Big change for the "gig economy"?
September 5, 2017 7:37 PM   Subscribe

Today marks the trial of Lawson v Grubhub, whereupon the State of California will decide if food couriers and their ilk are henceforth defined as employees or contractors.
posted by Philipschall (88 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's something I have seen mentioned elsewhere, but I really do think that one of the things that led to troll/chan culture was the AOL decision. That was in many ways a similar situation, whereby people were doing work for a company in return for... well, peanuts.

As a forum moderator for several companies when this happened, this had huge implications. Many volunteer/slightly paid moderators were fired or had duties/rights curtailed and this led to various moderation schemes that never worked as well as active curation, like Metafilter. Moderation like that is expensive and time consuming - and that's how you get shitposters on any newspaper/youtube comment section.

I'm not super familiar with this case. Naively, I can't help by think that Grubhub, etc. will be forced to treat employees as employees, and in the way in which history echoes, I do wonder what the knock effects will be if that is what happens.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:46 PM on September 5, 2017 [11 favorites]


If all these gig businesses die because they have to compensate their employees with the bare minimum of fairness then that will be the best thing that has happened in employee rights in decades.
posted by Mitheral at 8:18 PM on September 5, 2017 [134 favorites]


Piece meal is shit.

But, I mean, how many leftist people use Uber or Lyft, and get glassy eyes when you recommend they support local taxi companies? Those without sin and all that.
posted by Yowser at 8:30 PM on September 5, 2017 [14 favorites]


Sorry cat's out of the bag, even if companies are forced to hire all their drivers some clever "entrepreneur" will find a new perhaps "open source" business model to take advantage of folks.
posted by sammyo at 8:31 PM on September 5, 2017


I... didn't know that Grubhub had their own drivers. I thought that delivery is handled by the restaurants. Is this city-dependent? (As in, I could have sworn restaurants in NYC did their own delivery. Then again, I do pass a delivery person in a high-vis vest that says "Grubhub" on the back with some regularity.)
posted by hoyland at 8:32 PM on September 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


> But, I mean, how many leftist people use Uber or Lyft, and get glassy eyes when you recommend they support local taxi companies? Those without sin and all that.

Were taxi drivers usually employees? In many cities, I thought they were often technically "renting" a cab and its medallion, plus paying for services like credit card processing, and would have to work enormous hours just to cover the rent on the vehicle.
posted by smelendez at 8:36 PM on September 5, 2017 [43 favorites]


Uber may be terrible, but taxis with their government approved monopoly and artificially constrained resources are not a good solution either.

We're 15 years away from this not being a problem at all because both will be replaced by self-driving cars on demand, so I feel a little like the fight over delivery jobs (and they should be employees not contractors fyi) is like trying to get a 40 hr work week at the horse-drawn carriage factory in 1900.
posted by thecjm at 8:40 PM on September 5, 2017 [16 favorites]


I am also confused. . .as far as I have experienced in multiple locations in the SF Bay Area, Grubhub is an online ordering service for restaurants whose employees deliver the food. Grubhub is just the interface the orders go through. I've never seen a delivery person in a Grubhub branded anything. What am I missing here?
posted by ananci at 8:41 PM on September 5, 2017 [4 favorites]


Uber may be terrible, but taxis with their government approved monopoly and artificially constrained resources are not a good solution either.

Isn't this exactly an example of the phenomenon Yowser is referencing?
posted by hoyland at 8:41 PM on September 5, 2017 [5 favorites]


I feel a little like the fight over delivery jobs (and they should be employees not contractors fyi) is like trying to get a 40 hr work week at the horse-drawn carriage factory in 1900.

So, to, summarize, the right fight, the one worth dying for?

In capitalism, this is always the right fight. It's always worth dying for.
posted by mwhybark at 8:45 PM on September 5, 2017 [19 favorites]


Isn't this exactly an example of the phenomenon Yowser is referencing?

I'd rather support my local taxi drivers without supported the syndicates that are the taxi medallion owners. Taxi companies aren't a friend of the working man. Both they and Uber might be exploiting their workers differently but they're both exploiting them.
posted by thecjm at 8:45 PM on September 5, 2017 [14 favorites]


Uber may be terrible, but

There's no "may be" about it. Uber is just a subsidized taxi service with an associated (data collecting) app run by a group of misogynist shitlords with no sense of morals or ethics.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:46 PM on September 5, 2017 [58 favorites]


Having worked a few gig economy jobs, this is nothing at all like volunteer, trade or paid moderation duties.

People are being treated like employees by employers under the incredibly thin veneer of being an independent contractor, even completely piercing that veil by doing things like requiring scheduled hours, wearing branded uniforms and much more.

For most of these gig economy "platforms" it's a very transparent end run around labor law.

Worse, a lot of these platforms/companies are almost all using varying levels of game theory and economic theory to really turn the screws on their workers.

My experiences with this with Postmates in particular were appallingly dystopian.

Not only were they making sure to heavily load up the contractor side of the platform with far too many riders/couriers so everyone was always fighting for whatever runs they could actually snag. And the app provided to the couriers itself was definitely up to shenanigans with how it doled out runs to riders, how it manipulated riders psychologically by hyping up surge/congestion peak prices that would rarely materialize to try to make sure enough people signed up for those blocks of hours (and therefore drive down congestion and surge charge multipliers) and other pretty transparent market/platform manipulations.

Smart riders that talked to and hung out with other riders quickly learned to not trust the app or human dispatch itself, that they'd be telling one rider one thing and another something completely different, even though we were sitting right next to each other. And there's no way they couldn't know that we were sitting right next to each other where other couriers hung out between runs, because' we're all geotagged to dispatch via the app and phone.

Oh, and last I checked Postmates is still advertising that riders can make up to 20-25 an hour. These results were definitely not even close to typical. That would mean about 4-5 continuously stacked runs per hour where everyone tipped 10-20% on the actual ticket recepit price, not just the delivery fee. And people very, very rarely tipped because they figured the delivery fee is the tip for both the food and the delivery.

And I've written about this before about Postmates, but it's basically stealing tips from restaurants and kitchen staff and then sometimes giving them to the courier, because there was no mechanism for the person ordering to specify a tip to the kitchen/staff, and there's no way and hell any Postmates courier is going to pay 10-20% out of pocket and hope they get it back on delivery.

I think the most I ever made per hour at Postmates is about 10. Once. That wasn't average, that was a peak and just because someone dropped a 20 on a tip on an easy run.

Not even accounting for wear and tear on my bike all told I think I made a certain number of negative dollars per hour counting simple calories burned and cost outlays for crap like cargo for my bike. The most runs I was ever able to catch, stack and negotiate at once was 2. I almost made 3 but it was something like a 6 entree+sides+drinks order from West Seattle to the tippy top of Queen Anne, and there was no way in hell I was doing that on a bicycle from Capitol Hill for about 3 fucking dollars and a maybe tip, because I'd have maybe 20 minutes max left in the 60 minute delivery window after dropping tag #2, and I'd literally spend more on calories than I'd earn.

This is one of the things Postmates would do to manipulate the platform. No one wanted that stupid run or weird-ass crosstown and back again runs like that, so they'd just spam it over and over again, hoping someone would click "accept" accidentally or in desperation or something. You'd get penalized if you cancelled an order after accepting. If I'm remembering correctly the only way to drop a run at the time was to sign out of the app and take the penalty or whatever for abandoning shift (wait, aren't we contractors!?!) or feign mechanical difficulties or something, and even then you were supposed to negotiate with your cowork -er I mean co-contractors to take over the run for you.

This whole topic is an especially irritating one for me not just because I've been on the fucked up "contractor" side, but because this kind of distributed work is a winner of an idea on paper. It has all kinds of potential workplace/labor cost savings of scale that would be fair and equitable, along with compensation that could be equitable.

Kind of like communism. Until the libertarian technocrats and/or oligarchs get their filthy, greedy paws on it and turn it into a fucked up real world version of the Hunger Games featuring edgy, desperate urban assault athletes and weirdos risking their lives on real world and sometimes even deadly urban assault courses, because they gotta shave every last penny they can wring out of the free market at every transaction.

