Designing 21st century platform unions—part 1

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what parallels—if any—exist between platforms and unions, and whether there are lessons that can be learned from platform design, that could benefit worker organizers who are looking for new models. This is the first in a series of three planned posts on the topic. In referring to companies as platforms, I am specifically talking about internet-based businesses that provide some kind of a marketplace for different kinds of users (called here in shorthand “buyers” and “sellers”—though of course, on some platforms a user can be both a buyer and a seller) to meet and exchange something of value (money for goods or services, ideas, advice, etc.). In this series, company platforms can refer to sites like eBay or Craigslist, as well as Mechanical Turk, Uber or Etsy. This series should not be read as an endorsement of any of the company platforms or unions mentioned. For the analysis of platforms, I am indebted to the authors of _Platform Revolutions_, and to MIT’s Sloan School for their online course of the same name, as well as Simone Cicero’s work, including this recent article.

Unions and platforms—what overlaps?

One thing to keep in mind is that, at a pretty basic level, unions and platforms are both about disrupting power in an entrenched system. The point of a union is to decentralize power in a workplace, and to put more power in the hands of union members. The point of a platform is to decentralize power in an industry, and to put more power in the hands of users. Of course, both unions and platforms can be guilty of redistributing power in ways that are non-democratic, and sometimes power just gets moved to people who already, as a group, have status or influence in our society.

Let’s look at some of the qualities of a successful platform:

Discovers unused resources & puts them to work

Platforms that have achieved success have largely done so by tapping into markets for unused resources. Whether it’s Airbnb convincing people with an extra bedroom to rent it out occasionally, Etsy tapping into the desire for artists to sell their work to a national or global audience, or Josephine finding people who love to cook for others—successful platforms have figured out ways to sell things that largely weren’t sold **at scale** before.

Combines low cost of entry with a governance model that protects users.

The beauty of most platform businesses is that anyone with a device that connects to the internet can sign up for them, and there is not generally a high cost to staying on the platform. I might sell something on eBay only once a year—but my account stays active, without costing me anything. Because eBay employs a robust rating system, where both sellers and users rate each other, buyers can see that I’m an “honest” seller, even if I don’t sell frequently.

Uses network effects to grow (but needs rapid growth on both sides, early)

Platforms that grow best grow quickly. Uber isn’t worth much to me as a rider, if when I sign up there are too few drivers for me to ever get a ride. And it’s certainly not worth my time to drive for Uber if I have to wait for hours between ride requests, because not enough riders have joined. Uber and other successful ride-sharing companies have figured out that they need to concentrate on expansion of both sides of their user experience, and cannot merely open a new market with only riders signed up.

Immerses staff in data about users

Because platform business is by its nature conducted online, platform designers need to (and are able to) constantly immerse themselves in user data. Anecdotal information doesn’t cut it, when thousands of transactions are happening in an hour. And because it’s possible to “serve” different versions of a website to a segmented audience, it’s possible to run experiments on user engagement that track whether a new design will change the way users interact with the site.

Mono-homing versus multi-homing

The concept of mono-homing is one way that platform businesses seek to keep users on their platforms. Basically, mono-homing means “I have one home for this particular interaction or practice.’ It’s pretty easy to switch from one airline to another for different trips (ie–multi-homing)—so airlines have developed reward miles, to keep you ‘loyal’ to their particular airline (hence, mono-homing). Smart phone platforms have generally adopted this tactic—it’s hard to switch from an iOS device to an Android one, because you have to replace all your apps, and learn new methods of interacting with your phone. Other platform businesses have grown through multi-homing—there is no barrier to being a driver for both Instacart and Postmates, for example, or for customers to order food delivery through both GrubHub and Yelp Eats.

And some of the parallels, of a successful union:

Reduces information asymmetry between workers and bosses

An effective collective bargaining process has the great advantage of giving workers the same information that bosses have, about both the financial health of a company, and to some degree, the strategy the employer plans to employ to grow the business. Workers with more information have the advantage of being able to make better decisions—which might involve deciding to put more of their total compensation package into retirement savings, or to request skills training, to learn to use a new technology the company is implementing.

Has a high cost of entry, combined with a democratic governance model

For most US workers, the choice to join a union comes with peril. It can involve the risk of getting fired, or having to risk going without pay for some period of time to win a strike. In some parts of the country, bosses have successfully framed unions as a polarizing force, and potential members may face social pressure from friends or family if they join a union. And finally, the actual cost of dues (and sometimes, initiation fees) are much higher than in most other social movements. (The financial cost can, of course, be offset by gains made at the bargaining table.) Unions, at least in theory and often in practice, have a democratic governance model that allows for all dues-paying members to have a vote—usually outlined in bylaws that are ratified by members.

Uses network effects to grow value

There is a fairly clear relationship between the rate of union density in the US, and the level of income inequality: as union density has declined, inequality has increased. More union members in a particular industry in a particular market (say—hotel workers in Los Angeles) will inevitably push up wages in that industry, in that region, as they bargain better contracts. However, more union members will also cause anti-union employers to raise wages, as they seek to avoid unionization. In the best times in our history, unions have also leveraged their political power and social pressure to raise wages for millions of non-union workers through minimum wage legislative or ballot initiative campaigns.

