in the light of so many challenges that face us RIGHT NOW that we don’t have bandwidth to think about what might happen in ten, fifteen or twenty years. But if we don’t, who will be worrying about the impact of widespread job displacement on workers of all kinds?

Next month, as my own celebration of the US’s Labor Day, I’m hosting a tweet chat about robots and work. Please join me–8 pm Eastern, Monday 9/2/14. #robotwork will be the hashtag.

Can basic income develop a passion for washing the dishes?

Original Content

This week’s challenge–Robots vs. Apps: What’s an Organizer To Do?

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

Would a universal basic income give you a passion for washing the dishes? One German startup founder wants to find out. I’m willing to let him experiment on my teen and tween.

The story about building a cooperative economy in Jackson, MS is consistently uplifting to me. Here’s more, on how they’re transforming the poorest state in the US.

Sustainable communities that locate intentionally near one another have more support, if something goes wrong in one.

Reputation, reputation, reputation

You say you haven’t seen enough farmers talking about data privacy & protection? You wanna see a guy wearing a tractor hat talk about bleeding edge technology? Done. Apologies—the video gets a little choppy.

Organizing Theory

Voting technology seems like some of the least sexy technology there is. And yet, people strive to make it better, though open source.

In a week where national journalists have been detained by police for covering the increasing militarization of Ferguson, MO—it’s not just every activist who should read the EFF’s updated cell phone guide. Every American should read it. Because you never know when you’ll be caught up in history.

From Partners

Last week, the Steelworkers passed a resolution at their convention promoting worker-owned co-ops. On a related note, USW’s Rob Witherell launched a new blog promoting worker ownership.

Geeking Out

Civic tech sometimes gets a bad rap (reporting potholes? is this the best we can do?), but these five projects are designed to use tech to solve real problems for low-income communities.

Oh, so your government is making you participate in mandatory job search in order to get benefits? Why not hack together a Google Chrome extension that automatically searches for and applies for jobs for you?

What’s Going on in the Workforce?

The Pew Research Center has been asking industry leaders what they think will happen with the future of jobs. Here’s their report (this may be the first white paper I’ve ever seen with suggested tweets embedded in the text).

Workers at a non-union grocery store in MA walked off the job, to protest a shift to a more shareholder-priviligeing form of management. PBS seems perplexed.

Headed to an Aloft hotel near you—the robot butler.

Sure. In the face of job-killing robots, just become a robot investor in order to ensure your economic survival. Sounds easy enough.

Final Thoughts

“even if Baxter is slow, his hourly cost is pennies’ worth of electricity, while his meat-based competition costs minimum wage. A tenth of the speed is still cost-effective, when it’s a hundredth the price.”

I guess I can retire this blog now.

“To have democracy in our society, we must have democracy in our economy.”

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

“To have democracy in our society, we must have democracy in our economy.” Why union coops are spreading in the EU and the US.

Here’s an innovative idea for dealing with exorbitant student debt: the Salish Sea Cooperative is refinancing high interest student loans and returning the savings to their members.

It’s not okay to “share” the parking rights to a public parking space—but this new British service wants to help you rent out your driveway.

London is running out of room…so it’s developing waterfront—and water-based—housing options.

Organizing Theory

Micah Sifry on what has—and hasn’t—changed in politics, after a decade of online organizing.

Do you have a website that’s optimized for search? If you want to keep it that way, you’re going to want to transition for HTTPS, as Google announces that they’re changing (slowly) their search algorithms.

Justin Ruben (formerly of MoveOn) has been thinking about how progressive organizations can learn to scale up, from 12-step movements.

Geeking Out

If the robots are coming, how many of us will they accidentally kill, before they reach perfection?

Do you wish you understood more about how computers work within networks? Quinn Norton’s got you covered.

What’s Going on in the Workforce?

Yeah, wearable computers that let your boss know when you need a break. That couldn’t possibly go wrong, could it? And while we’re on the topic of tech that many of us would be uncomfortable with, at work—I introduce you to Moodhacker.