I don't know much about the conditions of other delivery gig platforms, but if you use Postmates you should seriously reconsider it if you care about labor law, fair wages and workplace conditions. Heck, I still have a bit of a startle response and PTSD to the default iOS whistle sound for messages and it's been about 4 years.
posted by loquacious at 8:46 PM on September 5, 2017 [158 favorites]


Yowser: "But, I mean, how many leftist people use Uber or Lyft, and get glassy eyes when you recommend they support local taxi companies?"

A lack of solidarity is definitely a problem and unfortunately the giggers really got a boost by initially going after the often corrupt, exploitative and rent seeking taxi companies.

The solution of course isn't to bring everyone down to less than taxi driver status but use regulation and collective action to bring the taxi drivers up along with everyone else to more reasonable and equitable employment standards.

thecjm: "We're 15 years away from this not being a problem at all"

Well it's not like the delivery drivers are the only people affected. My spouse is a transcriptionist and at the bottom of the employment ladder are several companies who pay less than minimum wage on a per word basis to their employees contractors while covering none of the withholding. And they don't even have enough work many weeks for her to earn the bonus multipliers that would return a decent wage.
posted by Mitheral at 8:50 PM on September 5, 2017 [15 favorites]


If all these gig businesses die because they have to compensate their employees with the bare minimum of fairness then that will be the best thing that has happened in employee rights in decades.

You'd rather all these people be out of work in the cause of employee rights, as decided by you? Unemployment is so much better when you have employee rights to help put food on the table!

Sheesh... Dog save us from the crusaders so keen to save us.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:58 PM on September 5, 2017 [2 favorites]


If I had to agree with the business practices of every service or retailer I gave money to, I'd be living in a cave in the woods trying to survive on moss. Part of the power that consumers have to deal with these things is not just voting with dollars, but voting with actual votes for governments that will appropriately regulate industry.
posted by Sequence at 8:58 PM on September 5, 2017 [30 favorites]


You'd rather all these people be out of work in the cause of employee rights, as decided by you?

Seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? But then, this is the lesson the forebears gave us, as commemorated just yesterday in the U.S. with Labor Day: "food on the table" today is sawdust on the table tomorrow, if they can break workers' solidarity.
posted by traveler_ at 9:17 PM on September 5, 2017 [88 favorites]


We're 15 years away from this not being a problem at all because both will be replaced by self-driving cars on demand, so I feel a little like the fight over delivery jobs (and they should be employees not contractors fyi) is like trying to get a 40 hr work week at the horse-drawn carriage factory in 1900.

Yeah, all taxi-like services are essentially over as soon as self driving cars are a workable, permitted thing, and that time is essentially now.

You'll still see professional drivers for limos and towncar services where they want a human touch for VIPs, but it'll essentially be a rare, anachronistic splurge for the rest of us, not unlike a carriage ride or taking a limo to prom.

And the drivers will be specialized and essentially weaponized. You already see this now with professional VIP transport services where the drivers are licensed bodyguards, complete with firearms permits or the ability to speak multiple languages for business VIP transportation.

But, I mean, how many leftist people use Uber or Lyft, and get glassy eyes when you recommend they support local taxi companies? Those without sin and all that.

Most of my friends in Seattle stopped using Uber entirely, and reserve lift for designated driver duty. The rest of the time it's foot, bus, hirecar, or now even open bikeshare.

Granted these are the same socially conscious friends that turned all of their p-patches around their house into community gardening space, who also get most of their produce from the local CSA and so on. I don't think Uber really cares about losing them.

Cabs are generally not even considered as an option by anyone sane in Seattle. The cab system there sucks. I've taken shady cabs in all kinds of big West Coast cities and I've never had the kind of incredibly shady, shitty behavior that I've seen from cabbies in Seattle.

Shit like ignoring turn by turn directions and taking the wrong one way street to pad fares to nearly double with waiting time and transit length where you basically have to insist on bailing from the cab right then and there to avoid the doubled fare - and then refusing to pull over and let you out until you get really vocal angry about it.

Or shit like starting road rage fights with other cabbie drivers or even random civilian drivers, completely with threatening moves and acceleration with their cab against whomever they were beefing with.

Come to think of it, the last three times I was in any kind of Seattle cab I or the party I was with had to tell a cabby to immediately pull over and let us out because they were doing these kinds of fucked up things.

Anyway, yeah, self driving cabs/cars, delivering food and things and people.

Here's one cheerful tangent on the slippery slope to watch out for:

Service agreements with self driving car services to deliver people with outstanding warrants or felonies directly to the authorities, likely for an enhanced fee or piece of the bail bond.

Next watch for service blackouts around protests or assemblies of people. All they'd have to do is geofence a destination zone and have the app tell you no cars were available to take you there. (This already has technically happened in places, including in Seattle when they stopped the light rail from stopping at SeaTac during the travel ban protests.)

Just a wiggle further, and you can disappear or, bring political activists, dissidents or undesirables in for, well, whatever. An interview. Or, gee, what a shame that self driving car had a rare error and drove off the overpass.
posted by loquacious at 9:19 PM on September 5, 2017 [18 favorites]


You'd rather all these people be out of work in the cause of employee rights, as decided by you? Unemployment is so much better when you have employee rights to help put food on the table!

This is, ultimately, a defense of slavery.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:21 PM on September 5, 2017 [86 favorites]


But, I mean, how many leftist people use Uber or Lyft, and get glassy eyes when you recommend they support local taxi companies? Those without sin and all that.

I'm reminded of this, by Naomi Klein:
When I was 26, I went to Indonesia and the Philippines to do research for my first book, No Logo. I had a simple goal: to meet the workers making the clothes and electronics that my friends and I purchased. And I did. I spent evenings on concrete floors in squalid dorm rooms where teenage girls—sweet and giggly—spent their scarce nonworking hours. Eight or even 10 to a room. They told me stories about not being able to leave their machines to pee. About bosses who hit. About not having enough money to buy dried fish to go with their rice.

They knew they were being badly exploited—that the garments they were making were being sold for more than they would make in a month. One 17-year-old said to me: “We make computers, but we don’t know how to use them.”

So one thing I found slightly jarring was that some of these same workers wore clothing festooned with knockoff trademarks of the very multinationals that were responsible for these conditions: Disney characters or Nike check marks. At one point, I asked a local labor organizer about this. Wasn’t it strange—a contradiction?

It took a very long time for him to understand the question. When he finally did, he looked at me like I was nuts. You see, for him and his colleagues, individual consumption wasn’t considered to be in the realm of politics at all. Power rested not in what you did as one person, but what you did as many people, as one part of a large, organized, and focused movement. For him, this meant organizing workers to go on strike for better conditions, and eventually it meant winning the right to unionize. What you ate for lunch or happened to be wearing was of absolutely no concern whatsoever.

This was striking to me, because it was the mirror opposite of my culture back home in Canada. Where I came from, you expressed your political beliefs—firstly and very often lastly—through personal lifestyle choices. By loudly proclaiming your vegetarianism. By shopping fair trade and local and boycotting big, evil brands.

These very different understandings of social change came up again and again a couple of years later, once my book came out. I would give talks about the need for international protections for the right to unionize. About the need to change our global trading system so it didn’t encourage a race to the bottom. And yet at the end of those talks, the first question from the audience was: “What kind of sneakers are OK to buy?” “What brands are ethical?” “Where do you buy your clothes?” “What can I do, as an individual, to change the world?”

Fifteen years after I published No Logo, I still find myself facing very similar questions. These days, I give talks about how the same economic model that superpowered multinationals to seek out cheap labor in Indonesia and China also supercharged global greenhouse-gas emissions. And, invariably, the hand goes up: “Tell me what I can do as an individual.” Or maybe “as a business owner.”

The hard truth is that the answer to the question “What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?” is: nothing. You can’t do anything. In fact, the very idea that we—as atomized individuals, even lots of atomized individuals—could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate system, or changing the global economy, is objectively nuts. We can only meet this tremendous challenge together. As part of a massive and organized global movement.

The irony is that people with relatively little power tend to understand this far better than those with a great deal more power. The workers I met in Indonesia and the Philippines knew all too well that governments and corporations did not value their voice or even their lives as individuals. And because of this, they were driven to act not only together, but to act on a rather large political canvas. To try to change the policies in factories that employ thousands of workers, or in export zones that employ tens of thousands. Or the labor laws in an entire country of millions. Their sense of individual powerlessness pushed them to be politically ambitious, to demand structural changes.