Holds data as proprietary (sometimes even within organization)

Unions have not, historically, been great users of data either for member outreach or for making a public case for why they are necessary & socially useful organizations. While most unions are committed to meticulous upkeep of their seniority list, they do not tend to track as assiduously things like average wage rates, family size, number of member children who are able to successfully attend college, or other pieces of information that might be a boon to labor economists, academic researchers, or public policy makers. In addition, many unions hold tight their member contact lists (sometimes even restricting their own staff from being able to see them). The high cost of member acquisition forces unions into this defensive crouch—but the crouch itself can provide an additional barrier to fully serving members’ needs.

Mono-homing is the default

It’s difficult to belong to more than one union. Not impossible, of course—especially in the performing arts where recent years have seen the merger of SAG and AFTRA, acknowledging that many of their members were doing work in both film and TV. There is no institutional barrier in becoming a member of UNITE HERE as, say, a school cafeteria worker and a member of SEIU as a home health aide—but the high cost of dues may prohibit part-time low-paid workers from joining two unions, if the benefits largely accrue to full-time work in both cases.

What’s the market? (where the analogy fails, but we still have something to learn)

Unlike platforms, which mostly deal in single seller/single buyer transactions, unions are generally aggregating the selling power of a large group–in this case workers in one particular worksite or industry—to one particular buyer—the company for whom they work. That transaction is conducted through the collective bargaining agreement, and is enforced by a group of members (aka union stewards and officers) combined with paid staff (of both the union and the company).

However.

As the rate of US unionization has declined, employers have done more and more offloading of their employment to third parties. Many workers who seem identical to full-time employees on their face, are ineligible for traditional unionization because they are employed by temp agencies or other kinds of labor brokers.

For those of us who are interested in seeding new types of worker organization, or evolving some part of our current organization to be more platform-like, the next post in this series will look at how we can design them using best practices from platforms.

Is it time for a Universal Basic Income?

You could be forgiven for thinking that the US workforce is experiencing a kind of personality disorder these days. On one hand, low-paid workers in the service sector are fighting to get their employers to give them more hours, as software algorithms make it easier for employers to accomplish “just-in-time” scheduling. On-demand workers are in a constant hunt for their next gig, through apps like Uber, TaskRabbit, Wonolo or Instacart. These apps give workers instant access to temporary work, and take the friction out of billing (and collecting payment from) clients. Automation—whether it’s experienced through the app economy or scheduling software—gives employers the workforce flexibility they want—whether workers are happy with that flexibility or not.

On the other hand, workers with traditional full-time jobs are feeling like they never get to truly leave work behind at the end of the day. Workers with employers that write late-night emails, or saddle managers with the responsibility of working unpaid overtime (because they are technically exempt employees) are left to juggle their personal and work lives—and to feel like they’re constantly failing at both. Working parents and people who are caregivers for their own parents are especially crushed between the need to perform well even outside of “normal” work hours, and also to be attentive to kids or other family members.

For some, freelancing feels like a chance to have flexibility in scheduling, to be able to control your own destiny in ways that full-time employees can’t. Unfortunately, nearly all freelancers have to worry about losing income if they can’t work—whether it’s one day staying home with a sick kid, or for longer periods of time. But freelancers aren’t the only ones struggling in the 21st century to find ways of paying the rent. The actual unemployment rate hovered between 10 & 11% for most of last year, and the World Bank recently estimated that, in order to meet the global need for jobs for youths aged 15-29, we will need to create 600 million new jobs over the next ten years.

The on-demand economy is forcing a national conversation about how to restructure work in the 21st century. More of us are jumping from gig to gig (sometimes in the space of a single day) to get by, and most people under 30 have given up the dream of having a career within a single company—if they ever had it. Millennials have watched their parents and older coworkers struggle with work-life balance, and many have decided that “having it all” doesn’t necessarily have to include full-time work, all the time.

Recent events held by a number of think tanks, have featured policy makers, organizers, and technologists discussing whether it’s time to give serious consideration to creating a form of universal basic income. While the threat of technological unemployment is probably not imminent, there are serious concerns that change will happen in some industries faster than others. Many robotics experts predict that self-driving vehicles will transform the transportation industry over a period of 10-15 years, potentially affecting millions of professional drivers.

Natalie Foster, a fellow at the Institute of the Future and the co-founder of Peers.org (a web community of workers in the on-demand economy) supports universal basic income as a way of easing the transition to a more automated workforce. “Today’s fights are between Uber drivers and taxi drivers, but tomorrow’s fights are between humans and robots,” said Foster. “As more and more jobs become automated, it’s important that we’re prepared for that transition.”

Gerald Huff, a Silicon Valley software engineer who’s studied the issue of basic income thinks it’s inevitable that automation will lead to job loss. “In the auto industry, electric cars & self-driving cars are the most interesting thing happening today. It’s inevitable that we’ll have them eventually—and millions of jobs will be lost due to this evolving technology.” Huff sees machine language programming as “a general purpose technology, like electricity, that will spread at different rates throughout the economy” but ultimately, like electricity, will have widespread adoption in many different industries.

