September 28, 2021
EP. 124 — Labor under Big Tech with Veena Dubal
The job market is now dominated by tech monopolies that are using their power to lower wages and squeeze workers. Luckily, the workers are finally fighting back. This week, UC Hastings professor Veena Dubal joins Adam to detail the future of workers’ rights in the gig economy.
124 — Labor under Big Tech with Veena Dubal
Speaker 1 [00:00:01] Hello everyone, and welcome to Factually. I’m Adam Conover, thank you for joining me once again as I talk to an incredible expert about all the amazing things that they know and that I don’t know and that you probably don’t know. Both of our minds are going to be blown together, we’re going to have a great time. Let’s talk about gig work and specifically all of these apps that have changed our lives. We now use them – I used them today. We use Uber and Lyft to get around. We use DoorDash, Seamless and Instacart to get things like food and products dropped off. And of course, we use Amazon for just about everything. These companies have transformed our lives. They have made the world so much faster and more convenient, if not always cheaper. They’ve done it, they say, through technology, right? They use technology to coordinate and to manage people to let people run their own gig driving businesses or make a little extra money working in a warehouse during the winter during the Christmas rush. Well, the truth is a little bit darker because the real secret sauce that allows these companies to deliver us their services so fast and so cheap is not just technology, it’s treating people like machines. Let’s look at Amazon; one of America’s largest employers at this point. Inside Amazon warehouses, employees are constantly monitored. If you work too slowly or catch your breath too often or even go to the bathroom too much, you can be fired for taking too much TOT. That stands for ‘time off task.’ Some warehouses even feature a device that shines a spotlight on the item a worker needs to pick up to stop them from taking what an employee called ‘micro rests’ in between picking up an item. Because if you take micro rest, you know just a little pause to catch your breath, how can you meet quotas requiring you to place 700 items each hour? This is not safe work. You have to lift, carry and move items constantly, which means it’s no surprise that an investigation of 23 Amazon warehouses found that nearly 10 percent of their full time workers sustained serious injuries in 2018, and pain is such a constant part of Amazon warehouse employment that their warehouses actually feature painkiller vending machines. That is real. That is a real thing, and things are just as bad for the workers that drive your package to your front door. Drivers for Amazon have to consent to machine learning enabled surveillance in their car before they can even start work, and the hours can be so grueling, the pace so ridiculous that drivers end up pissing in bottles just to stay on schedule. That’s right, to keep their jobs, drivers piss in bottles while being taped by AI cameras in their Ford Sprinter. It is not the wonderful work paradise that the tech industry promised us. The secret sauce (in other words) of the gig economy, is not a proprietary algorithm. It’s exploitation. These companies have (simply put) amassed monopolistic control over huge swaths of our economy and then use that monopoly power to fuck over workers. But there is some good news. Workers and the politicians who represent them are starting to fight back, and there are signs that things could suck less. California just passed a bill setting quota limits for warehouse workers, and New York City passed a groundbreaking law to guarantee wages and protect food delivery workers. So what does the future of worker rights in the tech era look like? Well, to discuss today on the show, we have a guest. We’ve been trying to book her for so long because her work is fantastic. Her name is Veena Dubal. She’s a law professor at UC Hastings, and she studies workers and tech. Let me say before we go to the interview, that California law I just mentioned: when we recorded this interview, it hadn’t been signed by the governor yet. So we talk about it as though it’s struggling on the precipice when in reality, hey, it actually has been passed. So without further ado, please welcome Veena Dubal. Veena, thank you so much for being here.
Speaker 2 [00:04:16] I’m really, really excited to be here, thanks for having me.
Speaker 1 [00:04:19] I’m so excited to have you. I’ve followed your work for a long time. The work that you do; writing about and researching labor issues and the tech industry and how those two things connect. We’re going to have a ton to talk about. I want to start by talking about this new bill, in California I believe, that is about making sure that Amazon workers have the right to use the bathroom. Can you tell me about this bill and why – It seems a pretty basic measure. Why is it controversial?
Speaker 2 [00:04:49] Yeah, it is super simple. It does two things. This is AB 701, it’s been passed by the California Senate and Assembly, and it’s sitting in front of Gavin Newsom’s desk as we speak. He has not signed it yet. He has roughly two weeks to sign it.
Speaker 1 [00:05:09] But he’s got a lot to do, he’s a busy guy. He’s relaxing by the pool after beating the recall and I’m sure there’s no controversial reason that he wouldn’t be signing it, right?