In contrast, here in wealthy countries, we are told how powerful we are as individuals all the time. As consumers. Even individual activists. And the result is that, despite our power and privilege, we often end up acting on canvases that are unnecessarily small—the canvas of our own lifestyle, or maybe our neighborhood or town. Meanwhile, we abandon the structural changes—the policy and legal work—to others.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:26 PM on September 5, 2017 [256 favorites]


There's no "may be" about it. Uber is just a subsidized taxi service with an associated (data collecting) app run by a group of misogynist shitlords with no sense of morals or ethics.

Strictly untrue. They are driven by a strict moral and ethical code that includes such ineluctable mantras such as

"Mo money! Mo money!"
"Wow, that sounds hilarious, bra!"
and
"Myrtle, did you forget my coffee?"
posted by Samizdata at 9:34 PM on September 5, 2017 [2 favorites]


Also, as for the self-driving cars as delivery vehicles, it will reduce the amount of product stolen by non-payment.

OTOH, how is it going to play out when Pissedoff Q. Customer gets mad there's a (non-existent) issue with the order and takes a bat to the car? Also, sometimes delivery people need to dog customers to deal with issues regarding defaulting on the order or fraudulent orders...
posted by Samizdata at 9:37 PM on September 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


You'd rather all these people be out of work in the cause of employee rights, as decided by you? Unemployment is so much better when you have employee rights to help put food on the table!

Why is this the only option? Why are we not talking about a working social safety net and unemployment system? Why are we not talking about universal basic income or guaranteed minimum income?

Why are we not talking about the record profits for international corporations and the outlandish compensation of their CEOs compared to their retail wage slaves?

Why are we not talking about all of these multi-billion dollar corps essentially paying negative taxes and getting corporate welfare and handouts?

(I'm sorry, the broke ass wage slave is the one at fault here? Are you fucking kidding me!?)


And why can't marginal piecemeal employment be seen as a net economic friction and negative for the common good through untaxed wages, non-participation in unemployment insurance and skirting right around health insurance rules to leave these costs borne by the public anyway, the hard and complicated way when someone is past the point of crisis?

Most of these gig economies are directly stealing from taxpayers by avoiding most of employment laws and regulations.


Further, I can't speak for Uber or Lyft, but Postmates' business model seemed to survive almost entirely on employee (heh, contractor) churn and burnout.

These aren't stable long term jobs. These are desperation jobs.

On the inboarding/training to the platform and in the ads they hype up their unattainable 20-25/hr wage potential so hard that the people desperate enough to try to ride for them in the first place buy it hook, line and sinker.

They then throw themselves at this gig as hard as they can, because that's what they're encouraged and told to do by Postmates, and because you can see the hunger and hustle in the other riders, that the other riders aren't your friends, they're your direct competition for the runs you want.

I saw 22 year old dads fresh out of jail trying to do right and earn a living, and throwing their body at the job on some poor, old beat up 20", single speed BMX bike and just crashing and burning because it just wasn't possible to earn a living wage riding only for Postmates no matter how hard they tried. I saw people crash their bikes into traffic without health insurance and basically just disappear from the cityscape.

And Postmates pretty much does everything they can to make sure you're only working for them short of making you sign a contract about it. If I'm recalling correctly they do specifically ask you multiple times in the induction process that they require priority scheduling - IE, like they were your primary employer.

I was the only one left of my inboarding class of 20+ who was left after a month. Even then, my tenure with Postmates was a hail mary attempt at avoiding eviction. It failed.

Riding for them was a huge, huge mistake. It wasn't a job. It was modern indentured servitude, except without the promise of even a scrap of room and board.
posted by loquacious at 9:37 PM on September 5, 2017 [67 favorites]


The last Postmates employee I saw was homeless and sitting on the curb with a cardboard sign.

She was asking for food because Postmates wasn't providing enough to even cover that cost.

Every dollar these workers get in public assistance might as well be a direct payment to the corporations that leech off their heavily subsidized labor.
posted by mdash at 9:59 PM on September 5, 2017 [24 favorites]


No one wanted that stupid run or weird-ass crosstown and back again runs like that, so they'd just spam it over and over again, hoping someone would click "accept" accidentally or in desperation or something.

And here's the frustrating thing about this to me as a customer: I know that I live out in the boondocks, far from most of the places I want delivery from. And I am MORE THAN WILLING to pay a hefty premium to have stuff delivered out here. I highly value having a variety of food delivery available. I don't want to be begrudgingly delivered to by the last resort driver who accidentally accepted the order. But the way the apps are set up, the only way I have of paying an actual reasonable amount for the delivery is to tip the driver cash when they arrive. Which I can do, but it's a pain to make sure I have cash in appropriate denominations on hand, and doing it that way erases some of the value prop of a clean transaction via the app. It also doesn't solve the problem of no one wanting to accept my delivery, since they can't know ahead of time that I plan to tip them. If the apps would just charge a realistic delivery fee, and pass along a reasonable portion of that to the drivers, they'd probably actually make more money from me, and they'd have happier drivers. Seems like a win-win. But I guess everyone else wants "cheapest at all costs" so it's not viable...
posted by primethyme at 10:01 PM on September 5, 2017 [5 favorites]


Why are being an employee or being an independent contractor the only options being discussed? It seems clear that the relationship between the worker and the company in a gig economy is different from both of these, and out social safety nets and laws should be adjusted to allow for this category.

People participate in a gig economy in different ways. I've had Uber drivers who were working full time or more driving their car and I've had moms driving their Mercedes for extra cash for three hours a day between dropping off and picking up their kids at school. Laws should appreciate the wide gulf of protection required between these two. People work multiple jobs too, sequentially or simultaneously, and protecting workers' job safety and retirement and health should be made with awareness that this is something normal. People also work many different kinds of gig jobs, and thus their profession may not be as easily discernible or classifiable as one would want.

I think that all of these companies are desperately trying to avoid having their workers classified as employees because, well, their relationships are often quite different and the laws for employees don't anticipate employees choosing their own hours quite so freely, or working for multiple providers simultaneously. The workers though really do want protections against retaliation, and want healthcare and pensions and other trappings of having a career even if the work they do is diverse and variable in time and type. Consumers clearly appreciate this gig economy but also want some protection from abusive workers or unnecessary overhead (i.e. million dollar medallions).

Our governments should be spending their time figuring out the parameters of this type of workforce and how to protect people who work there with all the nuances of modern work in this type of an economy.
posted by haykinson at 10:31 PM on September 5, 2017 [3 favorites]


how is it going to play out when Pissedoff Q. Customer gets mad there's a (non-existent) issue with the order and takes a bat to the car?

They get taken to court and end up bankrupt or on some lifetime repayment plan for the damage they did to the self-driving car's staggeringly expensive LIDAR sensor array, which in its last moments captured every swollen capillary on their beet-red face in unflinching, submicrometer detail, and transmitted it in real-time to a police evidence server?

There will probably be a whole slew of low-budget TV/Youtube shows consisting of people doing stupid stuff to or near autonomous cars, forgetting at first that they are basically yesterday's military surveillance technology made cheap via mass production.

Given the shit-poor driving we accept as de rigueur in the US, though, I'm pretty much cool with it, since nothing else is apparently going to help.

(Also for the record I am somewhat skeptical about the deployment timeline of actual fully-autonomous vehicles, but I think the declining cost of good cameras and image processing will let someone build a pretty good ANPR rig out of surplus cellphones in the next year or two, if they haven't already, and after that you'll be able to join some sort of crowdsourced name-and-shame-the-shitty-drivers effort if you wanted to with a minimal investment. It's tangential to the labor issue, but will probably have more of an effect in the near term.)

Anyway, on the labor issue...
It seems clear that the relationship between the worker and the company in a gig economy is different from both of these, and out social safety nets and laws should be adjusted to allow for this category.

Well, at least for starters, because it's not clear that the rest of us want to pay via taxes to subsidize the "gig economy" business models, which is basically what that proposal entails. Some of the "gig economy" companies, e.g. Uber, AirBnB, are among the biggest corporations in the country (by market cap, anyway). I want to make sure that if someone ends up footing the bill, it's them, from their rather-chubby bottom line, and not the rest of the non-gig-economy.