Foster points out that, “despite misconceptions, we actually have a version of income for all in Alaska with the Alaska Permanent Fund, which issues dividend checks to every Alaskan resident each year, based on the oil wealth that they co-own together. Could an American Permanent Fund be a way to create transition income for all, as we march toward technological unemployment?” In addition to Alaska’s Permanent Fund, forms of basic income have been experimented with by some Native American tribes disbursing casino income. The city of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, has also announced plans to experiment with giving payments without conditions to people that currently qualify for social security, as has the newly-elected government of Finland.

Both types of workers being affected by technology could have their lives eased by experiments with universal basic income. The fast food worker struggling to get by in a week that her employer only wants her to work 20 hours, would know for certain that she could pay the rent. The full-time worker, struggling with the demands of balancing a more-than-40-hour workweek with the need to pick her kids up from school and feed them dinner, might decide to voluntarily cut back on her work hours, knowing that her overall income would be unchanged. Basic income might also allow us to return to the days when large numbers of people were able to volunteer with community organizations, in schools, or with senior citizens. If we reduce the need for adults to spend the majority of their waking lives at work, it is certain that some of them will choose to give back to their communities in ways they just don’t have time to do, right now.

As individual workers choose to reduce hours, we will also probably see more job-sharing arrangements. Many employers may find that they have to compete for workers by significantly improving quality-of-life issues on the job, which could include allowing two people to share the duties of what is now one full-time. If we want to achieve the kind of opportunities for today’s youth that the World Bank estimates we need, one way to do that would be to grant everyone some form of basic income, and encourage employers to allow workers to share jobs in ways that let them maximize the knowledge and expertise of incumbent workers, while bringing on the next wave of workers in a part-time capacity.

It will take a big leap, rhetorically, for people to go from thinking “no one who works full-time should live in poverty” to “no one should live in poverty.” Particularly in the US, one’s livelihood is in no small part the key to one’s identity—and the idea that we might all be sliding toward a future with much less work fills some of us with as much dread as it does joy. But Huff believes we’re slowly approaching a future where “people will not make enough money to participate in the economy. Universal basic income is a form of helping capitalism help itself—so that we won’t just rely on human labor as the way we get money to spend.”

Dream Bigger to Do Better

In recent weeks, I’ve had dozens of conversations with people who are thinking about how to do new kinds of worker organizing, both within the traditional labor movement and outside of it. Overwhelmingly, organizers and policy experts express a need to find a “new narrative” that can compete with the “sexiness” of the tech industry’s gig economy.

It’s hard for us to contemplate a new narrative, because we’re so committed to fighting for our old one. After all, through the stalwart efforts of the Fight for 15, and the Our Wal-Mart campaigns, we’ve finally gotten a sitting United States president to say the words that we love to repeat, over and over again:

“No one should work full-time and live in poverty.”

We don’t think too much, though, about the message that framing sends to people who aren’t us. Take a step back, and hear that sentence (if you can) with fresh ears. How does it sound, if you’re a part-time worker? What if you’ve tried to get full-time hours and your boss won’t let you have them? What if you choose to work part-time because you split shifts of child-raising with your spouse because you can’t afford day care, even if you both work full-time? What if you’re a student who needs to work to help pay your way through college, or you’re in high school, and have a job to help your mom with expenses? What if you’re an undocumented worker, who has to stand on a corner and hope that someone picks you up for a shift of landscaping that day?

Do you deserve to live in poverty?

It kind of sounds like we think you do.

We wanted a 40-hour workweek back in the day because at that time, many workers had a 60-hour workweek. We weren’t organizing to increase people’s hours to 40—we were fighting to be able to spend more time at home. The fight for the 40-hour work week was able to engage hundreds of thousands of workers in a fight that lasted for generations because it promised them something much, much better than what they currently had.

What does our current fight for full-time hours make people think?

“Great, I can spend more time at work, a place I mostly don’t like. Yes, maybe I’ll be more able to pay my bills—but I’ll spend less time with the people I love.”

or

“I work full-time now, and I don’t live in poverty. This doesn’t fix my problem of overwork, and feeling like I’m missing out on the things I really enjoy. So I guess this movement isn’t for me.”

Obviously, people in our movement are not trying to make workers spend more time doing things they hate, and less time with people that they love—but it takes a couple of levels of analysis to understand that. A top-line message that needs a couple of levels of analysis to really land is not an effective top-line message. We don’t need polling to tell us that. We can see it, every day.

I think the question we really ought to be asking ourselves is, “why are we still fighting for the 40-hour workweek?”

While some of us in the movement are crazy and actually enjoy working more than 40 hours in a week, we ought to know by now that many people would prefer more flexibility, rather than being locked in to a 9-to-5, an 11-to-7, or any other formal schedule. In fact, a large part of the appeal of gig economy work is that it is something you can turn on and off with the click of a button. Only got an hour to drive today? No problem. Family emergency in the middle of a planned ‘shift’ of delivering packages? Just deliver what you’ve got in your car, and shut down the app.

The underlying reason that we’re still fighting for a 40-hour-workweek, of course, is that in our current context, that’s the best way to fight for economic stability for workers.

But if what we actually want is economic and personal stability for all, why don’t we just say that? Why are we limiting our fight for economic stability only to those people who are capable of working 40 hours a week? We can dream bigger, and in doing so, we can build a movement to win our dream that includes many more people.