Speaker 2 [00:05:24] No, exactly right. We should hope. It’s facing a lot of opposition from Amazon and from industry. What it does is, it says that that companies like Amazon that have these warehouse workers have to do two things. One, they have to report their quotas to regulators, the quotas that they set for workers. This is really important because it just offers a window, a descriptive window, into what is happening in the warehouse. Right now, everything that we know is happening, we get from workers and through anecdotes. So this is a way for us to really understand concretely how severe the conditions are in the warehouse. That really just it: you have to tell us what the quotas are. The second thing is, that it makes it unlawful for a company like Amazon to prevent warehouse workers from doing things that they need to for their health and safety. So if a worker has to pee, for example, preventing a worker from peeing in order to meet their quota would be unlawful. That’s pretty basic. We have health and safety standards already written into the law. It doesn’t shock. It is not shocking, this idea that workers should need to go to the bathroom or they should need to be able to change their tampon or pump breast milk. These are things that pretty much are already covered by California health and safety laws, but are ignored in this particular industry. It’s really mild. I think any layperson who hears about this bill would just be like, ‘Of course, why do we even have to legislate for this?’ But Amazon doesn’t like it because these companies don’t like being told what to do with their businesses. If we have a concrete sense of how severe their quotas are, they won’t be able to use PR spin to get away with what they’re doing. So they’ve been using all the sort of anti-union propaganda to say, ‘Oh, this is just an effort to unionize the workers’ and that the unions don’t really care about the workers, even though this is not about collective organizing at all. It’s really about state regulation or even just seeing what is what’s going on.
Speaker 1 [00:08:00] But they’re also fighting back on the specific point of just ensuring that workers have access to a bathroom. I saw a quote from the California Retailers Association, which Amazon is on the board of, according to this interview with you that I read. They say ‘Establishing potentially open ended employee access to bathroom facilities will make employers ability to enforce production standards even more complex.’ So they’re specifically saying that a guaranteed right to go to the bathroom would fuck with our shit, so we don’t want to do it. So they are arguing that they must have the ability to prevent employees from using the bathroom freely, which, I don’t know. To me, that’s an extremely basic workplace right. It would never would have occurred to me that a workplace in the United States would prevent people from using the bathroom when they need to use the bathroom. That’s something I would have expected to hear about at the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory or conditions like that in the 20’s, where you’re chained to your desk.
Speaker 2 [00:09:03] Yeah, it should shock the conscience. I think the fact that they wrote that without realizing how it would be received speaks to how companies like Amazon have really taken the low road. Workers are cogs in the machine for them; they haven’t replaced the workers with with robots. But they’ve just turned workers into robots and expected that they behave like robots. You’re right, it’s totally the kind of human rights issue that we would critique another country for violating. And yet, this is the retailers association stated official opposition.
Speaker 1 [00:09:50] So I have to ask, how did we get here? We’ve had a labor movement in America for well over a hundred years, about one hundred and fifty years now. Even with the fall or relative decline of unions: we’ve got OSHA, we’ve got a federal Department of Labor, we have regulations all over the place. California is a state with a relatively large amount of regulations compared to other states in America. How do we get to a state where a bill to protect this extremely basic human need is controversial at all? That seems like such a huge backslide. How did we get to this place?
Speaker 2 [00:10:34] That’s a great question on the subject of much research, but I’ll say a couple of things. The decline of unions in the past 60 years has really declined worker power more broadly. I think people are not thinking as much: regulators and and workers or consumers are not thinking as much about about the necessity of work regulations. Then we have these tech companies, from Uber to Amazon, who have really rapidly (in one decade) changed consumer expectations around speed and service; and they’ve done this in order to establish monopolies, right? When things are so easy, when all you have to do is click a button on your phone to purchase something and it lands on your doorstep in two days. Or all you have to do is click a button on your phone, and a really cheap ride shows up, in the form of an immigrant worker. It’s so easy and you get addicted to it.
Speaker 1 [00:11:45] In places like Los Angeles, where – I remember being in Los Angeles before Uber, I was here for for six months and I was like, ‘God, how do I get around the city? I got to go back to New York.’ And then when I finally had to move here for work five years later, Uber existed and I was like, ‘Oh, I can get to and from the comedy club and get home again.’ We’ve talked about this on the show, but it actually fill the gap that people needed filled that that the city wasn’t filling and the state wasn’t filling. Amazon did the same thing for a lot of people. They have access to goods they wouldn’t have access to before. It’s not just the convenience, they really did fill that need, but at what cost?
