Organizing Precariat Workers Presents Problems

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Unions worldwide face problems organizing workers due to “dismemberment of full-time employment” by firms from Silicon Valley and elsewhere creating the new “gig economy,” an anthropologist who recently finished a comprehensive book on it says.

Mary Gray brought that message and her book, Ghost Work, co-authored with a colleague from India, to the AFL-CIO’s “Ideas@Work” seminar on July 24. But – other than legislation in California empowering workers to organize and extending other rights – there are few solutions yet.

Grey and her colleague interviewed workers in the new economy of Silicon Valley in California and the Pacific Northwest, plus southern India, home now to dozens of call centers and other enterprises transferred from the U.S. The transfers occur because the firms can take advantage of low Indian wages and lax environmental laws.

But individual workers, such as Uber and Lyft drivers, also do much of the ghost work. They’re arbitrarily classified as “independent contractors” under U.S. labor law, and deprived of all rights. California’s AB5 reclassifies them as “employees” with the right to organize and other protections.

The problem unions face in organizing such ghost workers “is that our policies were built around assembly lines,” where organizers could find the workers to talk with, Gray explained.  The ghost workers aren’t on assembly lines. And nobody knows exactly how many of them there are, because reliable methods of counting them haven’t been developed.

The non-assembly line problem isn’t new, though. Even when Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act, “there were doctors, lawyers and other professionals” who were – and are – virtually still unorganized and unorganizable.

“But now there’s been this notable quiet shift to information services work” worldwide. That makes organizing problems even worse, as many workers toil one by one, out of their homes, when they feel like it and on their own, Gray explained. “Much of that work is done in supply chains” for larger firms.

Their employment is precarious, though. “Nobody has a sense of where their paycheck is coming from,” Gray noted.

“We have to redefine what it means to be a worker,” to organize ghost workers, Gray said. Unions also must appeal to those workers’ goals of working in order to live, not living around work. Ghost workers “are both competitors and collaborators” with each other in various job-related causes.

“Unions can be their identity keepers,” using issues such as paid family and medical leave, portable pensions and benefits, and campaigns against sexual exploitation on the job to bring the ghost workers in. The recent worldwide 1-day forced strike against Google over its toleration and acceptance of sexual harassment on the job is one example.  The workers also need widespread community backing for their causes.

“I’d much rather see a union…do that than a corporation,” Gray said.

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Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Steel for Wind Power

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities. 

Siemens Gamesa last month laid off 130 workers at its turbine blade manufacturing plant in Iowa, just months after GE Renewable Energy decided to close an Arkansas factory and eliminate 470 jobs.

The companies reported shrinking demand for their products, even though U.S. consumption of wind energy increases every year.

America’s prosperity depends not only on harnessing this crucial energy source but also ensuring that highly skilled U.S. workers build the components with the cleanest technology available.

Right now, the nation relies on imported steel and turbine components from foreign manufacturers like China while America’s own steel industry—well equipped for this production—struggles because of dumping and other unfair trade practices.

Steel makes up the bulk of turbine hubs and the wind towers themselves. It’s also used to make the cranes and platforms necessary for installing the towers.

Yet the potential boon to America’s steel industry is just one reason to ramp up domestic production of wind energy infrastructure.

American steel production ranks among the cleanest in the world, while China has the highest carbon emissions of any steelmaking nation and flouts environmental regulations.

The nation’s highly-skilled steelmaking workforce must play an essential role in the deeply-needed revitalization and modernization of the nation’s failing infrastructure. Producing the components for harnessing wind energy domestically and cleanly is an important step that will put Americans to work and position the United States to be world leaders in this growing industry.


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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work