 

American federalism and the case for reevaluating labor’s priorities.

On March 8th, Wisconsin became the 25th state to legalize the open shop. The provision commonly referred to as “right-to-work” by the corporations and right-wing politicians who back it has very little to do with economic freedom and liberty for workers, and everything to do with the destruction of a movement that has given the American economy a tiny measure of democracy. Ever since the 2010 elections that swept Republicans to power across the country, the push to make America an open shop nation has been stronger than at any time since the policy’s genesis in the Jim Crow South. Nineteen state legislatures have seen right-to-work proposals during the 2015 session, a clip similar to the period between 2011-2014, and there is no reason to believe that the pace will be slowing down anytime soon.

In Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy, J. Eric Oliver notes that the people who are most likely to vote in local elections are those who own homes. This makes sense in a way; the homeowner is more directly affected by changes in their land values than those who rent, and are thus more likely to be in tune with the ways in which local government engages in land management. Oliver notes that as land management is the most important function that most local governments provide (since many communities contract their emergency services and utilities to county or regional authorities), it will be the concerns of the homeowner that dominate election issues at the local level.

But another thing that drives the disparity between homeowner turnout and renter turnout in local elections is the gap in outreach to the two groups of people. According to data the author pulled from the National Elections Studies in 2008, homeowners were reported to be 60 percent more likely to have been contacted by a political campaign than renters. Combine that with educational disparities (renters are twice as likely to not have a high school degree), and homeowners are engaged with at a rate at least double that of renters. While Oliver makes the case that low turnout in local elections should not be automatically seen as a delegitimizing force in our democracy, the fact that there are some who are being engaged in the political process and others who are not is something that is deeply troubling. This goes double when you consider that renters are three-and-a-half times more likely to earn under $15,000 a year (the rough estimate of the federal poverty line for a family of two) than homeowners. These stats underline a long-standing contention by political scientists and leftist organizers alike that American democracy is regressing in its responsiveness to working-class concerns.

But the question becomes: how do we change this for the better?

A disengagement from federal politics….

The labor movement has given generously to federal politicians, particularly the Democratic Party. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, well over 90 percent of all donations go to Democratic candidates. In addition to the money spent directly on campaigning, labor unions have spent nearly $428.6 million on lobbying members of Congress on their top issues. What does labor have to show for it? Not the Employee Free Choice Act, despite having the largest Congressional majority in over four decades. Not a public option for Obamacare. Not any kind of deal that will prevent the so-called “Cadillac plan tax” under Obamacare from hitting the health benefits that labor has won through negotiation and struggle. And all the money spent on ensuring that a Democrat remained in the White House did not keep the President from appointing judges and cabinet members who have worked against the working class throughout their careers.

If we could not get decent labor policy during a Democratic bonanza at the federal level, what are we honestly to expect when the party of Scott Walker controls Congress? Maybe we get another Democratic president, but Hillary Clinton ain’t exactly Norma Rae. It is clear that both parties have failed unions and the working class at the national level and that a reassessment of priorities for movement resources is required.

….and a rededication of resources to the local level.

Recent years have brought with them some very encouraging news for the working class in local politics and policymaking. In 2010, local labor unions in New Haven, Connecticut backed city council candidates and defeated candidates backed by the long-serving Mayor (and failed 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidate) John DeStefano. The year 2013 would be even better: in addition to the election of socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council, a slate of independent labor candidates stormed the city council elections in Lorain County, Ohio; in that election, nearly two dozen candidates defeated people backed by the long-dominant Democratic machine in the union-dense county.

But winning the election was not enough; these candidates had to produce once they were in office. And produce they have:

  1. While the Fight For 15 was a movement that predated Sawant’s ascension to the city council, her dogged determination on the issue pushed the council and mayor to an agreement that will bring in a $15 minimum wage for Seattle workers in the next few years
  2. The New Haven councillors crafted an agreement that allowed a charter school into the city, but mandated them to allow the unionization of its employees and the acceptance of disadvantaged children who were not already in one of their schools elsewhere

And in Lorain County, the councillors have simply given an ear to the working class that had not been there before, when the former mayor took it upon himself to break a picket line and do sanitation work for a day. That work can be just as valuable as a concrete policy outcome. Increasing the political efficacy of the working class is what spurs the development of social movements and efforts at an independent political voice in a landscape where common concerns can fall on deaf ears. The capital class knows this all too well, and has seemingly cleared the floor for the advancement of anti-worker policies.

I thought I read that the New Haven effort began as some sort of worker center?

You read correctly.

That is the last plank of this community engagement plan. It has nothing to do with labor unions, of course, as worker centers are barred from engaging in activities that could be seen as preparing workers to join a union. Doing so would bring them under the administrative clutches of the Landrum-Griffin Act, which has odious reporting requirements that often hamstring union organizing budgets. But they should be more than just a means of entry into traditional labor unions, anyway: they should independently act as a means of mobilizing the working class around issues of democracy and economic justice, as well as educating communities about the ways in which capitalism continues to fail them on a regular basis.