Speaker 2 [00:12:26] Right. I think the need, particularly say getting your body from point A to point B was really, in many ways, a failure of governance: the fact that L.A. has no public transportation system to speak of is a failure of municipal governance. Why can you not get from work to home in L.A. without sitting in traffic for two hours? That is ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous and it’s absolutely a failure of urban planning and it’s a failure of municipal governance. You had these companies come in to fill this gap, and the way that they filled was through this particular business model. Where they wanted to occupy the entire sector, and we know in capitalism that the tendency for for industry is towards monopolization. The more of the sector you occupy, the more power you have and the higher prices you can provide and the less likely you’re ever going to go out of business. Tech has learned, in the last few years and in the last decade, that the way that you create monopolies is: you create convenience, you get people to use your service at very, very low prices. Your company is being subsidized by venture capital. So even though you’re losing money by offering really low prices, you do it because you can and monopoly is the name of the game. Everyone gets addicted to Uber. It becomes a verb. You uber from home to work or from the club to work or the club to home. That’s what’s happened, and now what we will see is prices will rise for consumers. We’re already seeing this. I saw a huge taxi line at SFO the other day because prices for Lyft and Uber were astronomical and people are getting in line to use taxis again. Prices are going to go up. This is true. We’ve already seen on Amazon, actually, and I think consumers don’t notice this. But the things that you buy on Amazon in many instances are actually much more expensive than they would be if you went to Wal-Mart or Target. But such is the case. This is how they’re ultimately going to turn a profit, through the consumer addiction and the subsidizing of prices initially to facilitate that addiction. And the other thing, in addition to being cheap that they did, and this is relevant to our conversation: in addition to making everything really cheap, they made everything really fast. In an age where people like me and you are working really long hours, no one does a 40 hour workweek anymore. I’m a professor, I’m tenured, I have job security. I probably work 50 to 60 hours a week. It’s hard for me to get my groceries. We all just live this really quick lifestyle, all of these things that were for decades, someone else did in the family when we had this bread winning model of family where a wife stayed at home and did the grocery shopping and did the cooking. All of a sudden, now, we have we have this dual family incomes because we can’t survive with just one person working and there’s no time to do any of these service things. So we farm them out to companies to have their workers do it and in order to compete with one another, they need to be super fast. So to answer your question at the beginning, which is how did we get here? A big part of it just in the last decade, is how these companies have preyed on and shifted consumer expectations. Now to meet those expectations, what happens beneath the surface is absolute exploitation of labor. I always say, you would never put a slave in your basement and make that person make clothes for you or so sew clothes for you. But when we buy from H&M and these fast fashion companies that may very well be what is happening, and we just don’t know about it. In these instances, in the warehouses, in the service economy, a lot of this: in the ride hail industry, the food delivery industry, these services are happening not in Bangladesh or in Yemen. They are happening here in the United States, so it’s harder to hide. What this bill does is, AB 701, try to stop hiding it so that we see it. I think the hope, ultimately, is that it will shock the conscience. That those of us who use Amazon will be like, ‘Hey. Do I really need those sponges that I ordered last night to come today? Or could I wait a few days?’ There has to be some cultural pushback against this. Regulatory pushback and cultural pushback. It’s, as you said, it doesn’t feel American. It feels like something that should be happening somewhere else. And what’s sad is that the more it happens, the longer we stand for it, the more it’s going to be normalized and will be part of our culture.
Speaker 1 [00:18:22] The more it’s going to be unavoidable there are still plenty of situations like after the passage of Prop 22, which we talked about on the show after it passed. But let’s get into it a little bit today. I was like, I need to stop taking Uber’s and Lyft’s because I’m so revolted by what these companies did. I still had to take them sometimes because there’s no there’s no other choice. Part of that’s because – you were talking about prices rising, right? And how the monopoly works and there’s a really great example of that has really directly affected everybody, which is (like you say) that venture capitalists pour money into these companies to keep their prices low, and they’re doing that because they’re trying to establish a monopoly. If you look at airport transportation, for instance. There used to be this company called Super Shuttle, you remember Super Shuttle? And I used to take it all the time. You booked ahead of time a super shuttle to pick you up from your home, take you to the airport or vice versa. You could do a shared ride for cheaper, where they make a couple other stops or you get a direct ride. It cost about the same as an Uber for a direct ride, or a little bit less. But that company is now out of business. Nationally, it used to be at dozens of airports, and it’s straight up does not exist anymore. That, as an option to get to and from LAX (a very difficult airport to get to), simply does not exist because they were pushed out of the market and it was a cheaper option that was better for the environment because it was a shared ride. And it’s gone now and the same thing is happening in so many other industries. There’s this thing in America (and you’re talking about our culture) of, if you don’t like the job, get a better job. That job is just for people who aren’t good enough to get some better job elsewhere, except that these companies are eliminating the better jobs. They’re ceasing to exist because of because of their explicit business model of creating a monopoly. There are no better retail jobs.
Speaker 2 [00:20:16] One hundred percent. When I first started doing research with Uber and Lyft drivers, I remember I was talking to this guy who lived in the Bay Area. His wife was in a union, she was a longshore union worker, and he had been a unionized carpenter for most of his life until he hurt his back. This is a white working class guy with a strong union identity. He started doing long haul trucking after he hurt his back, and he said that that was the same system. You hardly made any money and he was away from his family. Then this is when Uber and Lyft first started. He started driving for Lyft and this is the same story. He started making a lot of money because that’s how they lured drivers into the work. Then they lowered prices and lowered prices and lowered wages. So the workers got stuck after buying a car. And he said to me, ‘You know, I used to laugh at the Wal-Mart workers. I used to say if it sucks so bad, just go get another job. And then I got stuck in this position where I had bought a car’ and this was this was not that long after the recession when there weren’t that many other jobs. ‘I bought a car and I’m stuck, and there’s not a lot else I can do. And so this is what I’m doing,’ and it took him a few years. I followed up with him recently, and he said he was eventually able to get out of it. But it took a long time. And he said, ‘Listen, if my wife wasn’t a unionized longshore worker, I could never have gotten out of it.’ It was the fact that there was one person with a stable income such that he could spend some time trying to find a new job. In the last few years, unemployment rates went down and so there was a tighter labor market there. There was stuff for him to do, but there often isn’t. I hear this all the time from people, ‘If it’s so bad, why don’t they just leave?’ This is so frustrating and so stupid, for two reasons. I think about how long it took my partner to leave the law firm that he was so miserable at. Excuse my language, but I heard him bitch for 10 years before he was able to leave. It’s hard to search for a new job, and there’s a huge amount of understandable inertia when you have your identity and you have made a lot of capital investment in this work, and it’s all wrapped up in it. And they are constantly telling you ‘We can make this work,’ through all of their bonuses and their algorithms and saying ‘You can make this work, you can do it.’ Pulling you back in; there’s a lot pushing people to keep at this work. The second reason it’s so stupid is because work in the US, work everywhere really, does not accommodate people’s basic needs. Our needs are not just to put food on the table and pay for rent, they’re also to take care of our kids and to take care of our elders, to be able to go to the grocery store to do all of this stuff and to have to be able to take time off. If you’re living a transnational life and your family is in India, to visit. The rights of the workers are so limited as it is. So when there are a few jobs that allow some degree of flexibility, where you can not be fired for not showing up for two weeks, that’s really appealing. It’s not possible to have another type of job that does that. So people are stuck. This is the kind of work that we that we need, but also that we really need to improve.
