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“I Work Like an Independent Worker, and I Feel Happy“

What today’s workers can learn from day laborers and domestic workers about job security, health benefits and retirement.

(Photo: Leeroy / Lifeofpix)

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Nelson Gamio gets up at 6:30 a.m. each morning. After putting on his usual t-shirt and jeans, he sits in the chair and laces up his paint-splattered boots. He has just enough time to run across the street to grab a $1 cup of coffee with a piece of bread and to feel a bit of San Diego’s gentle sun before he starts work at 7 a.m.

In 2010, the labor market was still recovering from the recession, so Gamio was happy to have a two-month-long assignment remodeling an upholstery store. “I enjoy doing construction jobs,” he confirms. “I like building things.” Whether it was laying carpet, painting, or re-stuccoing, Gamio took pride in transforming spaces and nodded at his own craftsmanship when he saw the once-drab store take on new form. What he relished most was that he was in the seventh year of being his own boss. “I work like an independent worker, and I feel happy.”

The backdrop of lively music, working alongside his comrades, and his passion for the project helped the 12-hour shifts pass by. Working long hours had become common for Gamio, who agreed to a flat rate of $50 dollars a day, plus lunch. It was less than the minimum wage, “but it was near Christmas and I had to send money home,” Gamio recalls. “It was a big recession at the time.”

Though Gamio had accepted the rate, he was shocked when his employer refused to pay him — an issue he had never experienced before. He refused to take the loss without a fight. For the first time, he decided to reach out to a local association of day laborers to learn his rights. He later filed his case with the California Labor Commissioner’s Officeand won.

Many of the current benefits and protections for workers like Gamio can be traced to the tireless grassroots organizing that came before him. Day laborers and domestic workers have long struggled in an on-demand and shift-work economy. These are some of the original gig economy workers, and they have decades of experience organizing in the absence of the job security, health benefits, and retirement plans afforded by traditional workplaces.

Today, the scope of on-demand labor is expanding. Most of the new jobs created since the 2008 financial crisis aren’t traditional jobs at all, but some form of contract or temporary employment. The growth has been especially fast among those who find work through smartphone applications like Uber, Lyft, and TaskRabbit.

As these millions of newcomers struggle to organize, they can look to those who’ve come before for guidance. One of the most effective tools has been worker centers, where participants can learn their rights, get work assignments, earn certifications, and develop new skills. Large coalitions like Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), and the National Guest worker Alliance (NGA) are examples of effective mass organizing of informal workers.

The key has been moving from the individual to the collective, which is challenging because these workers are used to seeing themselves as lone entrepreneurs. But when independent contractors begin to face labor-related challenges, they realize they need support and seek alliances. “You start organizing by selflessly helping workers,” says Mark Day, executive director at San Diego Workers Center (SDWC), “whether it’s wage theft, social security, immigration, domestic violence, or health and safety questions.” Gamio is one of the workers Day helped, and today the two co-run SDWC.

Day isn’t sure the most recent crop of gig economy workers realize they need that kind of organizing yet. Uber drivers, for example, may be too “individualistic,” he says. But they could start by having local house meetings to establish their common concerns and goals and then branch out.

Hard-Won Wisdom

Omar Leon, workforce development coordinator for NDLON and a former Los Angeles day laborer, says workers’ commitment to assembly meetings has been crucial to their success. Skilled in landscaping, carpentry, construction, demolition, and more, these workers contribute to many construction projects.

Day laborers who stand on the corner waiting for work are often a part of an “organized corner” supported by a day laborer center. “This is our workplace,” says Leon. “We have rules. We’re going to keep it clean. No one will be disrespectful, no drinking, no one goes out for less than the minimum agreed wage, and everyone participates on cleaning day.” If a worker violates the rules, the center will give him a warning, a one- to three-day suspension, or a permanent ban, depending on the offense.

The centers help regulate their industry by setting and enforcing standards. During assembly meetings — held in coffee shops, at workers’ homes, or at work centers — laborers participate in the decision-making, speak up about their needs, and decide which actions and campaigns to support. The meetings serve as a platform to discuss issues and ways to grow. “Even though this is an informal economy,” Leon says, “the workers learn about marketing, brand strategy, work ethics, and customer satisfaction.”

Just like the makers of Etsy and the drivers of Uber, many day laborers say independence is a draw. Day laborers set their own schedules, work with a variety of employers, and decide what jobs work best for them. In many cases, they earn more than their counterparts in factories, says Leon. “Workers are part of these day laborer centers, but they’re still independent and autonomous.”

