Pluralistic: When the app tries to make you robo-scab (30 July 2023)

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An old photo of strikers before a struck factory, with tear-gas plumes rising above them. The image has been modified to add a Marriott sign to the factory, and the menacing red eye of HAL9000 from Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' to the sky over the factory. The workers have been colorized to a yellow-green shade and the factory has been colorized to a sepia tone.

When the app turns you into a robo-scab (permalink)

When we talk about the abusive nature of gig work, there's some obvious targets, like algorithmic wage discrimination, where two workers are paid different rates for the same job, in order to trick occasional gig-workers to give up their other sources of income and become entirely dependent on the app:

Then there's the opacity – imagine if your boss refused to tell you how much you'll get paid for a job until after you've completed it, claimed that this was done in order to "protect privacy" – and then threatened anyone who helped you figure out the true wage on offer:

Opacity is wage theft's handmaiden: every gig worker producing content for a social media algorithm is subject to having their reach – and hence their pay – cut based on the unaccountable, inscrutable decisions of a content moderation system:

Making content for an algorithm is like having a boss that docks every paycheck because you broke rules that you are not allowed to know, because if you knew the rules, you'd figure out how to cheat without your boss catching you. Content moderation is the last place where security through obscurity is considered good practice:

When workers seize the means of computation, amazing things happen. In Indonesia, gig workers create and trade tuyul apps that let them unilaterally modify the way that their bosses' systems see them – everything from GPS spoofing to accessibility mods:

So the tech and labor story isn't wholly grim: there are lots of ways that tech can enhance labor struggles, letting workers collaborate and coordinate. Without digital systems, we wouldn't have the Hot Strike Summer:

As the historic writer/actor strike shows us, the resurgent labor movement and the senescent forces of crapulent capitalism are locked in a death-struggle over not just what digital tools do, but who they do it for and who they do it to:

When it comes to the epic fight over who technology acts for and against, we need a diversity of tactics, backstopped by tech operated by and for its users – and by laws that protect workers and the public. That dynamic is in sharp focus in UNITE Here Local 11's strike against Orange County's Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa.

The UNITE Here strike turns on the usual issues like a living wage (hotel staff are paid so little they have to rent rooming-house beds by the shift, paying for the right to sleep in a room for a few hours at a time, without any permanent accommodation). They're also seeking health-care and pensions, so they can be healthy at work and retire after long service. Finally, they're seeking their employer's support for LA's Responsible Hotels Ordinance, which would levy a tax on hotel rooms to help pay for hotel workers' housing costs (a hotel worker who can't afford a bed is the equivalent of a fast food worker who has to apply for food stamps):

But the Marriott – which is owned by the University of California and managed by Aimbridge Hospitality – has refused to bargain, walking out of negotiations.

But the employer didn't walk out over wages, benefits or support for a housing subsidy. They walked out when workers demanded that the scabs that the company was trying to hire to break the strike be given full time, union jobs.

These aren't just any scabs, either. They're predominantly Black workers who rely on the $700m Instawork app for gigs. These workers are being dispatched to cross the picket line without any warning that they're being contracted as strikebreakers. When workers refuse to cross the picket and join the strike, Instawork cancels all their shifts and permanently blocks them from new jobs.

This is a new, technologically supercharged form of illegal strikebreaking. It's one thing for a single boss to punish a worker who refuses to scab, but Instawork acts as a plausible-deniability filter for all the major employers in the region. Like the landlord apps that allow landlords to illegally fix rents by coordinating hikes, Instawork lets bosses illegally collude to rig wages by coordinating a blocklist of workers who refuse to scab:

The racial dimension is really important here: the Marriott has a longstanding de facto policy of refusing to hire Black workers, and whenever they are confronted with this, they insist that there are no qualified Black workers in the labor pool. But as soon as the predominantly Latino workforce struck, Marriott discovered a vast Black workforce that it could coerce into scabbing, in collusion with Instawork.

Now, all of this isn't just sleazy, it's illegal, a violation of Section 7 of the NLRB Act. Historically, that wouldn't have mattered, because a string of presidents, R and D, have appointed useless do-nothing ghouls to run the NLRB. But the Biden admin, pushed by the party's left wing, made a string of historic, excellent appointments, including NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, who has set her sights on punishing gig work companies for flouting labor law:

UNITE HERE 11 has brought a case to the NLRB, charging Instawork, the UC system, Marriott, and Aimbridge with violating labor law by blackmailing gig workers into crossing the picket line. The union is also asking the NLRB to punish the companies for failing to protect workers from violent retaliation from the wealthy hotel guests who have punched them and screamed epithets at them. The hotel has refused to identify these thug guests so that the workers they assaulted can swear out complaints against them.

Writing about the strike for Jacobin, Alex N Press tells the story of Thomas Bradley, a Black worker who was struck off all Instawork shifts for refusing to cross the picket line and joining it instead:

Bradley's case is exhibit A in the UNITE HERE 11 case before the NLRB. He has a degree in culinary arts, but racial discrimination in the industry has kept him stuck in gig and temp jobs ever since he graduated, nearly a quarter century ago. Bradley lived out of his car, but that was repossessed while he slept in a hotel room that UNITE HERE 11 fundraised for him, leaving him homeless and bereft of all his worldly possessions.

With UNITE HERE 11's help, Bradley's secured a job at the downtown LA Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites, a hotel that has bargained with the workers. Bradley is using his newfound secure position to campaign among other Instawork workers to convince them not to cross picket lines. In these group chats, Jacobin saw workers worrying "that joining the strike would jeopardize their standing on the app."

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0, modified)

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Colophon (permalink)

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