The response to a corporation figuring out a neat legal loophole that lets them end-run labor laws and exploit workers by not paying them a minimum wage or extending them otherwise-required benefits shouldn't be to give the corporation a pat on the head and a cookie; it should be to smack them with the "you done fucked up" stick and let their 'business model engineers' iterate on the problem a few more times until they come up with something that doesn't appear quite as much like serfdom.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:55 PM on September 5, 2017 [24 favorites]


2N2222: "You'd rather all these people be out of work in the cause of employee rights, as decided by you?"

Well I'm not god emperor yet but ya.
  • I think it should be illegal to have 10 year olds labour for 60 hours a week in dangerous conditions.
  • I think it should be illegal for people to labour for wages that don't even cover their direct costs.
  • I think it should be illegal in most cases to labour for free for profit seeking businesses.
  • I think a minimum wage is a good idea and should be set high enough that people working 40 hours a week won't need food assistance from government or charities.
  • I think that gig employers should have to prove that some high percentage of their contractors (say 80%) are effectively making not just minimum wage but minimum wage plus a multiplier to account for their contractors overhead.
  • I think that it should be illegal to effectively pay people so little they can't afford workman's compensation (or whatever job injury insurance is called in the US).
  • I think that workman's compensation should be a no fault system.
  • I believe that pretty much everyone who works more than 2000 hours a year should receive additional compensation for overtime such that it discourages employers from forcing overtime.
  • And that people should get paid for hours worked.
  • I believe that employers and GCs should be held responsible for the working conditions of their employees and subs and that conditions should reasonably minimize the chance of injury; shit like working live or without fall protection should punish employers.
There are lots of regulation curbing the power of employers over employees/gig contractors that I'm firmly on board with even if it means fewer people being exploited.

The fact that it is illegal for classes of employee to collectively bargain in the US is completely outrageous. Freedom of assembly is the 1st amendment for $deities sake.
posted by Mitheral at 10:57 PM on September 5, 2017 [65 favorites]


With regard to my brother loquacious' disparagement of Seattle cabbies, I really do want to note that my last airport run, last week, was via Yellow Cab, my driver was a member of the merged local and OTR Teamsters' local, and we had a great conversation about the importance of unionization for emigrant workers nationally and internationally on the run down to SeaTac. He told me that not all the Yellow Cab guys are union, just a subset that tend to specialize in certain services, I believe in general medical transport for limited mobility folks.
posted by mwhybark at 11:07 PM on September 5, 2017 [4 favorites]


But, I mean, how many leftist people use Uber or Lyft, and get glassy eyes when you recommend they support local taxi companies? Those without sin and all that.

It’s very important to remember that it is only a fraction of the population that is wealthy enough to take taxis, regulated or not, on a regular basis. Leftism does not correlate with wealth; the wealthy hire cars.
posted by Kwine at 11:08 PM on September 5, 2017 [10 favorites]


I think that all of these companies are desperately trying to avoid having their workers classified as employees because, well, their relationships are often quite different

No. Because it costs them more money, one way or another. That's all there is to it.

In this day and age, I don't understand how people kid themselves into thinking that corporations value anything else.
posted by praemunire at 11:38 PM on September 5, 2017 [31 favorites]


does anyone who knows more about this than I do (i.e., everyone) think it might be possible to form a nonprofit co-op of all-purpose app-based delivery people who share all the revenue (as salary) and win business in blue cities by advertising their fairness to their partner-workers? I'd pay a bit extra to support a business like that.
posted by wibari at 11:40 PM on September 5, 2017 [2 favorites]


Hm, well the current revenue, such as it is, comes from VCs on the promise of exciting innovations in exploitative businesses practices, so I wonder if a co-op would bring in nearly as much.
posted by ODiV at 11:51 PM on September 5, 2017 [5 favorites]


does anyone who knows more about this than I do (i.e., everyone) think it might be possible to form a nonprofit co-op of all-purpose app-based delivery people who share all the revenue (as salary) and win business in blue cities by advertising their fairness to their partner-workers? I'd pay a bit extra to support a business like that.

Wouldn't work--you can't compete with Uber, which is subsidizing the shit out of ever ride (thanks to deep pockets of VC money).
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:14 AM on September 6, 2017 [4 favorites]


Hm, well the current revenue, such as it is, comes from VCs on the promise of exciting innovations in exploitative businesses practices, so I wonder if a co-op would bring in nearly as much.

good point. fair labor practices in this industry (aside from those enforced by lawsuits or regulation) would have to start with a nonprofit that delivered a niche service that uber, grubhub, and their ilk don't currently deliver, and then try to grow from there to develop market share before being undercut. maybe cannabis.
posted by wibari at 12:37 AM on September 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


When I was young and idealistic, I used to say, "If you can't pay your workers a living wage, your business *should* fail."
Then I think I had a few years of wanting workers to make that decision for themselves.
Now I'm back to "Fuck your business if you can only make a profit on the backs of the workers."
The gig economy will always ruin things because capitalism always has a poverty class that will work for less.
posted by greermahoney at 1:36 AM on September 6, 2017 [23 favorites]


I think there's a small market for co-op delivery platform. I've met a lot of people who are willing to pay more for fair gig economy stuff, especially in the food and shopping delivery platform area.

Granted a lot or all of these food/item delivery platforms like Postmates are VC-funded and subsidized, too.

This makes the whole thing that much more appalling to me, because with things like Postmates and independent, untrained, uninsured bicycle delivery this essentially means technocrats are playing around with peoples mortal lives above and beyond their livelihoods and income levels (and our economy, and our cities, and our neighborhoods) simply to experiment en vivo with a proof of concept or beta test interesting or disruptive enough to attract VC funding, where the real prize for the founders lies. They don't have to care about the real world results, they just have to attract that funding by being interesting and disruptive.

Anyway, I know I had the same idea about a co-op or non-profit when I was riding for Postmates, and I met other riders who had similar ideas.

With a pool of dedicated good riders and drivers and a much better, less game-theoried app and perhaps even vetted customers, you could eat Postmate's lunch in certain regions and markets, and maybe even GrubHub's.

Especially if you were just transparent about the real world delivery costs, eliminated the delivery tip entirely by rolling it into the fee and then offering some mechanism for tipping the kitchen/restaurant where applicable, especially if it allowed a tip to be added to the charge and passed entirely to the kitchen after the food was delivered as ordered and on time.

Make it as effortless but as transparent as possible for the user.

What I wanted more than anything was a smarter delivery/dispatch platform app and backend. Something that was actually smart and was terrain and transit-aware. I wanted an app that knew where the hills were, where I was as a rider and I wanted it to know that I was riding a bicycle, not riding a scooter or driving a car. I wanted an app that facilitated managing multiple stacked runs and dispatching, and something that helped manage the timing of orders, that had knowledge of kitchen order/wait times for tickets so that I wasn't standing around waiting, or the foot wasn't sitting around waiting when I showed up.

I also wanted a platform and backing company that actually had a working relationship with the businesses I was picking up from, because it was clearly adversarial and counterproductive a lot of the time.

I'd roll up to fancy restaurants in a hurry all grimy and sweaty and be stinking up their lobby waiting for orders, and sometimes there'd be more than one rider picking up from the same place and we're all pissed off about waiting. In addition to this Postmates dispatch may have called the restaurant to pre-order multiple times per day with however many fuckups or late pickups or whatever. And dealing with who knows how many different desperate couriers trying to hustle pennies out of the sidewalks and streets. And then we leave no tips.

Yeah, there's probably room for an ethical courier co-op platform in there. You'd get your pick of experienced riders, and you could win over the hearts and minds of restaurants very easily just by having nicer, less stressed riders, a cleaner pre-ordering and dispatch system, and a clear mechanism and expectation for the end customer to tip them directly through the app without taking a cut of it yourself.

You wouldn't even necessarily have to market it as a co-op or ethical choice. Just market it as a premium brand with a higher quality and expectation of service to both the end user and the restaurants they already love and probably already visit in person.

Pour on the posh and advertise how you have the best riders, the best delivery tech, the best relationships with the businesses they're ordering from, and the smoothest, gentlest touch delivering your precious, utterly required latte, or that emergency dinner order to the office for an important client. Advertise your clean, efficient and intelligent riders in their clean, clearly marked (high performance, sporty) uniforms. Give 'em badges (and/or phone app confirmation) with encrypted QR codes that can be read and verified by the customer app and some security theater.

Go all atomic age 50s Speedy Delivery meets Deliverator pastiche on that shit framed in modern Scandinavian sustainable bamboo and greenwashing, and mock the shit out of Postmates' rag tag image.