Local and state governments are often referred to as the “Laboratory of American Democracy”, and it is not hard to see why: the pilot projects that begin in a neighborhood, city, or county can become national policy under the right circumstances. The dismantling of our national welfare system did not begin with President Clinton in 1996; it began over a decade earlier with Gov. Tommy Thompson’s (R-WI) efforts to change the federal matching system for funding to a block grant system that would severely curb the flexibility of state governments in managing their welfare systems. After a reduction in welfare rolls (but, notably, not a reduction in relative poverty), the program was greenlighted for other governors who wanted to do the same. Eventually, it became federal statute with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which is the welfare reform bill that President Clinton signed into law. So it was with this thing that its proponents called “right-to-work” in Florida during the early 1940s. After its passage in a statewide referendum, the policy spread like wildfire across the South and the Great Plains, eventually finding federal backing in the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known to opponents and allies as Taft-Hartley.

With an increased focus on communities and local politics, the labor movement can begin to turn the tide against the right-wing onslaught of the last couple of years. Otherwise we are just waiting for the next catastrophe to take hold.

Whither the Works Council? A critique.

Labor is, God willing, at a turning point in this country. New campaigns have started to infuse fresh energy into a moribund and declining movement, and new models of collective action are being proposed in the course of these ongoing efforts. While the existing NLRB/NMB certification election-contractual bargaining system still functions on paper, in practice it has broken down. Employers do not hesitate when flouting the law while trying to head off a union vote going against them. Even when they lose, bosses are willing to sandbag their workers by refusing to even bother to negotiate, and striking has been gelded as a tactic through injunction and wrongly decided precedent about permanently replacing strikers. While corporate campaigns, which focus on pressuring shareholders and embarrassing companies into acting humanely, have met with some success they have not delivered the kind of widespread worker empowerment that the postwar period did. There’s absolutely no doubt that if workers are going to ultimately make their own destiny that a new model or approach is needed for unions. One that has been proposed, separately by the UAW and by Benjamin Sachs, is the implementation of works councils in the United States.

The works council model is one that is used across Europe, with the most prominent examples being in Germany, although works councils also exist in the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium. There, employees are elected to four-year terms on the works council, where they negotiate the terms of employment and workplace conditions with the employer. In Germany this is enabled through the Works Constitution Act, which was first passed through the Bundestag in 1952 and allows the formation of works councils in any private workplace of at least five people. While the employees who serve on the works council are not required to be in a union, over 77 percent of them are. As such, the works council functions as a strong facilitator of union power in German labor relations, especially in the large auto plants there.

(It should be noted that the works council system is different from a worker cooperative. The chief distinction is that workers in a cooperative have full control over the means of production, while a works council is, essentially, what we would consider to be a labor union bargaining unit in the United States.)

It is imagined in the United States as an unprecedented form of economic democracy. Our conception of a Board of Directors has very little to do with a company’s employees or their demands; rather it is an oligarchy of investors and corporate officers who run our nation’s business apparatus. So the thought of workers getting a say in the dealings of two of our nation’s largest industries, automotive and fast food, is one that is understandably exhilarating for those supportive of the labor movement.

There’s a couple of problems with implementing such a model in the US, though. Firstly, the National Labor Relations Act explicitly bans company unions in Section 8(a)(2). Sachs makes that clear in his piece, saying that implementing a works council model at McDonalds would require significant legal wrangling to avoid being proscribed by Section 8(a)(2), though far more optimistically than we would.

Another big concern is that the works council model could mollify working-class radicalism at a time where it is on the upswing. Few could have predicted that fast-food workers would be engaging in waves of walk-outs with the demand of a $15 an hour minimum wage. Combined with the recent demonstrations against state violence in major cities across the country and the connections between these two movements, working-class organizing might be in a stronger position now than in any other time since mass deindustrialization began in the 1970s.

Furthermore, story after story is raising awareness of how other countries have paid their fast-food workers a living wage and still managed to turn a profit. To turn all of this potential for a paradigm-shifting movement and steer it towards a highly formal and bureaucratic process before any real gains have been secured would seem to be an error. In fact, it could be argued that the bureaucratization of the labor movement is a key part of why it is in such dire straits in modern times. Why voluntarily repeat the errors that got us where we are today for a system that we are not even sure will work in the United States?

Finally, is winning a process that, from its beginning, privileges the interests of management at the same level as the interests of the workers really worth it? Given all of the effort, energy, and time that would get put into organizing works councils, is it a big enough win? Make no mistake, the purpose of works councils is for smooth functioning of commerce at a given employer by addressing the collective concerns of its workers. Whether the emphasis falls on the front half of that statement or the back half in an American implementation of works councils remains up in the air. At a time when labor is frequently discussing things in terms of labor-management partnerships and jointness, will workers’ interests be better served by a system where the union is not even an independent body but rather an organ inside the corporate structure?

Works councils have significant power in Europe and are able to redress major issues for the workers who participate in them. However, they gained this power in the shadow of the Cold War, at a time when capitalism had to show it gave a damn about Western workers lest they fall “victim” to Communism. That threat does not exist now. There is no indication that the works councils that are being proposed would be able to address the larger problems that the working class faces on a day-to-day basis. While alternatives to a dysfunctional NLRA-focused process should be considered, the notion of labor-management partnership can only function when labor has sufficient power to make everything stop.