Speaker 1 [00:24:17] Yeah. Let’s talk before we go to break, because we mentioned Prop 22 and we talked about that last in our interview with Meredith Whittaker right after it was passed and what a disaster it was. But there has been some pretty big news about it recently. I first learned about it from you on Twitter, you kind of broke the news (well for a lot of people do anyway) because I think you’re just sitting around reading court filings all day. Somehow you get a ping on your phone when a new PDF comes out from the California Supreme Court. What is the new update? Actually really quick recap on what Prop 22 is, and then what is the recent update on it?
Speaker 2 [00:24:58] Sure. So in a recent article, I have called Prop 22 the new racial wage code. It is the most dangerous labor law that has been passed in the last 50 years. What it does, is create a substandard category of employment for workers who are doing transportation network work and workers who are doing food delivery work. For these particular sectors, there are all new labor laws. The minimum wage has completely gone. Overtime is completely gone. Vehicle reimbursements are completely gone. Unemployment insurance is completely gone and workers compensation is completely gone. It’s noteworthy that ride hailing in particular is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country, according to OSHA. So what’s happening in this context is really that taxpayers are subsidizing these companies that fit into this category of transportation network and delivery network companies. Because without health insurance, without appropriate workers compensation, without unemployment insurance, without the minimum wage, a lot of these workers are relying on public benefits and public services, even though they’re working some 60 hours a week.
Speaker 1 [00:26:14] This was a proposition that was passed in California as a result of a really misleading marketing campaign that Uber and Lyft paid hundreds of millions of dollars into, claiming that this was going to help workers when actually it was taking protections away from them.
Speaker 2 [00:26:29] That’s really well put, that’s exactly what they did. They spent $225 million dollars flooding the airwaves with misinformation, saying that this was going to give new protections to workers when in fact it took away protections from workers. Saying that workers of color in particular really needed it and that this is somehow progressive and at the same time as they were calling themselves anti-racist companies that stood with the Black Lives Matter movement. They were taking away rights from a majority racial minority and immigrant workforce. So really perverse outcome. I don’t think that most Californians who voted, understood the bill because it was a really complicated and b they were misinformed. So it passed and it was law, until recently. So last month (I believe it was August 21st), a superior court in California found the the proposition to be unconstitutional.
Speaker 1 [00:27:36] Wow. According to California state constitution?
Speaker 2 [00:27:38] According to the California state constitution. It was based on a technical finding. Basically, the workers compensation scheme that we have in California is in the California Constitution, and it gives the Legislature plenary power, full power, to create a complete worker’s compensation scheme for workers. Because Prop 22 took away the ability to create a scheme like that for these sectors of the workforce, the court found that it it was in violation of the California Constitution. So very, very technical legal analysis there, but rooted in the reality that these laws were written to protect all vulnerable workers and marginalized workers. Very exciting that the court found it unconstitutional. The companies are intervenors in the lawsuit, the lawsuit is actually being defended by the state because now that it’s law, the state has to defend it. So the companies are intervenors in the lawsuit, they vowed to take it all the way up to the Supreme Court. But what’s important to note is that this Supreme Court, this California Supreme Court, is the same Supreme Court that unanimously decided the decision in dynamics in 2018. It was the dynamics decision that ultimately led to AB5, which led to prop 22.
Speaker 1 [00:29:09] OK. So I think I understand how this works. I’m a new resident of California, and so I’ve been trying to figure out the process, but I think I figured out how this works. The California Supreme Court, a number of years ago, actually ruled that a lot of companies were misclassifying their workers as contractors rather than employees. As a result of that decision, the California Legislature was basically compelled to pass this big law, AB5, that fixes that classification problem. But the problem for Uber and Lyft, was that made all of their supposed contractors into employees as well and gave them all these wonderful protections. Uber and Lyft didn’t like that. So they passed Prop 22 to get them out of that again, and now they’re saying they’re going to take it to the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court is the same body that was actually protecting workers in the first place, and so it might not look kindly on that.
Speaker 2 [00:29:59] That was perfect. You should come teach my class.
Speaker 1 [00:30:03] I like to dabble, I like to dabble in explaining.
Speaker 2 [00:30:06] It was really great.