And with better paid riders that were actually employees, you could assign them to zones for shifts and easily compete with much faster, more efficient deliveries just like old school courier companies used to.

With a smarter app and a co-op model, you could also assign riders to work together and do time saving co-operative things like: pick up order A on your way to pick up order B, and on your way to drop off order B you've handed off order A to another rider who is already headed to pick up order C from somewhere else, because the drop-off for order A is on the way to C.

You could even atomize the delivery tasks in novel ways. There are places in downtown metro areas where you could essentially employ one gopher per block just to run coffee and sandwiches from street level to the upper floors, or passing orders to couriers on the next block in chained hand-off if it's within, say, 2-3 blocks instead of waiting for a bike or car.

Hyperlocal foot couriers like this positioned in denser areas could also run orders to passing bike, scooter or car couriers for faster pickup, essentially orbiting and finalizing orders at the stores on that block for the riders so they don't have to go in and wait.

The whole process of a courier securing their bike or scooter, finding parking, going in to a store, paying for it and negotiating the receipt work and paperwork, safely cargoing it and then remounting a bike or whatever is a major inefficiency. And sometimes in peak hours you'd have multiple riders from the same company at the same restaurant repeating the same inefficiencies because they're all technically independent contractors competing with each other, and the app/platform doesn't even attempt to aggregate orders.

This could all be mapped and managed alot better in a cooperative model because you have a lot of data and heuristics about the average speed, performance and qualities of not just individual riders, but the restaurants and kitchens you're ordering from and what their lead times and peak times are. And if you treat the kitchens right and maybe even offer a surcharge or handling fee to expedite your orders and treat them with care, you'll be able to beat everyone else with quality and speed.

You could even work with restaurants on packing or plating, or offer to have your foot runners or the couriers themselves to be certified food handlers and offer the restaurants the labor-saving help of boxing/plating to go. Boxing/plating to go is another major inefficiency in most restaurants and kitchens, and it's a place you could aim for better quality. It's rare that I see anything like a dedicated "to go" station unless it's fast food or other quick counter service stuff.

Add a small fleet of sturdy electrified cargo bikes to this general model and you'd have an incredibly speedy, efficient and extremely high quality food/grocery/other delivery service. It wouldn't have to be 100% electrified delivery on all bikes/riders, but having a percentage of them available for assigning to larger/longer runs would go a long way. Give them to your smartest but not necessarily strongest/fastest riders. Keep your fastest riders and hustlers on their own bikes, electrified or not.

And yet, the future is changing so fast all of this would likely be a lost cause and I'm typing a bunch of meaningless horse and buggy nonsense and getting greyer by the minute.

Flying delivery drones are coming. So are self-driving delivery vans. Why not smaller wheeled delivery vehicles?

Why not a monowheel or Segway-like platform zipping down the bike lane at biking speeds delivering a pizza or burger and fries? If one of those things could navigate a street or a bike lane it could roll anywhere that's ADA compliant, right on up to someone's 14rh floor condo doorstep. (Sure, people would steal them. There are laws against stealing, even if you're starving. Unfortunately the current economic model calls this free prison labor.)

And 20, 30 years from now? Who says you don't just print a pizza? Or a pair of shoes? Or a car? You wouldn't download a car, would you? Or a nearly molecule-perfect and fully restored replica of a 16th century illuminated manuscript, if only because you want to burn it ironically or dramatically at a historically themed party?

So, does anyone remember Kozmo? Did you know that Amazon helped fund it in 2000?

And, y'know, lets take a moment to imagine, if you will, not just a pizza printer but a pizza synthesizer. Sure, it's just an app, but touchscreens are very haptic now, or maybe it's just all implants.

But imagine a variety of brightly colored knobs, buttons and sliders. Maybe you have some presets like Pizza Margherita. Or New York. Or Chicago Deep Dish. Now imagine you can, say, adjust a slider or knob between New York and Chicago with a sprinkle of Margherita. Maybe you have a knob that modulates how New York thin crust and Chicago Deep dish interact, maybe in a crispy interfering polar sine-wave or hyperboloid of thin crust intersecting the deep dish and melty cheese, with the more crispy thin crust cheese somehow under the deep dish cheese and tomato sauce like it was magically teleported there. And then maybe make it a BBQ chicken hawaiian with extra pineapple and too much roasted garlic because you're happily sick in the head like that.

And you hit print. And however many minutes later out comes a pizza that's somehow perfectly all of those things in some new, novel way. But you could save the recipe and print the same exact pizza over and over again, or edit it for a square wave ripple on the thin crust next time. Or make a new one each time. Imagine, also, a "random pizza I'll probably like based on my parameters" button. Or if that's all too much for you, imagine it prints the exactly perfect wood fired Pizza Margherita or whatever you like best every time, only slightly varying for your moods, if at all.

Sure, people would probably end up subscribing to Dominos or something, and the pizza will still be terrible. But this also implies a world where your favorite pizzeria might be a subscription of recipes from your own kid, or the brilliantly creative neighbor kid down the street, or some weird stoner dude who lives out on a boutique pot farm who makes some really good pizza.

Imagine, further, being able to print an exact replica of a recipe from someone departed, or being able to precisely copy and record the recipe of a finished food from a living example.

posted by loquacious at 2:32 AM on September 6, 2017 [17 favorites]


People participate in a gig economy in different ways. I've had Uber drivers who were working full time or more driving their car and I've had moms driving their Mercedes for extra cash for three hours a day between dropping off and picking up their kids at school. Laws should appreciate the wide gulf of protection required between these two.

Laws do. Those two categories are "full-time employees" and "part-time employees".

Some people worked just a few hours a day/week before any of this "gig economy" nonsense. It worked just fine.
posted by Dysk at 2:51 AM on September 6, 2017 [23 favorites]


People who work for competing companies at the same time -as many uber and lyft drivers do - are rarely seen as employees of either. That would be a clear conflict of interest as employees are supposed to be aligned w one company's interests and not multiple competing companies at once. That usually marks a contractor situation clearly
posted by TestamentToGrace at 4:00 AM on September 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


If I had to agree with the business practices of every service or retailer I gave money to, I'd be living in a cave in the woods trying to survive on moss.

... *raises hand*
posted by ragtag at 4:33 AM on September 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


Our taxi driver are independent contractors in pretty much the same way that Uber drivers are except that they have to lease out the company's cab for every shift and can potentially lose money if they don't cover the cost of the day's rent. Also it's not like taking a taxi supports a local company, they're owned by Transdev, a french multi-national transportation firm.

I don't have any interested in defending Uber or Postmates or the like but it's not like the traditional companies are any better.
posted by octothorpe at 5:10 AM on September 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


I like the Klein quote above. I'm not the biggest fan of her work in general, but that quote keeps popping up and every time I see it I agree with it more. As a person living in a wealthy western country, I honestly don't want to have to spend a bunch of time pondering the ethics of individual transactions. I want good, strong regulations that ensure that any company I deal with is treating its workers (or contractors, whatever they get called) with at least a minimal amount of respect, adequate wages, and safe conditions, so that I can then make my purchases on the basis of best value, best quality, or whatever is my priority at the time.

What I'm saying is that if I have the choice of buying from or hiring an unethical company that doesn't pay its workers the minimum wage and flouts safety rules, something has really gone wrong already. That choice shouldn't even be there; the choice should be between Company A which does the legal minimum and Company B which maybe charges more but makes a point of going way beyond the minimum in order to provide a premium service. The contractor loophole needs to be closed, whether by recategorizing the workers or by providing the necessary supports in other ways (eg, nationalized healthcare).

I look forward to automated cars for a number of reasons, but I think those are enough years out from mass use that we need to solve these issues now rather than sit back and wait for technology to solve things.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:13 AM on September 6, 2017 [17 favorites]



You'd rather all these people be out of work in the cause of employee rights, as decided by you? Unemployment is so much better when you have employee rights to help put food on the table!


Next do minimum wage. Or OSHA.

You're the reason we can't have nice things. Because you make up tendentious excuses that your selfishness is altruistic. You are exactly what is wrong with America.
posted by PMdixon at 5:38 AM on September 6, 2017 [26 favorites]


So, does anyone remember Kozmo? Did you know that Amazon helped fund it in 2000?

We knew the business model was completely untenable when we were able to order a single bottle of Gatorade to be delivered for a completely reasonable price. What a mess of a business.