No longer just a fancy costume for a Matt Damon movie…Japan tests robotic exoskeleton for shipyard workers.

Final Thoughts

“Levying additional taxes involves a simple principle: go where the money is. Since money has been increasingly going to the top, that’s where additional tax revenues have to come from. It’s really that simple. It used to be said that the top didn’t have enough money to fill the hole in the deficit; but that’s becoming less and less true. With those in the top 1 percent getting more than 20 percent of the nation’s income, an incremental 10 percent tax on their income (without loopholes) would generate revenues equal to some 2 percent of the nation’s GDP.”

Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality 

“It’s not terribly uplifting to think that the future of labor is delivering stuff to rich people.”

What’s Going on in the Workforce?

“It’s not terribly uplifting to think that the future of labor is delivering stuff to rich people.” On the “new” kinds of workers, in our new economy.

Read the public testimony of four co-op owner/workers who testified before New York City Council, and eventually helped to win an historic $1.2M investment in co-op development.

1,000 units of robot bartender that let you order a drink from across the room, or put a tiki bar in your restaurant, now on order. 

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

If your gig in the gig economy involves international travel, it could also involve free housing with this new service.

Guerrilla gardening is one way to build a more sustainable world—even in Guantanamo.

Reputation, reputation, reputation

In France, you can be sued for posting a bad review that damages a business online. In the UK, the business might go under, instead.

A fascinating infographic about what Americans believe whether social media networks can be trusted with their private information.

Organizing Theory

Online voter reg tool TurboVote has just partnered with 27 colleges & universities in Florida, to increase civic engagement among young, particularly first-time, voters.

Final Thoughts

“The language of money is a powerful tool, and it is also a tool of power. Incomprehension is a form of consent. If we allow ourselves not to understand this language, we are signing off on the way the world works today—in particular, we are signing off on the prospect of an ever-widening gap between the rich and everyone else, a world in which everything about your life is determined by the accident of who your parents are. Those of us who are interested in stopping that from happening need to learn how to measure the Nile for ourselves.”

“Money Talks,” John Lancaster, New Yorker August 4, 2014

“…a capacity for greed that would make Gordon Gecko blush…”

Original Content

I recently talked to Michelle Miller & Jess Kutch from coworker.org about their efforts to create an online organizing and leadership development tool for workers. Watch the video here.

What’s Going on in the Workforce?

“…a capacity for greed that would make Gordon Gecko blush…” How much do you know about the history of tipping? Not enough, I’m guessing.

Sarah Jaffe takes a look at how TaskRabbit’s new algorithm for matching “Taskers” with folks looking for gigs on the site is remarkably akin to good old fashioned piece work.

The rules for creating worker-owned co-ops are different in every US state. Shareable has a great post about how to find out what the laws are in yours.

Curious to know if you might fit into the corporate culture of a company? There’s an app for that. Good.co measures your culture-fit potential through quizzes.

“…machines don’t replace humans under conditions of prosperity for all humans—they do so under capitalist market conditions in which machines are chose because they are cheaper and more docile than humans: they don’t object, talk back, organize, strike, slack.” Zeynep Tufecki is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers about robots and work.

Organizing Theory

Thinking about using social media to target a company’s brand? Read these lessons from Ultraviolet & Greenpeace, on what’s worked for them. Here’s another good example of social media making change in the food industry. “Companies are now trying to ensure that their products are not the next pink slime…”

If you’re planning on launching a digital tool to increase transparency, read this guide to the fundamentals…

The cell-phone unlocking bill that passed Congress last week was partially launched by an online petition. But organizers didn’t stop with digital activism, they focused on offline actions too.

From Partners

The folks at Little Sis are doing an amazing job of cataloguing the social relationships of people with power in the US. They’ve just unveiled a new tool, Oligrapher, that’s designed to help people make visual sense of those relationships.

Geeking Out

Emotional robots? But what if we like the emotionless kind? http://bit.ly/1suiqso Now pancake-flipping robots, on the other hand… And while we’re looking at robots—what could you do with an extra finger or two?

