The future of the “gig economy” is on the table in California, where the legislature is considering a bill that would make it much harder to categorize workers as independent contractors, rather than actual employees. Needless to say, companies are going all out to oppose it. Postmates even got 1,600 of its own workers to speak out against it. Uhh... how?
Postmates is a perfect example of a tech-driven “gig economy” company that depends on the fiction that its workers are contractors (meaning the company owes them little except money) rather than employees (which would mean that the company owes them many workplace protections and benefits enshrined by law, and that they could unionize). Do the math: Postmates says it operates in 3,500 cities, but only has “800+” employees. Hmmm.
The stakes are high. Organized labor, for the most part, is determined to win employee classification for these gig workers, reasoning that it is the only way that people will be able to have stable lives and a living wage in the economy of the future, preventing the American job market from descending into an all-freelance dystopia of nonstop “gig” work just to stay afloat. The companies, on the other hand, see it as a threat to their lucrative business models as responsibility-free middlemen; one analysis found that the bill could cost Uber alone $500 million per year.
The issue is so threatening, in fact, that companies have made the political calculation that they will need to offer up an alternative if they want to have any hope of diverting public will away from the bill in question. And so the CEOs of companies like Uber and Lyft are now publicly advocating a sort of pale and toothless imitation of the bill: a “drivers organization” (not a union) and “certain benefits” (but not the same benefits that go to employees), in exchange for continuing to classify workers as independent contractors. The CEO of Postmates wrote his own op-ed calling for a similar package of proposals that “ends this confusion and empowers gig workers without taking away their flexibility or ability to innovate.”
On Wednesday, Postmates upped its public relations campaign by running this full page ad in the Los Angeles Times:
I find it interesting that so many gig workers—people who work for Postmates, which is not the world’s easiest or most lucrative job—would enthusiastically volunteer to lend their names to a public request to keep themselves classified as second-class workers, ensuring they will never get things like a union or real company health insurance. Odd passion to have! I asked Postmates how they found all these names. A spokesperson responded:
“More than 1,600 California gig workers called on the state’s leaders to establish a new safety net that balances worker flexibility with worker benefits and protections in the on-demand economy. Over the last month, members of the Postmates fleet have submitted more than 2,100 letters and e-mail messages directly to legislators in Sacramento — requesting that lawmakers convene labor, industry, and workers to a common table to discuss the fate of their work — a call if answered, could yield a durable, long term solution.
Postmates CEO Bastian Lehmann publicly called for a new deal for gig workers that provides statewide minimum wage protections, new portable benefits (such as accident insurance, health savings, etc.), and worker representation, while protecting their unprecedented autonomy to work how and when they choose. That’s the vision endorsed by more than 1,600 California gig workers today (signed in Arabic, English, Mandarin & Spanish) and we hope it will provide momentum for a deliberate legislative process that heeds their calls includes labor unions, gig companies, and workers themselves.”
How did the company solicit its workers to lend their names to this cause? What exactly did the company tell them was at stake? How were the issues framed internally? Were threats, or promises, or misrepresentations made? Or was this simply a good old-fashioned case of one thousand six hundred low-wage workers spontaneously coming together to petition the governor of their state not to improve their working conditions? I asked Postmates for more information on this, and will update if I receive it.
In the meantime: Is your name in this ad? Are you one of these gig workers? How did this come about? Please email me and let me know.
We simply want to ensure that this week’s corporate political public relations campaign is on the up and up.
Update: A second Postmates official tells us, “It was a petition workers signed on their own in English, Arabic, Spanish and Mandarin.” We will ask for more information, still.