Building connections among the autonomous is part of the foundation for organizing old-school on-demand workers. Barbara Young, a domestic worker for 17 years, is a national organizer for the NDWA. She says she felt called to work on behalf of fellow domestic workers after receiving an informational leaflet while sitting in a Brooklyn, New York, park with the child she was tending. She later attended a Domestic Workers United (DWU) meeting.

“They offered CPR training from the American Heart Association, which was great, but [they also discussed] the history of the domestic workers in the country,” said Young. “It was about the exclusion that we faced. I was so interested, and I just wanted every domestic worker in New York to know what was going on.” Soon, Young began handing out newsletters to domestic workers she encountered at bus stops and park benches.

Abuse in the industry inspired Young and other domestic workers — alongside unions, employers, clergy, and community groups — to organize for labor protections they had been specifically excluded from. Although many domestic workers were sent out by an agency, that didn’t mean they were safe. Young realized this after a housekeeper told her an employer in the Hamptons had said she could leave the worker to die in the basement and no one would know.

The NDWA’s original goal was to make agencies accountable for workers’ safety by keeping a three-year record of all workers dispatched. But the campaign ultimately led to greater achievements. In 2010, after six years of organizing, the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed, giving these workers the right to overtime pay, a day of rest every seven days, protection under the state’s human rights law, and more. The NDWA later successfully spearheaded the fight that led to the implementation of similar bills of rights in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Oregon.

Some new on-demand workers are following the same path of grassroots organizing that Young credits for much of the NDWA’s success. In 2015, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to give workers for Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing apps the ability to unionize. The road to victory was fraught with obstacles, says Daniel Ajema, an attorney and former Uber driver.

Drawn in by the flexibility and independence, many drivers in Seattle started out happy at Uber. They felt in control and like an integral part of the company. But soon, Ajema says, drivers started to feel that the company was more concerned about its own bottom line than with workers’ lives. “Whether it was disciplining, firing and hiring, or the percentage they took from the driver, they had all the power, and the changes they implemented on a daily basis maximized their income as a company.”

Seattle Uber drivers shared a common goal of job security and decent wages. Drivers wanted to act, but they didn’t know where to begin, says Ajema. Many feared retaliation from Uber and didn’t want to lose their jobs. “I needed to do some convincing and make them believe that we would make more impact as a group than individual,” says the Ethiopian native. First, he needed a list of all Seattle-based Uber drivers — a list Uber refused to distribute. So he stood outside of the company’s Seattle headquarters and spoke to drivers as they came and went. Soon, he assembled a cadre of drivers who began distributing flyers, using social media, and holding political forums to get the word out. After two years, Seattle’s contract drivers became the first in the United States to win the right to unionize.

Some on-demand workers have also achieved success by forming alliances outside their industries. In 1999, when janitors in Los Angeles went on strike, some of the cleaning companies went to the corners and workers’ centers where day laborers gathered and tried to hire them. But the day laborers didn’t take the jobs and marched alongside the janitors instead. Each corner held an assembly meeting, took a vote, and decided to refuse all work from employers facing strikes, Leon recalls. Later, when car wash workers picketed because businesses failed to pay the minimum wage or abide by basic labor and safety laws, day laborers refused to accept their enticing offers of $10 an hour.

“We always respected the picket lines and respected the struggle,” Leon says. “No matter how much need we are in, even if we haven’t paid our rent or worked for two weeks, we decided we wouldn’t take the jobs.”

Most recently, NDLON supported a Raise the Wage campaign in Pasadena, California, which fought to gradually increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Leon believes allegiance across occupational lines aids all informal and low-earning workers, because they’re more likely to gain leverage if they are unified.

New Workers, New Power

Gig economy workers aren’t necessarily that different from traditional employees, says Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of ROC United and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “There is a bit of an idea that ‘Oh well, we’re moving to a world in which nobody really has an employer and people transition from one place to another, and we’re all sort of in an independent contractor world with portable benefits.'” She says that thinking fails to hold companies accountable.

“They’re not just independent contractors. There is an employer. There are corporate actors involved — even if they are in Silicon Valley.” She suggests a “low road, high road” strategy, in which organizers simultaneously name and shame and campaign against the low-road actors that dominate these industries, while lifting up those doing it ethically.

As the entire economy starts to get a taste of on-demand workers’ lives, Jayaraman says it’s an opportunity to recognize the concerns shared by all on-demand workers — whether they get their work on the street corner or on their smart phones. “The whole on-demand economy has become a lot more prominent, a lot more central, a lot more mainstream, as higher-income on-demand workers have now started to deal with the instability and insecurity of being on-demand,” says Jayaraman.

Ajema agrees. The more the gig economy’s labor force diversifies, he adds, and particularly as it includes people with voting power, the stronger chance there is for legislative change. And that’s the ultimate goal.

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