My roommate did buy a bunch of their used N64 games when they were liquidating, though, so that was a bonus.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:42 AM on September 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


> You'd rather all these people be out of work in the cause of employee rights, as decided by you? Unemployment is so much better when you have employee rights to help put food on the table!

You should go read all the links in the Labor Day post.
posted by rtha at 6:37 AM on September 6, 2017 [10 favorites]


I actually think that the problems inherent in the gig economy are less a problem of the gig economy and more a problem of technology and how work hours are scheduled.

When I first started working, it was admittedly in the Army, but we were posted along with civilian employees. They worked from 9 to 5, with an hour and a half lunch, and weren't docked pay for that time. This was just normal.

When I left the military, by the time it was time for me to enter the civilian workforce, I found that the day had switched to 8:30-5, that you only got a half hour lunch, and the reason for the increased hours was that you were no longer paid for your lunch hour. Because after all, you weren't working during it, so why should they pay you?

I can't help but see a connection between that, and the "we only pay you while you are actually working" of the gig economy, broken down to the minute. Like, it seems that if you look at the hourly wage broken down by minutes of most of these gig apps, people are making minimum wage - but only if you look at it by the minute and don't include wait time. It's the "why should I pay you for break time" all over again, and the way they get around paying you for waiting is because these apps all offer the illusion of choice, which includes, as everyone notes, opportunities that no one wants and that everyone passes up. But if you're passing up opportunities, are you really "on call"? Like, that's an actually hard question, and I really wonder if that ability is by design.
posted by corb at 6:38 AM on September 6, 2017 [14 favorites]


Worse, a lot of these platforms/companies are almost all using varying levels of game theory and economic theory to really turn the screws on their workers.

Any actual evidence of this? I doubt it.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:39 AM on September 6, 2017


Yeah - it's piecework, but for time.
posted by PMdixon at 6:39 AM on September 6, 2017 [5 favorites]


These jobs aren't inherently inhumane -- it's the modern, hyper-capitalist, VC-driven companies that make them awful.

I was a courier dispatcher in Boston in the early 1990s, for a downtown service bureau. We only had two bikes and one car, so we sent spill-over work to a company a block away (NSS, Northeast Service Systems). Their dispatcher was a wonderful guy named John Martin*. Despite the heat and awful New England drivers and the hills and the bad roads -- and the evidence right in front of them that they could become "in-house" riders for companies like mine -- his riders stuck by him for years at a time.

I don't think he paid them unusually well, but he was humane and fair, and he kept the "Beer Wingo" machine stocked with cold cans, and there was an annual party in the alley between Arlington & Berkeley Streets that culminated in the Naked Alley Races. He didn't treat them like machines, and they stuck by him.

Johnny eventually got his dream job: TV cameraman for New England sports. He has been a delight to everyone he meets for years, but he just found out he's got ALS. You want to talk about a shitty del, this is it. Locals are rallying for him, and there's a GoFundMe if you want to help.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:14 AM on September 6, 2017 [10 favorites]


Why are being an employee or being an independent contractor the only options being discussed? It seems clear that the relationship between the worker and the company in a gig economy is different from both of these, and out social safety nets and laws should be adjusted to allow for this category.

No, and this argument is utterly anti-worker. The answer to these companies having to make a choice between two different models of employment is not "let's give them an out."
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:34 AM on September 6, 2017 [6 favorites]


NYC residents should know that a lot of these 'gig economy' jobs (not necessarily delivery, but child care, home cleaning, dogwalking/petsitting) are now being served by a network of worker cooperatives:

New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives


I think worker cooperatives are one of the best ways to make sure that all workers benefit directly and proportionally from the fruit of their labor. I know we can't expect large-scale change from individual choices, but I think that if you can use a worker coop and keep the money you're paying for the service in your community rather than going to Silicon Valley VC investors, well, why not?
posted by matcha action at 8:07 AM on September 6, 2017 [9 favorites]


Here you go, Misantropic Painforest.
How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its' Drivers' Buttons.
"And yet even as Uber talks up its determination to treat drivers more humanely, it is engaged in an extraordinary behind-the-scenes experiment in behavioral science to manipulate them in the service of its corporate growth — an effort whose dimensions became evident in interviews with several dozen current and former Uber officials, drivers and social scientists, as well as a review of behavioral research."
posted by cushie at 8:13 AM on September 6, 2017 [11 favorites]


Why is this the only option? Why are we not talking about a working social safety net and unemployment system? Why are we not talking about universal basic income or guaranteed minimum income?

Because as Naomi Klein pointed out above, Americans prefer individual choices to collective action. Because collective action is Communistic. And so, instead of 10,000 people marching in the streets, we get 100 people changing what they wear or buy. And so nothing changes.
posted by happyroach at 9:03 AM on September 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


I'm surprised at your doubt, Misanthropic Painforest. Using social science to turn the screws on workers has been the name of the game in business since the invention of the assembly line (Just how fast can a worker tighten five nuts, anyway? How can we make them do it faster with less breaks?) and "using psychology and statistics to manipulate people into doing what we want" is the signature move of the post-smartphone tech boom. Smartphone apps are manipulative little fuckers, and I'd have been surprised if companies like Uber weren't using those same Skinnerian tricks to wring the most out of their employees. It would be out of character and frankly uncompetitive of them, when "fucking with our users' heads to get them to use our products the way we want them to" is pretty much the basic M.O. of that entire industry.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:40 AM on September 6, 2017 [8 favorites]


Because as Naomi Klein pointed out above, Americans prefer individual choices to collective action. Because collective action is Communistic.

This is misunderstanding Klein's point. What happens is that Americans are told they have significant power individually, which in turn encourages individual action over collective - hence, for example, the heavy opposition towards unionization in the tech industry, which is usually based on tech workers feeling that they could do better for themselves than collective bargaining can. In comparison, people in developing nations know they have little individual power, so they move to collective organizing almost immediately.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:45 AM on September 6, 2017 [16 favorites]


That would be a clear conflict of interest as employees are supposed to be aligned w one company's interests and not multiple competing companies at once. That usually marks a contractor situation clearly

Huh? No it doesn't. Being a contractor is about choosing the place of work, schedule, and key aspects such as pricing and the way the work is performed. It's hiring someone to "build me a website, I need it done by the 31st" without much caring whether they build it in one crazyass all-nighter in their parents basement or in two hour chunks over a month in a Starbucks. (There's a pretty straightforward 3-prong test that the IRS typically uses, of which this is really only getting into the "Behavioral Control" aspect, but that's because the other two prongs are typically pretty easy to determine.)

If you have two part time jobs, where you're being paid by the hour, in most civilized jurisdictions the employer at one job doesn't have much control over whether you can work for a competitor at the second, absent an explicit noncompete agreement (which might or might not be allowable; that's a separate rabbit hole). There's a bunch of sticky situations that you can get into if you did that, such that it might not be a good idea, and it might or might not be legal to fire you for it, but it's actually a lot easier to enforce a noncompete on an independent contractor / vendor ("if you work for our competition, we won't hire you anymore") than on a PT employee in a lot of places — you'd just write it into the contract and, if it was bothersome, negotiate it. Lots of companies have terms like that in their vendor agreements, but do not attempt and might not be allowed to enforce in a legally-binding way, noncompetes on their direct employees (except that FT employees are sometimes prohibited as a rule from moonlighting, but in other places that doesn't wash; again, sort of a complex issue in itself).

So, no, that's not really a good justification for contractor vs. employee, and if a company put that excuse forward as to why its employees crew members teammates partners are all 1099s instead of W-2 directs, I'd take that as a good sign that I'm in the presence of some "business model innovation" (read: fraud that hasn't been made illegal quite yet).
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:57 AM on September 6, 2017 [9 favorites]


I'm surprised at your doubt, Misanthropic Painforest. Using social science to turn the screws on workers has been the name of the game in business since the invention of the assembly line (Just how fast can a worker tighten five nuts, anyway? How can we make them do it faster with less breaks?) and "using psychology and statistics to manipulate people into doing what we want" is the signature move of the post-smartphone tech boom.

Yeah - this is just Taylorization with better tools.
posted by PMdixon at 9:57 AM on September 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


how many leftist people use Uber or Lyft, and get glassy eyes when you recommend they support local taxi companies?

One of the major features of Uber/Lyft is that you can go to a different city and know how to order a ride.