Speaker 1 [00:30:10] Thank you. I wanted to be a college professor and I couldn’t hack it in grad school. So instead, I explain things using my layman’s dumbdumb comedy tools.
Speaker 2 [00:30:19] Well, it makes it much more effective for understand it.
Speaker 1 [00:30:25] That’s reason for a little bit of optimism, then, on this point.
Speaker 2 [00:30:30] I am feeling really optimistic. There’s not been a lot of precedent that we can look to and say, ‘Oh, this is what the court has said before,’ but I’m optimistic.
Speaker 1 [00:30:44] Wow. OK, well, on that optimistic note, let’s go to break and then we’ll come back and we’ll talk about some more depressing aspects. Probably, but we’ll go find more optimism. We’ll find more depression. We’ll be right back with more Veena Dubal. OK, we’re back with Veena Dubal. So one thing that I know that you’ve written about, is how what these tech companies are trying to do (and what all of really corporate America is trying to do) is increase worker precarity, reduce wages, basically create monopolies and squeeze workers to make more profits. That is not something that is just going to happen to gig workers, that it’s something that really affects all of us. Can you elaborate on that, please?
Speaker 2 [00:31:37] Absolutely. So something that happened after Prop 22 passed, Shawn Karellen, (who is a partner at I think it’s called Menlo Ventures) who was an early uber investor. He wrote an op ed called, ‘What Prop 22 Makes Possible.’ In the op ed, he offered a fascinating window into the world of venture capital. He said, ‘This is basically amazing. We can now gigify retail. We can gigify health care, we can gigify education. This is a very exciting thing for venture capital,’ and that’s kind of what we were saying all along. Prop 22 was not just about ride hail work or food delivery work, that this was about labor standards more broadly and that companies (since 1936, or whatever, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed) have been trying to get out from underneath the minimum wage and overtime, and they successfully did it. The normalization of this kind of precarious work ultimately means that it’s going to spread because we get used to it. For me, the Prop 22 fight and ultimately what happens with the constitutionality of this fight and the fight that will happen all over the country (they have introduced a similar initiative in Massachusetts and there’s some talk of it and in Illinois as well): the more that this spreads and the more that this is normalized, the more that this is not just going to be about food delivery and ride hail. This is going to be about unionized grocery store clerks being sent to work via an app and no longer getting the minimum wage. We already have actually in Silicon Valley, substitute teachers summoned into work not as employees, but as independent contractors, they do it through an app. It’s not just the app, right? Like, yes, the app is the convenient aspect of it to get people into work, maybe to help them pick their schedule. It’s the labor conditions that the app has come to represent, and that’s what these venture capitalists want to spread because the lower the labor conditions, the lower their labor overhead and the more profit that they’re able to generate for shareholders.
Speaker 1 [00:34:12] Yeah, it just creates a model of work that they are able to impose on workers. This happened in California. This was not quite a year ago, you might remember the details more than I do. But there is a grocery chain in California that announced that – It previously did grocery delivery and they had union drivers doing it the old fashioned way. You go on the website, you call the store, the kind of thing for elderly folks. Get my groceries delivered, that they had union drivers doing. They announced that they were laying them all off and replacing them with app drivers because that’s what Prop 22 allowed. Prop 22 didn’t say ‘Uber, Lyft and Instacart,’ it said app based drivers and services. Like, ‘Oh, OK, well, if we make our delivery program on an app, we can get rid of all these union workers.’ And I don’t remember how that story ended. I remember the union was trying to fight it, but that was like, ‘This is what we should expect to see further across the country.’
Speaker 2 [00:35:15] Notably, this didn’t just happen in California. So this was at the Albertsons conglomerate, which owns Safeway and Ralphs. They did this all over the country, in response to the passage of Prop 22 because to them Prop 22 symbolized, ‘OK, this is OK. California is what every other state follows, so we’re going to go ahead and lay off all these union workers and instead replace them with DoorDash drivers.’ That is precisely what they did. I think another element of this, in addition to the fact that it’s spreading and will spread unless we stop it, that people don’t really understand is that it’s not just that these union workers were replaced with DoorDash drivers. It’s that the union workers had really good secure wages and secured jobs and the DoorDash drivers do not have secure jobs. They’re not even able to predict their wages and their hyper controlled on the job. So while the union guy might have a relationship with his supervisor and be able to say, ‘Hey, my son is really sick. Can I can I take the day off?’ Or ‘I’m sorry, I need to take this phone call to talk to my son’s teacher’ and that’s OK because he has some power in the workplace and his job is secure. These DoorDash drivers are at the whim and whimsy of algorithms, so an algorithm might think that you made a mistake when you didn’t and you have no recourse. We saw this also in the Amazon context where these workers are basically surveilled all the time by video, they are wearing technology that tracks their movement, what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and machines make mistakes just like humans make mistakes. People were being automatically laid off in instances where they didn’t have an ability to (and I say this in the past tense, but it’s very much the present tense) contest to say, ‘No, I was there’ or ‘No, actually, I met the quota and the system just didn’t pick it up or the system made a mistake.’ When you’re arguing with a machine, that’s very different than arguing with the supervisor.
