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Trade unions, the internet, and surviving the gig economy

The internet provides new opportunities to strengthen collective action and improve new forms of work.

Labor Protests in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2016. A. Michael Simms/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

These are hard times for trade unions. Private sector union membership in the US is down to under 7% of workers. While private sector membership in the UK is higher, at 14%, the ability of UK unions to win disputes, outside of some key public services, is nevertheless on the wane. This is clearly demonstrated by the steel industry, once a mainstay of the labour movement but now a sector in which unions are forced to offer up concessions just keep their members in paid work.

It is from these weak foundations that unions face the growing winds of change currently ripping through the economy. New economic processes are becoming possible due to the astronomical growth of personal data. This data is produced as more and more of our everyday activities are facilitated by internet-based platforms and smartphone apps. We now live in an almost permanent state of connectivity. The so-called advent of ‘big data’, ‘surveillance capitalism’, ‘self-tracking technologies’, and the ‘quantification’ and ‘datafication’ of social life is helping to disrupt long-held business conventions and is enabling a new flexible temporality of capitalism to emerge.  

The wealth of data that now exists about our activities, interests and social groups helps enable ever more sophisticated modelling of demand. If employers can accurately predict demand, this naturally makes closely matching labour supply to it highly attractive. If it is possible to accurately predict those times when labour is needed to meet demand, then why pay for the ‘idle time’ in which someone is not producing profit? It is more lucrative to fragment and redefine working time so as to only pay labour costs for those activities which produce profit.

The future is not one in which A.I. is going to take your job, but it might be your manager!

No longer is working time understood as a standard, stable eight hours for five days a week but instead is flexible, 24/7, and everyday. Jobs are broken up into ‘gigs’, with self-employed workers being individually contracted to each specific task as employers need. Alternatively, workers may be contracted to a job on a zero hour basis, having their schedules flexibly adjusted in real time to match changing demand. In fact, in the UK in 2010, nearly a third of all workers had their schedules altered by their managers, often at short notice.

The search for ever greater flexibility can result in employment relationships which are highly contingent and may take non-standard forms. Workers might be employed on zero-hour, short-hour or other flexible contracts. Others may not even have a labour contract at all, and instead be classified as self-employed. Even workers with standard, full-time, permanent contracts can experience high levels of schedule insecurity or manager-controlled flexible scheduling due to their lack of power within this new temporal order.

Organising the flexible workforce

However, the temporal fragmentation of work exponentially increases the organisational complexity of workforce management. The connectivity provided by smartphones and other portable and wearable devices also provides a solution by enabling the algorithmic management of workers. This trend is most apparent when the algorithms of companies such as Uber, Deliveroo and Freelancer.com use rating systems to control and discipline labour and ensure the efficient matching of demand and supply.

Although central to the gig economy, algorithmic management is beginning to spread into conventional sectors such as retail. Workers not deemed productive enough according to the algorithm’s parameters find that work quickly dries up, and in some cases that they are even ‘deactivated’ (i.e. fired) from the platform. The future is not one in which A.I. is going to take your job, but it might be your manager!

Of course, this is not merely a story of technological transformation. The algorithmic fragmentation and control of labour is only possible because of the decline of collective regulation over the last 30 years. Nevertheless, the old rules of the game are being rewritten, and thus far unions have been slow in attempting to influence the new world of work currently taking shape. Unions are in their winter, many of their autumn leaves have fallen. Now they must focus on nurturing the budding new leaves of spring. For unions to blossom again, they must embrace the ever more connected world of the twenty-first century.

The algorithmic fragmentation and control of labour is only possible because of the decline of collective regulation over the last 30 years.

Some recent examples from the US illuminate how unions can do this by using the internet to organise in these difficult times. As they attempt to orientate themselves to these new data driven economic processes the internet offers a means for rebuilding solidarity among temporally fragmented workers.

In 2012 and 2013, the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union used social media groups to connect spatially and temporally fragmented Walmart workers. The collective identity and shared interests which these groups helped cultivate and sustain sparked powerful protests against Walmart’s low pay and harsh conditions. The networks which the union formed enabled the circumventing of the prevalent negative dispositions towards unions.

They also assisted workers in coming together to develop a shared sense of collective interests beyond the nominal shared identification of being a ‘Walmart Associate’ – i.e. not a worker or employee. By reducing the time-space barriers to participation, workers who would otherwise have been dispersed and isolated across dozens of workplaces in hundreds of cities could come together to share their common experiences of injustice.

The fact that social media networks are formally de-centred and lacking defined boundaries enables what sociologist Manual Castells refers to as ‘expansive networking’. Expansive networking allows for broad sets of interpersonal connections as anyone can link to the network. This means that a wide-ranging solidarity can be mobilised as other workers, community groups and unions connect to the network.

This creates a dynamic communication site in which work situations can be reframed and identities redefined. The expansive solidarity which the internet can facilitate has been key to the ability of UK Indy Unions to support gig and other low-wage workers in taking collective action in industries such as couriering and cleaning.

Re-opening space for collective action

The internet not only transforms the potential for worker organisation, it also facilitates new forms of collective action. In particular, information can now be shared with a potentially large number of people at low cost. This increases the ease with which it is possible to leverage symbolic power to raise public attention about poor terms and conditions, and damage the reputation of employers.

Reputational damage can cause economic harm to businesses by reducing the willingness of customers, clients and states to deal with them. It can even lead to government intervention that limits their commercial activities. The Walmart worker mobilisation resulted in both state increases in minimum wages and unilateral increases in wages by Walmart itself. In this case, reputational damage was successful because the union played the role of orchestrator, providing strategic oversight and sharing information across a participatory network. 

While increased use of the internet provides unions with opportunities for greater solidarity and new forms of action, it also brings new threats. For example, the reliance on the internet to spread reputational damage is not without risks. Research into the fast food workers’ movement in the US shows how reputational damage tends to require fast, short-term actions based on spectacle. Such actions privilege visibility and advocacy while neglecting the relationships necessary to sustain campaigns and organising drives over the long term. Therefore, to be effective, such tactics necessitate a strategy based upon building empowering and participatory organisations. Too often, when unions have tried to use the internet, it has entailed the continuation of traditional hierarchal models based on pushing communication down from the top and thus has been of limited success in rejuvenating solidarity.

Moreover, the internet is not a neutral space; its infrastructure is largely shaped by a corporate logic which is increasingly utilised for state surveillance. There is a long history of state complicity in the blacklisting of union activists. This makes workers particularly vulnerable to increasing levels of state surveillance; a trend which is not just a privacy issue but also places more general limits on our ability to undertake action aimed at achieving social justice.

Greater connectivity is transforming capitalism by fragmenting paid work and giving rise to a new, flexible temporal rhythm. As a consequence, unions must move to this new beat by making greater use of the internet to build new forms of solidarity based on participatory structures – while understanding the fresh risks that doing so poses. This means joining with other social movements to campaign on issues, such as platform cooperativism and data justice, which might seem alien to the raison-d'etre of unions but are essential if the internet is to be used to improve work in the twenty-first century.


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