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

When co-ops go wrong… Carl Ratner, on the corrupting influence of corporate co-ops.

Climate change could cost us the equivalent, in productivity, of the entire labor force of Connecticut being wiped out.

Brazil’s Free Fare Movement has been pushing back against public transit fare hikes through a series of highly public actions and traffic shutdowns.

Is SeeClickFix transforming local politics in the US? Maybe, a little bit.

Are you ready to spend $8/month renting jeans?

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

The circular economy means companies who want to reduce waste will buy back old goods. I’m not sure I’m up to rent a pair of jeans for E6/month, though.

Cities are starting to figure out ways to use public policy to support cooperative and solidarity economies. Here are five US cities that are thinking creatively about it.

AirBnB CEO talks about how the sharing economy may be better at policing community standards than government regulations. Color me skeptical.

Reputation, reputation, reputation

Yeah, the fallout from that Facebook study isn’t going away anytime soon. Here, Senator Warner (D-VA) writes to the FTC asking them to investigate.

Organizing Theory

For those of us who have spent way too much time either running around group meetings with a microphone, or standing awkwardly onstage waiting for someone else to do that—CrowdMic seems like a great solution. Turn every smartphone in the audience into a wireless mic.

From Partners

When a campaign is in crisis mode, it can be hard for online campaigners to drill down metrics to campaign leaders. Here’s how Greenpeace shifted their internal campaign reporting strategy, during the fight to free the Arctic 30.

Geeking Out

The BRCK, a new router designed for getting online in places where internet connectivity is unreliable, had its launch in Nairobi last week.

Could a tax on financial transactions bail out the global economy? There’s only one way to find out, IMO.

Is the self-driving car closer than you think?

What’s Going on in the Workforce?

UK workers have the biggest gap in the EU between hours spent at work and hours agreed-on, contractually. (In the US, of course, we’ve only got two options—work too much or too little.)

The Venezualans are about to let women who worked as stay-at-home mothers claim a pension, in a startling advance in gender equity.

Here’s a good look at what it’s like to try to earn $6/hour as a Mechanical Turk. Not too easy.

Elevating the use of Apple’s iBeacon to new levels of creepy time clock management is Punchclock.

Final Thoughts

I’m at Netroots Nation this week–so if you’re here, look me up! I’ve got stickers…

 

“It’s ‘just’ financial journalism…”

What’s Going on in the Workforce?

Wanna make sure your kids have jobs in the world of the future? Get them into robot design while they’re young.

Will everything eventually be free? And if so, how will we know who’s winning?

“The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people’s needs is just not true.” Google co-founders agree—there’s not going to be enough work for everyone in the future. They’re promoting part-time work (but at part-time pay?), and maybe we should stop doing “dumb things like destroy(ing) the environment…” VentureBeat looks at the economic recovery and its tendency to force full-time employees into part-time work.

“It’s ‘just’ financial journalism…” Did we learn nothing from the recession?

Organizing Theory

Greenpeace has some great lessons to share, for folks who are running an industry-wide campaign that targets multiple corporations—in this case, those in fast fashion.

Reputation, reputation, reputation

You probably heard about the revelation that Facebook has been experimenting on whether they can change your mood by showing you positive or negative posts. Here, Zeynep Tufekci examines how that level of data mining and manipulation can be used by political campaigns. Could Facebook swing an election?

Should you buy Twitter followers for yourself or your organization? Maybe.

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

How do we make sure that, as we build a new economy, it has a moral compass, and doesn’t just replicate the old way of doing business?

Sit on a park bench and charge your cell phone via the sun? Yes, please.

Final Thoughts

“Ignoring short-term distraction is what creates speed.”

Brett Scott, The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money

Is email the cockroach of the internet?

Organizing Theory

Is email the cockroach of the internet? If so, I’m infested. Nevertheless, email newsletters are still effective at reaching readers. 