We will only rebuild power through advancing the interests of the working class as a whole. Investing more in organizing, training, mobilization, and educating union workers about their rights is a part of this equation, but only by fundamentally aligning the labor movement with the communities it represents will we start to recover.

Interview with a roboticist

Part of my ongoing interest in writing about technology and work is inspired by the feeling that there really is a lot of cool stuff going on in the world–it’s not all just about my worry that we might find ourselves automated out of jobs, without a plan to replace income from work.

After the announcement of our twitter chat on #robotwork, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to talk to a roboticist–and of course, I said yes. I was hoping to have this interview posted before the chat, but due to a schedule mishap of my own making, that wasn’t possible. But I’m still very excited to have conducted our very first (email) interview with someone who’s working to make the world a better place, through robots.

Meet M. Bernadine Dias, Associate Research Professor in Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.

HtU: What was it that got you into this line of work?

Dias: I started in Physics because I was always interested in understanding how the world worked and using this knowledge to invent tools that serve humankind.  In university, I was introduced to Computer Science and was intrigued by the numerous ways in which computers can impact the world.  Robotics to me was the perfect marriage of Physics and Computer Science! So after University, and a double major in Physics and Computer Science, I went into grad school in Robotics.  However, I was born and raised in Sri Lanka, in a lower-middle-class family of six kids and one income, so people and community have always been very important to me. My undergraduate degree was also in the Liberal Arts.  So even though I double majored in Physics and Computer Science, I also minored in Women’s Studies, and took courses in Philosophy, Sculpture, Economics, and much more. So my vision was always to use technology to help preserve communities and their cultures while empowering each community to realize their vision of progress.  That is how and why I started my research group TechBridgeWorld after I completed my Ph.D. in robotics.

HtU: What is the “problem” that your work is trying to solve?

Dias: In general, my work aims to empower technologically under-served communities with technology tools that cater to their needs and help them to overcome their challenges and move towards their vision of progress.  I therefore primarily work with people in developing communities and people with disabilities.  So we build tools such as low-cost devices to help blind children to learn to write braille using the slate and stylus method which is used in the developing world. You can see an article I wrote for Footnote.

Other relevant articles you may find interesting are:

Information & Communication Technologies for Development

ICT4D2.0: The Next Phase of Applying ICT for International Development

HtU: What’s the coolest thing you’re working on right now?

Dias: That’s tough.  I work on a lot of cool things 🙂 I guess I’ll pick my newest project – which is titled assistive robots for blind travelers.  We are exploring how different types of robots can effectively interact with and assist blind people in the context of future urban travel. This is a new project funded by NSF so we don’t have a lot of results yet, but you can follow our work on our website.

HtU: Are there places—conferences, conventions, online spaces, etc.—where roboticists talk about the future of work & what role they/you play in creating it?

Dias: Yes – this is an integral topic that many roboticists discuss both formally and informally – mostly under the banner of the ethics of robotics.  Here are some resources:

Robot Ethics (MIT edition)

Robot Futures

Robot Ethics (IEEE edition)

Center for Law & Society–Robotics (Stanford)

Ethics & Emerging Sciences Group (CalPoly)

Ethics & Robotics (CMU)

HtU: What are some jobs that might be created in the future, using tech that you are working on now?

Dias: I think the technology we are collectively building will lead to a lot more (primarily “technician” and service category) jobs where the job will entail things like calibrating robots (you’ll already see some of this in the medical industry with the higher end technology being used for things like imaging and surgery), overseeing teams of robots (this could be in security, agriculture, construction, etc.), deciding the rules and regulations for technology and robots (law and philosophy), working with robots to accomplish complex tasks (surgeons are already doing this with complex surgeries), designing, fabricating, programming, servicing, marketing, and distributing robots, and much more 🙂

HtU: What are some of the ethical questions that are raised in your work, that civilians may not think about?

Dias: Some of the questions I wrestle with are how can we use technology to empower the disempowered? Or how can technology make society more inclusive? Or how can technology enable people with disabilities to lead more independent lives and increase their safety? Or what are the cultural implications of introducing a technology into a community and who should be a part of the decision of whether or not to introduce that technology and how can these decision makers be empowered to make informed choices?  We also think about the environmental consequences of the technology we build and the tradeoffs we have to make between environmental, societal, cultural, economical, and practical considerations.

HtU: What’s the one thing that you wish people who don’t work with automated technology knew about robots?

Dias: 🙂 Hmmm…It’s tough to pick one thing.  I guess I wish mostly that they knew real robots are not necessarily what you see in the movies (especially the blockbuster movies). We have been seeing more of a shift with the general public view of robots though.  We used to get visitors who always expected to see robots that looked like the Terminator. Now we get a wider variety of expectations and my son and his classmates assembled their first robot at the age of 2 with their daycare educators ((using a kit they bought from Amazon). These kids at the age of 3 now will tell you that robots come in many forms with wheels and legs and wings etc. We also had a blind teacher in a small school for blind childrern in India ask us for a robot that could help her carry her things around 🙂  So perceptions are certainly changing! Robots, just like any other technology or machine or fashion trend are really what we make of them.  So we just have to make sure we include all the relevant voices in the discussions of what we should do with robots and make the best informed and inclusive decisions we can so that humans can be safer, have more flexibility in work location, spend their time doing more interesting things, and accomplish previously impossible things using the technology we build. Roboticists always talk about robots that tackle the 3 D’s: Dull, Dirty, and Dangerous tasks.

