"amazon warehouse" by hnnbz is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“amazon warehouse” by hnnbz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The labor movement needs to fight harder for justice for gig workers

Local Patch staff recently published a fine three-part series on major employers stiffing workers so badly on pay, benefits, and hours that they have to apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits from the government to be able to feed themselves and their families. Unsurprisingly, for anyone who follows labor issues, Amazon had the third-highest number of workers in Massachusetts receiving SNAP benefits (1,089) in 2019-2020 —even as the trillion-dollar corporation and its billionaire outgoing CEO Jeff Bezos broke profit records thanks in part to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Rep. Jim McGovern, to his credit, is looking into this ongoing crisis. And joining labor unions in agitating for the institution of a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (which would make it easier for workers to unionize), and the closing of tax loopholes that infamously allowed Amazon to pay $0 in federal taxes in 2018.

Yet what to do when Amazon already pays a base wage of $15 an hour? Here the current labor movement has little to say. Because most unions have long since dropped far too many legislative balls and failed to stop corporations from being able to fatten their bottom line by misclassifying workers as any of several types of contingent workers to avoid having to provide them better wages, benefits, working conditions, and hours. But also, and this is key in Amazon’s case, to make it virtually impossible for those workers to unionize.

And here a little personal history is in order. Because I used to be a staffer for (and eventually leader of) a nonprofit organization called the MA Campaign on Contingent Work from 1997 to 2005. One of our main tasks as advocates was to convince the labor movement that so-called bad jobs in the new economy were (as I used to say) “a dagger to the throat of the American labor movement.” That is, temp, part-time, day labor, independent contractors (like Uber and Lyft gig workers), and many other deceptively named types of jobs existed primarily to make it easier for employers to stop employees from organizing into collective organizations (including but not limited to unions) to demand redress on the job.

The more workers in lousy contingent gigs, the weaker unions would be. My mentor and CCW founder Tim Costello and I used to go from union to union around Massachusetts and the nation saying that the labor movement fails to deal with this problem at its peril. Because corporations have bought off the government at all levels and are pushing the country back toward 19th-century labor conditions—when most workers had no legal protection of any kind in the workplace.

Sadly, the labor movement didn’t really take the rise of bad jobs seriously enough by our lights.

One example of something that unions could have fought harder for was CCW’s landmark Workplace Equity Bill. It would have mandated three main things in Massachusetts that would have made it all but impossible for Amazon or any other corporation to push labor costs onto the public (e.g., by abusing government programs like SNAP to keep their contingent workers fed) that they should be paying themselves.

First, it would have required equal pay for part-time and other contingent workers doing the same work as full-time “permanent” employees regardless of employment status.

Second, it would have prevented discrimination in benefits against workers in part-time and other contingent jobs—including insurance and pensions—by requiring that they receive comparable benefits or compensation.

Third, it would have required the state to set standards for state service contractors employing workers in part-time and other contingent jobs. This last point was particularly interesting because the Commonwealth would have been able to mandate even better conditions for Mass workers at contractors like Amazon as a regulatory matter rather than having to pass further legislation.

Obviously, the passage of such a law would be an immediate game changer for workers at major companies (the bill exempted small businesses). Bosses would be forced to offer decent pay and benefits to all workers regardless of how they were classified. That would eliminate much poverty in the Bay State—and drastically reduce corporate reliance on welfare programs like SNAP—in one fell swoop. 

Most important of all, however, the law would have “regularized” the terms of employment for many of the currently misclassified workers at companies like Amazon. Making it much easier for them to unionize—as almost 6,000 Amazon workers in Alabama are about to try to do under far more adverse conditions

The question is why the labor movement at the state level did not fight hard for the bill over the several years CCW and friendly legislators filed it. And why unions at the national level never took up a similar federal bill. Settling instead for winning much narrower legislation later that did not even come close to ending the misuse of contingent workers. Let alone making it easier to organize them.

There are a number of answers to this question. Some of which are less than flattering to the labor leadership of two decades ago. But to be fair, I think the main problem was that unions felt they were too busy surviving as any kind of political and economic force in American workplaces to spend time and treasure trying to win something that would have been difficult to pass in the most labor-friendly periods of American history. Which the Clinton and Bush II eras when my colleagues and I were fielding this bill most certainly were not.

But much time has passed and the political situation has just improved for labor nationally with the ascension of the Biden administration. So now would be the perfect time for labor leaders to press their relative advantage and fight hard for legislation like the Workplace Equity Bill at both the state and national levels.

Without it, passing bills like the PRO Act won’t be enough to improve the fortunes of workers and unions alike. As long as corporations like Amazon (and Walmart and Dollar General, the current number one and two corporate SNAP abusers in Massachusetts) can misclassify workers at will, and the bulk of their workforces remain “permatemps” who can be replaced at any time for any reason—and often aren’t considered unionizable even by unions—then making it easier for the diminishing numbers of “regular” employees to unionize does little to help millions of gig workers at such companies. It’s worth mentioning that the PRO Act will at least improve the “test” the government uses to determine who is really an independent contractor. But it will not stop employers from reclassifying currently misclassified independent contractors as something else to continue to escape treating them as regular employees.

So it would be great to see the labor movement finally get ahead of this problem and put serious effort into passing a national version of the Workplace Equity Bill at speed. Because failing to do so likely means the end is nigh for many American unions. And that would be a disastrous outcome for working families from coast to coast—and for democracy—marking the beginning of a new feudal era with CEOs replacing royals as it would.

If any union leaders want to talk at more length about these matters, I would be more than happy to jump on a call anytime. I can be reached at execeditor@digboston.com.

Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. Contact pdp@binjonline.org for more information. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. He is also the former executive director of the MA Campaign on Contingent Work. Copyright 2021 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.