Original Content

New post from Douglas Williams this week, explaining the backstory of the Harris v. Quinn decision, and some thoughts about what it might all mean.

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

Still wondering if a guaranteed basic income makes economic sense? One recent study from Mexico showed that if the government sent people cash instead of food—they mostly spent it on food. But the money went farther.

Ride-sharing in your personal car is one thing (in fact, it’s this thing)—but trying to “share” a parking space that is, in fact, owned by the public is not okay.

Geeking Out

Driving across Canada this summer? These artists hope you will pick up their hitchhiking robot, if you happen to run across it.

And speaking of artists—this woman has transformed herself into a corporation, so that she can retain & profit from sole control of her own data.

What’s Going on in the Workforce?

Anchorpeople beware. The android newscaster has been launched in Japan.

This heat map shows the percentage of low-wage workers that would benefit from a minimum wage increase, by congressional district.

Have you thought about transitioning your business (or the business that employs workers you represent) to a worker-owned co-op? Here’s a good step by step walk through of the process. Relatedly, Hilary Abell has a new paper out about moving worker coops to scale.

Last week, the Freelancer’s Union launched a national benefits platform to provide health care, dental, life insurance and more for freelancers in the US.

Recap of the Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn.

Case: Harris v. Quinn

Question being answered by decision: Are the First Amendment rights of public employees who do not wish to join a union violated when those workers have to pay a representation fee to their union?

Prior to the decision: In 1947, the Michigan Legislature passed, and Gov. Kim Sigler (R) signed, the Hutchison Act. This Act established the rules under which Michigan’s government employees at the state and municipal levels would be able to form labor unions and collectively bargain. It was designed to regularize labor-management relations in the public sector and locate workers’ rights under one statute, rather than having a patchwork of state laws governing the workplace. But the law was also quite harsh in its treatment of public employees engaging in collective action: Any employee that engaged in strike action was to be terminated from their employment forthwith. The Michigan Legislature would eventually return to the table and drastically alter Hutchison with Public Act 379, which would become known as the Public Employment Relations Act (PERA). This new law brought the Michigan statutes in line with the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and granted public employees the right to form unions. Amongst many other things, PERA created a mechanism by which workers could elect a particular union to represent them at the bargaining table and required that all public employees pay an agency fee to the union that represented them. Agency fees are important because the NLRA requires that a union represent all those who are in the bargaining unit equally, regardless of their membership status; mandating the paying of representation fees gets a union over the free-rider problem that plagues unions in so-called “right-to-work” states.

This fee was too much for some Detroit teachers, who felt that they were being forced to pay into an organization whose political goals they disagreed with. Detroit educator D. Louis Abood filed a lawsuit against the Detroit Board of Education in 1969, two years after the Detroit Federation of Teachers became the bargaining agent for the city’s K-12 teachers. While the case wound its way towards the U.S. Supreme Court, the Michigan Supreme Court found in another case that state law prohibited the agency shop; this discrepancy was resolved through a 1973 statute legalizing the agency fee. When Abood hit the state’s highest court again, they found the 1973 statute constitutional with the caveat that the fees had to go towards non-political activities. The U.S. Supreme Court would find no differently in May 1977, rejecting the plaintiffs’ arguments that collective bargaining was “inherently political” and that the Hanson and Street decisions which prior courts had relied on for their rulings were limited to the private sector only.

Abood provided a way for public sector unions to virtually eliminate their free-rider problem, provided they did not operate in a state with “right-to-work” laws.

The lead-up to today’s decision: The Illinois General Assembly passed a bill in 2003 that designated home care workers as state employees with the purpose of allowing them the right to collectively bargain with the state. After Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) signed the legislation, a majority of workers voted to affiliate with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), making them the workers’ bargaining representative. Patricia Harris and seven other home care workers filed suit against the state of Illinois, arguing essentially the same case that D. Louis Abood had argued nearly 40 years ago: that joining the union was an infringement on their First Amendment rights. Judging from the oral arguments and the justices’ reactions to them, as well as the decision in Knox v. SEIU that declared the protections laid out in Abood to be “an anomaly”, most seemed to be expecting that the Court would find for the plaintiffs. This became even less shocking when Justice Samuel Alito, who authored Knox, was revealed to have also written Harris. We were largely waiting on the scope of the ruling, and whether it would end the precedent set forth in Abood.