Startups and domestic worker campaigns are shaking up the house cleaning business, but only one of them has backing from venture capital

It’s hard to imagine a lot of people saying “No” to a hot new tech startup fresh off a $38 million fundraising round from some of Silicon Valley’s top investors. But that’s the answer Homejoy, an “Uber for house-cleaning” app that has quickly expanded to major cities across the US, got when it reached out to two domestic worker organizations in San Francisco, hoping to recruit workers and craft some kind of pilot partnership. The two organizations are La Colectiva, a worker-run cleaning collective, and Caring Hands, a worker association affiliated with the Latina immigrant organization Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) that provides training and job placement for domestic workers. Their members were not willing to work for Homejoy’s rate of $13 per hour.

Homejoy and the domestic worker groups represent two very different types of the “disruptive” innovation that the San Francisco Bay Area seems to specialize in these days. Domestic worker organizing has defied major structural disadvantages –exclusion from the National Labor Relations Act, isolation in individual homes that prevents workplace organizing, and the fact that most domestic workers are immigrant women and many are undocumented – to mount campaigns like the multi-year fight for a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights that was signed into law in California last September. Their movement has played a key role in both energizing and transforming the labor movement, helping to push the AFL-CIO in the direction of representing all workers, not just those in unions.

Homejoy, and a similar startup Handybook, aim to shake up the domestic employer experience by replacing an older generation of cleaning service companies like Merry Maids. The two startups promise easy and reliable online booking of cleaners who have passed extensive screening processes. Homejoy focuses solely on cleaning, while Handybook provides workers who can handle a range of household tasks, including cleaning, repairs, plumbing, and electrical work. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle highlighted the fact that the apps can eliminate the “awkward” need to interact with the person cleaning your home. Handybook founder Oisin Hanrahan told the Chronicle: “People prefer to hit the chat box in the lower left hand corner of the site and ask someone who is in the position to influence a booking to put in a special request, rather than ask the person who will be doing the cleaning.”

That article led Salon’s Andrew Leonard to comment, “From a larger social perspective, the absolute last thing the world needs are apps that further isolate the ascendant upper classes from the people who occupy lower economic strata… This is how the arteries of class stratification harden beyond hope of repair. This is how real living human beings become little more than apps, themselves.” For the most part, I agree with Leonard that the attitude toward domestic workers expressed in the Chronicle’s article is classist and dehumanizing. But after interviewing several domestic workers, domestic worker organizers, and the founder of Handybook (Homejoy agreed to answer written questions but failed to respond once the questions were submitted), I came away with a slightly more complicated view of the home-cleaning startups, and what effect they might have on the hundreds of thousands of domestic workers in the United States.

Earlier this year, the California Domestic Workers Coalition launched a statewide campaign called Dignity in Action to promote education and implementation of the new state law advancing domestic worker rights. The coalition is comprised of seven member groups, including MUA and La Colectiva. They plan to train domestic workers to lead “Know Your Rights” workshops and hope to achieve a broad reach to workers beyond their memberships. Together, the member organizations count about 1500 members, but they estimate that there are about 250,000 domestic workers statewide.

The challenge of reaching domestic workers on a larger scale is a key concern for organizing efforts, and part of the reason the National Domestic Workers Alliance has hired Palak Shah to serve as its Social Innovations Director. Shah described her position: “The idea is for us to experiment with additional strategies, such as market-based strategies or public-private partnerships.” Such experiments are in order because, despite the successes that have already been achieved, domestic worker organizing is still only reaching a small fraction of domestic workers in this country.

By contrast, Handybook has achieved scale rapidly. Since its founding in mid-2012, Handybook has expanded to 13 cities. In a phone interview, founder Oisin Hanrahan told me that the majority of Handybook’s business is in housecleaning, and that more than 200,000 workers (Handybook calls them service providers) have applied to work through the start-up so far. Hanrahan says that the acceptance rate is less than 3%.

With so many applicants (Handybook’s service providers are considered independent contractors who are self-employed), Handybook uses a partially-automated, data-driven approach to select workers. Applicants complete online assessments like multiple choice questions on how they would tackle a specific cleaning job. They also go through extensive background checks, social security number matching, and a screening call. Since Handybook collects data on customer satisfaction, it’s able to work backwards to identify markers of workers who received particularly high feedback, and then seek the same attributes in new applicants. Hanrahan told me that one positive marker is whether a person dials in on time for the screening call – a data point that becomes part of a worker’s profile.

Such an approach couldn’t be farther from the organizing models of San Francisco’s domestic worker organizations. At Caring Hands, immigrant women receive training in skills like contract negotiation and ergonomic cleaning techniques. Caring Hands also matches workers to employers. Unlike Handybook or Homejoy, Caring Hands does not require background checks or social security number matching (many domestic workers are undocumented immigrants and both organizations are involved in campaigning for immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship). Instead, the organization vouches personally for each member. “We can advocate for workers and say we’ve known them for at least 6 months,” says organizer Dalia Yedidia. “We think the personal connection is more important.”