Speaker 1 [00:37:44] Well, what about ‘I have a bladder infection today. I need to go to the bathroom a little bit more often.’ You say that to any boss. Any boss goes, ‘OK, go to the bathroom. I get it,’ or at least any normal person. You can appeal to someone’s humanity and say, ‘Hey, today something happened.’ This is within the human social realm: where we understand everybody’s a person and we treat each other as people. But you can’t say that to an algorithm. Then the boss comes and says, ‘OK, the algorithm says you did a bad job and my hands are tied because I just have to do what the algorithm says too. So therefore you are fired.’ It removes the human social element from the workplace entirely in a really destructive way.
Speaker 2 [00:38:28] 100 percent. Oftentimes at these places, the boss never even comes in. They’re just automatically fired, even the termination is automated. The human element of it, the fact that we’re humans that have needs and aren’t robot; there’s no room for that. There’s no room for humanity in this kind of surveilled work. Unfortunately, going back to our early part of our conversation, these kinds of things are experimented on low wage workers. A lot of these surveillance technologies were first implemented in what we call the ‘gig economy.’ They were then pushed into these warehouses and during the pandemic, the same surveillance technologies were used to surveil at home desk workers. So when everyone went home, all of a sudden they had to download videos that tried (but I would say couldn’t gauge) to gauge productivity. Again, these are cultures and practices and technologies that we had already seen with low wage workers that spread to other workers. People have been and are being surveilled based on (and that’s continuing to happen) how many keystrokes they that make, whether it seems like they are not visibly on the screen or not, what websites they’re visiting. All kinds of things, that just wasn’t common for office work all of a sudden has become quite common.
Speaker 1 [00:40:25] Yeah. Once you start talking about it this way, you start to see it everywhere. I’m seeing it so strongly in my own industry, the entertainment industry, which people think of as being a very well-paid industry. White collar isn’t quite the right word, but it’s a prestigious industry where people are compensated accordingly. That’s the general impression. Now, a lot of that is because it’s an extremely strong industry in terms of labor. We’ve had a very strong labor culture in the L.A. based and New York based industry for a long time, but it’s now dominated by a handful of tech companies. It’s literally dominated by Netflix, Amazon, Apple and then Warner and Disney are the other two, and they’re trying to become tech companies as fast as they can. Already right now, the big crew union IATSE; which represents all the people behind the camera are in the middle of a contract negotiation right now, and they are literally fighting for meal breaks. They’re fighting to be able to have lunch in the middle of a day, literally. These crews work a minimum of 12 hour days and often 16 to 18 hour days. So they’re literal bargaining points are: ‘We need a meal break. We need to be able to get 10 hours off a night: enough time to drive home, go to sleep and come back and we need weekends off.’
Speaker 2 [00:41:48] Seems pretty basic.
Speaker 1 [00:41:50] Yeah. This is back to what the labor union fought for. We always say that the labor union created the 40 hour workweek. The labor union created weekends off and we’re back to that point again. It’s insanity. Then I look at like a little gig ification of it. I’m sorry to go on, but this is like, oh my gosh.
Speaker 2 [00:42:09] Oh yeah, it’s very important
Speaker 1 [00:42:12] When I look at services like Twitch, for instance, the video game streaming website, which I use. That site is literally in competition with Netflix, with CBS, with all of them. For entertainment eyeballs, and who is providing the content on Twitch? Its legions of (largely unpaid) gig workers. You log on to Twitch, you create an account and Twitch starts going, ‘Hey, you know what would get you closer to partner status, would be if you started streaming every day. If you set a schedule, if you stream for 10 hours, 20 hours, 30 hours a week. And if you do that long enough, we might start cutting off a little bit of revenue share from the ad sales. We might start doing that.’ What if Uber said, ‘You drive around for free for a couple of years and we’ll see if we start giving you a little bit of the amount that people are paying?’
Speaker 2 [00:43:04] I mean, in some ways they do. Like 20 percent of workers in the Bay Area, after they consider their expenses, are making zero dollars. This is across across these tech companies and what’s important to note –
Speaker 1 [00:43:19] Yeah, insurance and car payments and all those other things add up.
Speaker 2 [00:43:20] One hundred percent. Yeah. And what’s important to note, is that it does not have to be this way. Technology and labor don’t have to be about exploitation. You can totally imagine a world in which technologies are being used to make the life of workers better. You can imagine a world in which flexibility is totally infused into the entire service work economy; where you get to choose your schedules because it’s so easy to centralize everyone’s schedules via an app and you still get paid the minimum wage and overtime, you still get your shift. It’s just better for you. But instead, you have the confluence of monopolization and tech companies. What matters in the end is shareholder value, not worker satisfaction or worker security or stability. As you say, it’s very, very common in L.A. with the ascent of YouTubers, Instagrammers, influencers, gamers, all these people working so precariously without any safety net. These companies, while they’re paying workers – I mean, these are workers. These video gamers are workers. While they’re not paying the workers, they’re making so much money off of their labor. The companies are also not paying into any form of social insurance. So the government is not getting Social Security, they’re not getting unemployment. What happened during the pandemic was all of those people had to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which was this emergency stopgap measure for independent contractors. Ultimately, that came from taxpayer money. That wasn’t pulled out of the air, it came from a reserve that the government has created over time.