Decision: The 5-4 decision in favor of the appellants did not overturn Abood, but it essentially limited the precedent to full-time public employees. As Benjamin Sachs points out in a great roundup of his own over at On Labor, the language of the decision spoke loud and clear: Alito wanted to completely overturn Abood. He devotes all of Part II, Section D (pgs. 17-20) to pointing out the reasons why Abood should not be allowed to stand: the 1977 court misunderstood the rulings, the differences between public and private sector employees should have been given more weight, the line between representation costs and political activity is blurred in public sector unionism, and that exclusive representation does not depend on classification as an agency shop. My guess is that Justice Antonin Scalia, who recognized the free rider problem faced by labor unions in his partial affirmation in Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association, did not see a need to strike down Abood for these reasons. In any case, the framing of the decision practically begs for a full challenge to Abood from organizations like the National Right to Work Committee, representing someone who would be considered a “full-fledged” public employee. Justice Alito also argues that because Illinois law dramatically limits the role of the state in dealings between a patient and their home care worker, the Abood precedent did not apply here.

Implications: This deals a big blow to those unions who organize in the home care industry, as the decision essentially makes the industry “right-to-work”. As Prof. Sachs points out, the unions will find a way to get around this; I agree with that sentiment, having written about the struggles of building unions in right-to-work states previously. It also has a gendered component as well, as Sarah Jaffe points out in her piece for In These Times. The only home care workers I have ever known, not just in my personal life but also in my very brief time organizing for the Missouri Home Care Union, were Black women. And as Roland Zullo points out in his 2012 article for Labor Studies Journal, this particular group of employees is the most likely to enter unionized employment from either unemployment or non-union employment. For a Supreme Court that seems willing to reverse the few labor rights that workers have in their corner, it is obvious that they would seek to halt the drive to organize a large group of underpaid care workers. Others have noted that this increases the importance of voting for a Democrat in the next presidential election but, considering the union-busters in President Obama’s cabinet and some of his nominees for the lower courts, to say nothing of the likely Republican filibuster of any decent nominee that would switch the Court’s composition, that seems like a bit of a stretch. The best line of defense against a ruling like this will come from the organizers and field representatives on the ground, engaging in quality service of their membership and negotiating contracts that will bring workers into the fold.

Kagan’s dissent: In a dissent joined by Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Breyer, Justice Elena Kagan laid out the case for why Abood is sufficient for a finding in favor of the state of Illinois. She points out that while the person receiving care sets the terms of employment in that particular context, the state sets parameters for the industry’s operation as a whole. That gives the state more than the small interest that Alito’s decision limits it to, and undermines a key argument for said decision. Kagan also gets into an area that Alito’s decision misses, presumably because it is close to the bottom of his priority list: The working conditions experienced by those who provide home care. In addition to feeding, clothing, bathing, and cleaning, sometimes they have to deal with the attitudes of those they serve; the home care worker that worked with my Uncle Junior after his stroke had to deal with his abuse as much as we did. Because of this, the industry is notorious for having high amounts of turnover, which can be destabilizing for patients at a time when a familiar face can make all the difference. Kagan also hit out at Alito’s notion that because workers are all paid the same according to state law, that there was no need for an agency agreement. This sounds ridiculous on its face and Kagan hammers him on it, pointing out the benefits that all workers have accrued because of the SEIU’s bargaining on their behalf. This is the important part, however, and signals what Alito is trying to accomplish with his opinion: “The idea that Abood applies only if a union can bargain with the State over every issue comes from nowhere and relates to nothing in that decision—and would revolutionize public labor law.”

Additional reading: Matthew Heron, Public Employment Law in Michigan and the Unfair Labor Practice Strike (2002).