I know some of the taxi services in the SF Bay Area where I live. (Sort of.) I have some idea how to find one, if I'm in a city I don't normally spend time in. But if I visit friends in L.A. for the weekend? No idea what the cab companies are called, or which ones are "the good ones." If I visit a friend in Seattle, again - no idea how to find a cab. Uber and Lyft didn't get huge because their service is terrific; they got huge because everyone can find them, because (1) they're on your phone and (2) the name doesn't change when you're traveling.

Cab companies that want to fight against Lyft and Uber could hire an app developer and pay a tiny amount per month to be included on the list of "local cab services" for a national app. (Of course, this presumes an app developer who's not greedy enough to demand a cut of every ride; that may be hard to find.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:08 AM on September 6, 2017 [4 favorites]


as employees are supposed to be aligned w one company's interests

I'm aligned with my interests.
posted by Tentacle of Trust at 10:29 AM on September 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


Can I just take a moment to note that Lawson V Grubhub sounds like a Groucho Marx character?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:32 AM on September 6, 2017 [16 favorites]


In the gig-economy future, Laverne and Shirley are automatically not paid for time spent daydreaming on the bottle line.
posted by rhizome at 10:35 AM on September 6, 2017 [5 favorites]


One of the major features of Uber/Lyft is that you can go to a different city and know how to order a ride.

It's hard, honestly, and these apps flourish because the industries that have norms are fundamentally broken. What no one is quite sure of is whether those industries are fundamentally broken, such that they cannot be fixed for any reason, or if there is an optimization that can fix things without screwing people.

I stand by the idea that there are, in the US, no "good" taxi companies, even in metropolises - and that may be required. Taxis have a lot of requirements that are hard for individuals to meet - many of them for the noblest of reasons. Safety, for example. It's important, if you have a fleet of cars, that they be safe. It's hard, if you're the guy driving the car, to make sure every aspect of your car is maintained on time, and that you're still making profit, without driving the costs up exorbitantly. Regulation costs money, and 'de-congestion' taxes cost money, and transit gets worse and worse as the streets get more and more clogged. And taxis that aren't idling are launching out of a centralized location, which means it takes even more time to get to you, which defeats the purpose of a taxi in the first place. You don't need, generally, an Uber in 30 minutes - you need one when you step out of the subway station and realize the bus won't arrive for 20 minutes.

And it may be - I'm not sure, and haven't run the numbers, but it may be - that paying drivers to be on standby and idling and able to pick anyone in the city up within 10-15 minutes is simply impossible if you are paying them for a full day's work, and to still be competitive price-wise. Uber is attractive not just because of convenience, but because of cost - but those costs can only be low in those dense urban cities where you can be guaranteed idling will guarantee opportunities. A 7-minute ride in Seattle, for example, will cost me under 7 dollars. A 7-minute ride in the semi-suburban town I live in will cost me $15 - which is still cheaper than the same ride in a regular taxi.
posted by corb at 10:50 AM on September 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


In the gig-economy future, Laverne and Shirley are automatically not paid for time spent daydreaming on the bottle line.

Years ago I took the tour of an Anheuser-Busch brewery and was amused that in the bottling line warehouse there were huge video panels like the Times Square news tickers that were constantly running with the company's stock price. Assuming some portion of their compensation or retirement depended on the stock price, it was a pre-gig economy trick to get these people to fill 12-packs faster. I thought it was a cruel joke to make Jane or Joe Bluecollar believe that their actions would have any tangible effect on the share price, especially compared to the the whims of the managerial class.
posted by peeedro at 11:15 AM on September 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


Upthread someone claimed that Uber was using game theory to trick their drivers. I questioned this, someone provided a link supposedly supporting it. Turns out that Uber was indeed tricking their drivers using pyschological tricks, but they weren't using game theory at all. Which is why I asked in the first place, because it doesn't seem how game theory could be useful in modeling the interaction between drivers and Uber.

My skepticism wasn't that Uber was not using social science, statistics, or machine learning, my skepticism was toward Uber using game theory, since, well, game theory is somewhat limited in its predictive powers (to be fare that isn't the point of it).

Just a friendly reminder that terms like economic theory, game theory, social science, statistics, machine learning, algorithims, etc. are not and have meanings.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:29 AM on September 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


Regulation costs money,

Well: sometimes. But sometimes there are real costs to the absence of regulations, too; sometimes regulations are just a means of changing who pays, and preventing unfair externalities from developing. If you've got a fleet on unregulated cars, more of those cars with be unsafe than if their condition is mandated, and some number of people and vehicles will be injured or damaged in accidents; either they, or their insurer, will pay medical bills or repair costs of varying sizes. Requiring companies to front maintenance costs reduces accident rates, and limits injuries when accidents do happen; it shifts the burden of costs to the company and away from any individual rider. That 'costs money,' yes, but it also saves money.

Uber is attractive not just because of convenience, but because of cost - but those costs can only be low in those dense urban cities where you can be guaranteed idling will guarantee opportunities.


That and the massive, massive amounts of VC money backing the company that allow it to set below-market rates. If you put that kind of cash into a regular taxi company, they could similarly afford to have more cars idling.
posted by cjelli at 11:35 AM on September 6, 2017 [9 favorites]


That 'costs money,' yes, but it also saves money.

But then we're in Vimes-boots-theory territory. I mean, you're entirely right that putting the cost on the company and upping the price ultimately costs less in the long run, but many of us don't have the fiscal stability to be able to wait for the long run. That's why we're using these services in the first place - because we can't afford a better answer.

For example - I don't use AirBnB because I love it so much and it's just better than hotels. I use it because I can't always afford hotels in the towns I AirBnB in. If AirBnB started costing the same price as hotels, I would have a much more difficult time travelling at all.
posted by corb at 12:02 PM on September 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


I mean, you're entirely right that putting the cost on the company and upping the price ultimately costs less in the long run, but many of us don't have the fiscal stability to be able to wait for the long run. That's why we're using these services in the first place - because we can't afford a better answer.

This is the same argument that Walmart uses to justify its abusive policies, and the reality is that you really can't afford these services in the long run, because what do you think happens to your income when the gig economy becomes normalized?
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:07 PM on September 6, 2017 [5 favorites]


many of us don't have the fiscal stability to be able to wait for the long run.

Which is true, and, to tie this back to the gig economy, is exactly not unrelated to the fact that companies constantly look for ways to not pay people money. Those are two sides of the same coin: pay people more, and they'll more often have the financial stability to afford to pay for services that work in the long run.
posted by cjelli at 12:11 PM on September 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


sometimes regulations are just a means of changing who pays, and preventing unfair externalities from developing.

A lot of regulations are safety standards that many of us would skip for our own sakes, but are needed for public safety.

F'rex, commercial kitchens don't have a "three second rule" about food dropped on the floor. In your own house, dealing with your own family's germs, you can decide that a cookie that hit the floor is still edible; you can't (legally) decide to charge someone else money and serve it to them. Taxi vehicle requirements are beyond what individuals often use for their own cars. Hotel room standards are beyond the cleanliness standards of many houses. And it's often hard to articulate why this has to be regulated to be safe.

Some of the safety & maintenance costs get pushed off onto the "not actually an employee" person. But for some, they're just dodging industry safety standards. (Not that they're necessarily unsafe - the hotel industry may require storm windows that aren't needed for a house renting out a room in the spring.)

... I bet the "gig economy" companies are counting on every lawsuit caused by problematic safety standards being individual, and users who were harmed not being able to set up a class-action suit for any of their problems.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:48 PM on September 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


corb: I don't use AirBnB because I love it so much and it's just better than hotels. I use it because I can't always afford hotels in the towns I AirBnB in.

But at the same time, people are buying properties to use as AirBnB instead of living there or renting them out, driving the price of housing up for everyone in the city where you are visiting. Your cheaper hotel means someone else's more expensive apartment.