La Colectiva is a worker-run cleaning collective that was founded in 2001. Guillermina Castellanos, who co-founded the group, told me through a translator that she has worked as a domestic worker since she was 5 years old in Mexico, and since she was 15 years old in the United States. In addition to running the cleaning service, the members of La Colectiva “study the history of domestic work in the United States and on a global scale, discuss fair pay rates for different types of domestic work, and attend empowerment and self-esteem groups,” Castellanos says.

La Colectiva workers charge $70 for a 3-hour minimum job, and $15 for each additional hour. Employers receive $10 off the total bill if they provide non-toxic cleaning supplies. Caring Hands doesn’t prescribe rates, but when I spoke to MUA member and house cleaner Veronica Nieto, she told me that $20/hour is “a living wage that also recognizes that this is hard work.” Homejoy’s rates are lower because it only charges customers $20/hour for cleaning – passing $12-15 on to the worker and keeping the rest for itself. Handybook doesn’t have a fixed rate, but according to Hanrahan, service providers keep about 80% of what customers pay. He says house cleaners receive $17-22/hour.

When I spoke to Hanrahan, he was concerned about the “blowback” Handybook had received after the San Francisco Chronicle’s article. “We’re very conscious of our brand,” he said. “We don’t want to be perceived as someone building a platform for people to stop talking to each other.” Hanrahan said that he was aware of domestic worker organizing, but that Handybook was not involved. “Of course the values around respect and fair labor standards and avoiding exploitation make a lot of sense,” he said, and emphasized that many of Handybook’s workers are single mothers who appreciate the flexibility of the platform. “Our goal is to allow our service providers to earn as they want to earn.”

Daniele DeLeone, a 24-year old New Yorker who cleans homes through Handybook, agreed with Hanrahan that the app is a great way for her to find work that fits her schedule. DeLeone is a full-time student who lives with family and describes herself as “semi-independent.” After working in restaurants, she found Handybook through a Craigslist ad. “You’re able to choose what hours you work,” she says. “The pay is much better than what I would get hostessing.”

DeLeone’s top priority when she’s working in other people’s homes is “safety and security,” so she finds the Handybook system – where the company knows where she is at all times and she can communicate with them while on the job – very helpful. “I watch way too many Law & Orders to put myself at risk,” she says. She described one situation where a customer wanted her to go out on a ledge to clean windows. DeLeone said no, and was able to call Handybook, which backed her up. She also appreciates that customers have to pay ahead of time (with credit cards through the Handybook interface). In an industry where, according to Yedidia, wage theft is rampant, that’s a serious plus.

DeLeone was not aware of domestic worker organizing efforts, like Domestic Workers United which operates in New York City. When I described the efforts of the groups, DeLeone, who is planning to attend veterinary school after graduation, said, “I would imagine that’s more for people who are being abused or if it’s their livelihood forever.”

That is a major distinction and part of the reason why domestic workers like Nieto are as much concerned with dignity and respect for domestic workers as they are with legislation around working conditions. Prior to joining MUA, Nieto worked for a woman who had a team of about four others working for her. “She paid us $10 per house cleaned, no matter how long it took,” Nieto said. After 5 or 6 years working under those conditions, Nieto joined MUA where, she says, “I began realizing that what I’d been paid was not a real wage. I realized that I was part of thousands of domestic workers who have been underpaid.” Now Nieto has a very different attitude toward domestic work. “I deserve respect as a person doing work, just like any other work, like a doctor or an architect. My job is to clean.”

To Nieto, the most important aspect of her relationship with an employer is clear communication and respect, a stance that is echoed by Castellanos, who says “face to face interaction” is “necessary in fostering healthy communication and a good professional relationship.” Castellanos rejects the sense of “awkwardness” raised by the Chronicle article: “Domestic workers take care of the parts of employers’ lives that are most precious to them, be it their home or their family members. Employers also provide domestic workers with something that is also incredibly important to them: work. There should be no shame in this mutually beneficial arrangement, and through improved communication both the lives of the domestic workers and their employers can be transformed through mutual respect and recognition.”

Can these intensely personal values translate to a larger scale? Both Caring Hands and La Colectiva allow potential employers to get in touch through their websites, and Yedidia says, “We’ve seen a big jump in bookings through using online tools.” But how far the groups are willing to go in embracing technology is an open question. Kira Cummins, who provides staff support to La Colectiva, said of Homejoy, “Unless they change their working conditions, we’re not interested in working with them.”

Both Yedidia and Cummins were pleased to hear about Handybook’s higher wages, but Handybook hasn’t expressed any interest in collaboration. And with backing from venture capitalists, it’s unlikely that Handybook, Homejoy, or any for-profit company will ever consider changing societal attitudes toward domestic workers a central goal.

Palak Shah, the social innovations director, says of the start-up companies, “We’re open to partnering with the industry to the extent that they’re providing good jobs, not poverty jobs, and that the jobs foster dignity and respect and allow people to care for their families.”

Nieto is more skeptical. “In the little I know about these apps,” she says, “I worry that it might not work for the workers. Communication is key, and communication through a computer could be a challenge for us, especially because we need to be respected as people, not as robots.”