Speaker 1 [00:45:20] When that union delivery worker is laid off, so that a DoorDash worker and can be hired. So now that worker is working DoorDash contractor instead of working union so they don’t have health benefits anymore, and they go on Medicaid in order to get health benefits (or a similar program). Yeah, we are literally paying for that. We are literally subsidizing it when the company was previously paying for it.
Speaker 2 [00:45:44] The vast majority of these workers do not have health insurance and are on some form of public assistance.
Speaker 1 [00:45:51] Yeah. Is this in any way – The more we talk about it, it seems unsustainable to me because if you’re if you’re a company like the Albertson’s chain that is turning these workers from people who are able to make a living into precarious gig workers who don’t have health insurance and don’t have enough money to live. You’re also reducing the number of people who are going to be able to buy your groceries.
Speaker 2 [00:46:24] That is one hundred percent right, and this is what led to the Great Depression. It was the exact same thing. You had the Gilded Age, which is this age of like mass monopoly. We think of the railroads and the monopolies that they had over getting people and things out west and just in general from point A to point B. Unemployment rates were really, really high and because there wasn’t a lot of work spreading, they were just getting as much as they could out of each person because there were very, very few (to any) regulations. Then we had like a massive labor strife. The kinds of direct actions: work stoppages, protests that we had in the early 20th century, I think, are kind of unimaginable to many of us today because we’ve lived in a period of relative stability, but that is rapidly changing. You had people who were really hungry, people who are working, that we’re really hungry, who couldn’t pay for their rent or who were living on the streets. Homelessness was through the roof. We are rapidly declining into that same kind of situation.
Speaker 1 [00:47:40] Sounds like you’re describing today. One hundred percent.
Speaker 2 [00:47:44] I know. One hundred percent. I know that these companies – I think about this all the time. These companies, they hire social scientists to figure out how to manipulate workers. Their behavior in app, through the algorithms, but they don’t hire historians. A historian would say, ‘Look, there’s got to be some limit to this because when people cannot make ends meet, when they are working 60 hours and their kids are hungry, they’re going to revolt.’ This is not stable. This does not lend itself towards stability. If, in fact, you don’t want to have to deal with a union or you don’t want to have to deal with a lot of work stoppages and direct actions and slowdowns then what you’re going to need to do is to make people happy. The union consultants will tell you that the one of the best ways to stop a union drive is to make the workers happy. No one wants to be there. I don’t know what it’s like in Los Angeles, but in San Francisco, in the last five years, homelessness has become very visible. There are a lot (and increased dramatically) a lot of homeless encampments all over the place. Honestly, it looks like Bombay. My family’s from Bombay, and when I drive around in San Francisco, I think ‘This is very similar to Bombay slums.’ There are actual slum communities in San Francisco, in one of the wealthiest places in the world. When we have conditions like that, there’s not going to just be hunger. There’s going to be a rebellion.
Speaker 1 [00:49:36] Yeah. But there’s also there’s places in the – One of the things I remember when I traveled to India for the first time a few years ago was how normalized some of that at was.
Speaker 2 [00:49:50] That’s right, yeah.
Speaker 1 [00:49:50] Where you’ve got incredible wealth and you’ve got incredible poverty side by side and people (some people, I’m not going say how many) are like, ‘Hey, that’s just the way it is. That’s the way it’s always been, that’s the way it is.’ Somebody said that to me about Los Angeles. That the worst part about it is kids growing up saying, ‘Oh yeah, there’s just homeless encampments around, I’m rich. There’s a lot of poor people here. And that’s how things are supposed to be.’ We don’t want people to feel that way. We want to keep that horror and shock about it.
Speaker 2 [00:50:22] The thing about a place like India, is that you have the slums but you also have a lot of labor agitation. There are strikes are an everyday part of people’s lives. I lived there for a year, and I think in that one year, the transportation workers struck three times over a period of many, many days. Or at least that’s how I remember it. I remember just thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so interesting.’ During those time periods, we were told, ‘Stay inside. Don’t leave, it could get really violent.’ So that’s also something that we haven’t seen yet, but we will see if we continue down the road that we’re on.
Speaker 1 [00:51:07] Are we starting to see that pushback because like you said, Prop 22 was found unconstitutional in California. The Amazon pee break law is sitting on Gavin Newsom’s desk, right? Hopefully, he signs it. But at least it made it that far. And I literally have seen a new rideshare service that just opened (I don’t wanna call the ride share service, I’ll call it an app based car service) in L.A. I think it’s also in Dallas, called, Alto. I’ve used it myself, and part of its pitch (I’m not saying this is the best service in the world, I’m not pitching this) is ‘Our drivers are employees and they make a minimum wage,’ which in California is $15 an hour and that’s still not enough. Based on how expensive L.A. is, but at least when I use it, I’m like, ‘All right, this person doesn’t have to bring their own car. They are paid for every hour that they work. They’re not just paid when they’re driving me. And it’s a normal job and that is at least a little bit better.’ And most importantly, this service is advertising itself that way because they know that people don’t like this about Uber and Lyft. So to me, that’s a little bit of a ‘Bing Bing, Bing, Bing.’ Are we starting to see a culture shift around these issues?