I'm not singling you or this particular example out specifically, just saying that these things are complex and the AirBnBs and Ubers of the world make their money by hiding these externalities. Nobody ends up feeling like the bad guy for shrugging and saying "screw you, I got mine" because they don't even have to see the ones that didn't get theirs so the shrug is about as far as you get.
posted by fader at 2:10 PM on September 6, 2017 [5 favorites]


(I say this as someone who avoids AirBnB in cities as a rule for exactly this reason, but will never voluntarily use a cab over Lyft/Uber again as long as I live and will happily dance on the grave of every taxi company. So it's not intended as an attack and I hope it doesn't come off as one. We and these situations all contain multitudes.)
posted by fader at 2:13 PM on September 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


This is misunderstanding Klein's point. What happens is that Americans are told they have significant power individually, which in turn encourages individual action over collective -

And my point, in a historical context, is that those Americans did not decide to prefer individual over collective power based on an "American character" or anything else mysterious. It's because there's been a long-term propaganda campaign to describe collective action as "wrong", "unamerican" and "communistic", and promote "individual action". Individual power was promoted as a replscement for people who still want to change things.

Individual action, whether for negotiating a job, or deciding what foods to eat is promoted because it is generally ineffective, and only rarely causes the type of major changes that collective action does.
posted by happyroach at 2:43 PM on September 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


To restate for the record, the "sharing economy" fucking sucks.

Being a contractor is about choosing the place of work, schedule, and key aspects such as pricing and the way the work is performed.

Hrm, that only applies if you're white collar and able to actually understand things like contracts. Based on the rest of your comment I think we're on the same page, but that part really only works for a fraction of the people corporations are trying to treat as "contractors."
posted by aspersioncast at 2:43 PM on September 6, 2017


Hrm, that only applies if you're white collar and able to actually understand things like contracts.

Or to almost every roofer, plumber, electrician, landscaper, carpenter, etc.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:49 PM on September 6, 2017


>Hrm, that only applies if you're white collar and able to actually understand things like contracts.

>Or to almost every roofer, plumber, electrician, landscaper, carpenter, etc.


That's totally false. Most roofers, plumbers, electricians, landscapers and carpenters are employees, not contractors.

-- although there has been a discomforting trend for some of these contracting companies to treat their employees as not employees, part of the gig economy, eroding employee rights and benefits.
posted by JackFlash at 2:59 PM on September 6, 2017


my point is that blue collar contractors are quite able to understand things like contracts. blue collar contractors in the trades do choose their place of work, their schedule, price, etc.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 3:12 PM on September 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


loquacious: >Riding for them was a huge, huge mistake. It wasn't a job. It was modern indentured servitude, except without the promise of even a scrap of room and board.

wenestvedt:>These jobs aren't inherently inhumane -- it's the modern, hyper-capitalist, VC-driven companies that make them awful.

I was a courier dispatcher in Boston in the early 1990s, for a downtown service bureau.


Yes, these stories really made me think of the old bicycle courier culture back in the 1990s and earlier. There is a really amazing book about this, The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power by Travis Hugh Culley.

Based on that, this type of job was always something of a rat-race, was always something of a grind, and never really provided a really solid and GOOD wage, but still--compared with Postmates, Uber, Lyft, and their ilk, the old way sounds positively like some happy combination of nirvana and Camelot . . .
posted by flug at 4:29 PM on September 6, 2017 [4 favorites]


Given the guys I know who were riding back then, it was well-suited to their temperaement. And TBH, I am not sure where Mike and Lick and Nani would work these days without such a freeform job. *shrug*
posted by wenestvedt at 5:52 PM on September 6, 2017


But thank you for the book recommendation!!
posted by wenestvedt at 5:53 PM on September 6, 2017


I think that workman's compensation should be a no fault system.

I am going to agree to disagree on this one point. The rest of the list was perfectly fine.

A few years back, I worked at a power co-operative helping developing a filing system for some old records. One set of them was workman's comp. I remember one claim about an employee who decided to walk through a dark room without turning the light on. They proceeded to trip over a chair and break their glasses and chipped a couple of teeth. The scary thing is that this person worked at a nuclear plant.

Now, I realize accidents happen and all, and that workers should be protected from paying for when they do go extra badly. But, if you can't even take the most basic precautions, then perhaps you shouldn't be immunized?
posted by Samizdata at 7:44 PM on September 6, 2017


Maybe we could go to a single payer health care system but give you a veto over who doesn't deserve medical treatment.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:04 PM on September 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


Samizdata: "I am going to agree to disagree on this one point." [...] "But, if you can't even take the most basic precautions, then perhaps you shouldn't be immunized?"

Yep, I could careless about free riders of this nature but I realise not everyone sees it this way. That's one of the advantages of being god emperor. IMO an at fault system is used to discourage claims (which mostly effects disadvantaged workers) and as a way to minimize payments via delays and denials to workers who are injured through no fault of their own.
posted by Mitheral at 9:18 PM on September 6, 2017 [5 favorites]


Upthread someone claimed that Uber was using game theory to trick their drivers. I questioned this, someone provided a link supposedly supporting it. Turns out that Uber was indeed tricking their drivers using pyschological tricks, but they weren't using game theory at all.

No, I claimed that Postmates was using game theory in how their platform worked as a whole, and how it leveraged riders against each other via the rider-side delivery/dispatch application. Someone else provided a link that Uber was using psychological tricks in their driver app.

And I'm using game theory in the traditionally accepted definition for a reason to talk about Postmates' app in particular.

They may not be consciously using game theory to develop and design their platform, but the end results of how their platform works can readily be modeled with game theory in an economic sphere and application.

Based on my experiences with startups and webdev culture and my direct experience with how their platform actually performed it is not a stretch at all to imagine that their whole platform strategies involve some game theory applied in the planning. Hell, I've seen people clumsily try to apply game theory for random apps to try to predict human behavior and outcomes.

Proving this academically would be more work than I'm willing to take on even if I had access to Postmates' source code, logs and meeting/planning notes. Getting access to that data en vivo and unaltered would be nearly impossible even with an army of lawyers and unlimited funds.

But from the armchair I would argue that Postmates' platform could be mapped to and modeled using a couple of different models or a hybrid of models. In particular I'd argue that the imperfect information, non-cooperative, continuous and many player models would be useful for both designing the platform and analyzing it.
posted by loquacious at 9:12 AM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]


Tom Slee's What's Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy is a very useful summary of the various sins of the sharing/gig economy powerhouses. I read the first several chapters nodding vigorously. It's what I already think, but with footnotes! I thought.

Then he got to the part about open source software. About the various pieties my community spouts, and about how things actually go down, about the ways in which I am encouraging certain kinds of exploitation. It's probably time for me to reread it, actually.

An acquaintance of mine recently made the point: Uber's/Lyft's VC bubble will burst, and when that happens, people who currently rely on those ridesharing companies for cheap transit will no longer have access to it, which will have ripple effects especially throughout US exurbs and poorer US cities. We have a sort of accidental infrastructure that is teetering on a precipice.
posted by brainwane at 11:15 AM on September 7, 2017 [4 favorites]


But from the armchair I would argue that Postmates' platform could be mapped to and modeled using a couple of different models or a hybrid of models. In particular I'd argue that the imperfect information, non-cooperative, continuous and many player models would be useful for both designing the platform and analyzing it.

There's a huge difference between 'could be modeled' and 'uses models for XYZ purpose.' Intro courses model a couple's decision on which opera to go to, thats a far cry from using a model to decide which opera to go to.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:50 AM on September 7, 2017


ArsTechnica: The first man to sue over his “gig economy” job got dismantled on cross-examination
The sole plaintiff going to trial over his treatment in the "gig economy" has a serious problem. Under cross-examination yesterday, former GrubHub deliveryman Raef Lawson admitted that he lied on his applications to GrubHub, got paid for shifts he barely worked, and took affirmative steps to avoid doing deliveries.

Lawson also acknowledged that, before applying to GrubHub, he consulted with his attorney, who has specialized in lawsuits against so-called "gig economy" companies, like Uber and Lyft… And Lawson was fired from another gig economy platform, Postmates, which directly accused him of fraud.
posted by danny the boy at 5:15 PM on September 7, 2017


blue collar contractors in the trades do choose their place of work, their schedule, price, etc.

As someone who has actually worked as a blue collar contractor, this does not match well with my experience, nor that of almost anyone I ever worked with with one or two notable exceptions. Maybe this is true in places with better worker protection than the Bay Area?
posted by aspersioncast at 6:19 PM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


I have too. My entire family still does. By contractor, I don't mean the employee, I mean the person running and owning the business. In the suburban east coast, this is usually a very small business consisting of a handfull of skilled employees, where the owner does the work as well. They work almost exclusively on residential properties. Like everything, I'm sure this varies across the country.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:29 AM on September 8, 2017


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