Speaker 2 [00:52:24] I think that we are; and not just around these issues, but just around labor issues more broadly. In the last two years, we’ve seen record number of strikes. These are illegal strikes. So, strikes in the Uber and Lyft economies are actually considered illegal strikes because of how the workers are classified. But we’ve seen a record number of direct actions work stoppages through unions just in the last two years, more than we’ve seen since the early 1980’s in the Reagan era. I think that the evidence also suggests that the vast majority of Americans think well of unions, that they believe and labor organizing. Also a pretty big shift in how we understand the economy for the last two decades. So definitely, I think there is a real reason to be hopeful. I think the fact that we’re even having this conversation is really meaningful, that people are interested in this topic. That they are thinking about the workers who are making their lives convenient and making their lives possible. I think that all of that is a real reason to be hopeful, because that’s what transformation occurs is through conversations. The fact that you and I are having this conversation; and all these people are going to be listening and then they’re going to talk to their friends about it,that kind of awareness seems sort of small but is actually transformational. I think that all of that gives us reason to be hopeful.
Speaker 1 [00:54:00] That awareness is great and I love that optimism and I do share it, and the awareness that hopefully we’re building for people listening to this and that is built on social media is really good. But I always notice there’s that step of, ‘OK, now what do I do?’ People are so quick to say, ‘OK, do I delete my app? OK, I won’t use it.’ Or, ‘Hey, make sure you tip cash,’ that sort of thing. But I think we all have an awareness that that is maybe not the mass action that is needed. So what do you suggest for folks listening at home who say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m really upset that folks at Amazon have their bladders bursting. How can I pitch in?’
Speaker 2 [00:54:43] So two things I would say: one is you can support independent organizing. If you’re feeling guilty about using Amazon, you can spend a little bit of money (like twenty dollars, fifteen dollars) and send it to an independent organizing group. Two that I can think of that do really amazing work are Rideshare Drivers United, based in L.A. and also Gig Workers Collective. These are workers who hardly make any money, who are not receiving a lot of funding, even from labor unions for various reasons but could really, really use support. So I would say that’s one basic thing. Another thing is to respect boycotts and strikes. So this week, Instacart workers have been asking consumers to delete Instacart to send a message. So spread that message and respect to the picket line, so to speak. I think those two things actually are huge. When it’s possible, when there are protests and strikes, go out and support them. Vote for people who support Labor, make it clear to your congresspeople, to your representatives that you care about these issues and that you want them to act on these issues and to not be beholden to Big Tech. That’s a third thing that will go really far. And I would say again, really just talking about these things has the potential to shift the narrative, to not normalize it. That in and of itself is actually a very important form of resistance.
Speaker 1 [00:56:33] Yeah, just letting people know that when your friend is like, ‘Oh, the Uber drivers, they’re all doing side hustles so they can buy their girlfriends an extra dinner like the Uber ad says,’ you can be like, ‘No, actually, it’s primarily people of color. It’s immigrant folks who are working. [I forget the number, but a massive number of Uber drivers are driving 40 to 50 hour weeks for full time] and that this is really precarious work.’
Speaker 2 [00:57:02] Almost all the work that’s being done for these companies is being done by full time drivers. They love to talk about how this is a side hustle for most people, but in fact, you are much more likely to be in the car with someone who’s been driving for 60 hours a week and your safety is bound up in theirs. So that’s another thing to think about about why labor standards for the service economy are really important. You don’t want your food service worker to not be able to stay home when they have COVID. You don’t want that.
Speaker 1 [00:57:34] Even if you’re not using those services, you’re driving on the same roads as them. As that overworked person who’s tired behind the wheel, who might swerve and hit you if they fall asleep.
Speaker 2 [00:57:44] That’s just not a hypothetical. We know in markets where these companies enter, that traffic accidents go up in a direct causal relationship.
Speaker 1 [00:57:54] Wow. OK, we ended on your stirring positive call to action, then we veered back into the bummer stuff.
Speaker 2 [00:58:02] That’s who I am, it’s always negative.
Speaker 1 [00:58:06] Same here. That’s why people listen to the show, because they like that shit and that’s why they get in the door. This has been a wonderful conversation, Veena, thank you so much.
Speaker 2 [00:58:15] Thank you for having me on.
Speaker 1 [00:58:16] Yeah, we’ll have to have you on again soon. If there’s more seismic activity in tech and labor. Thank you.
Speaker 2 [00:58:23] Thank you. Take care.
Speaker 1 [00:58:30] Well, thank you once again to Veena Dubal for coming on the show, I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. If you want to support the show head to factuallypod.com/books to check out our special bookstore with books from authors that we have had on the show. Your purchase goes to support not just the show, but your local bookstore. That is it for us this week on Factually. I want to thank our producers: Sam Roudman and Chelsea Jacobson. Our engineer Ryan Connor and Andrew W.K. for our theme song. The fine folks at Falcon Northwest for building me the incredible custom gaming PC that I’m recording this very episode on. You can find me online at AdamConover.net or @AdamConover. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love to hear from you. Thank you so much for listening, and we’ll see you next time on Factually.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books