Service worker union looks to limit the fallout of the rise of the gig economy

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Technological change has always been a challenge for organized labor and not just for workers in manufacturing or high-tech. The service and hospitality industries are struggling to deal with it as well, said D. Taylor, president of the 300,000-member union Unite Here. The union is trying to get businesses to limit the reach of a related problem, namely the rise of the gig economy.

Jobs that were once assumed to never be at risk of being replaced by machines, such as restaurant servers, are now being supplanted by computers and touch-screen technology. Other changes have put Unite Here’s members in conflict with the gig economy.

“At stadiums now, you can order on your phone to have the vendors deliver. You can order off of kiosks and have your order,” Taylor told the Washington Examiner. He added the managers are often confused by the changes. “I’m not putting insidious connotations on what the companies are doing. I think they’re just trying to meet customer demand.”

Unite Here is now pushing the service and hospitality industries to adopt more rules that would limit the effects of such services on the labor force, touching on everything from retraining workers to stricter rules regarding how and when gig economy companies can enter management’s property.

For example, once upon a time, hotel guests could only order room service. They can now use apps like Grubhub or DoorDash to order instead, culminating in less work and fewer tips for the hotel staff. “They can’t deliver up to the room. We’ve made sure of that,” Taylor said. But the union cannot prevent guests from picking up their orders in the hotel lobby. It’s not a situation the union can blame on management either. Hotel owners aren’t any friendlier to the gig economy. Managers don’t want people inside their buildings except for guests and staff, Taylor noted.

Even Taylor isn’t immune to taking advantage of the conveniences that technology affords, noting that the other day, he checked into a hotel just using his phone.

“The gig economy is something we are very cognizant of and, candidly, we don’t want to be run over by. You cannot stop technology. The question is ‘Are you going to force them to have a partnership with you?'” Taylor said. “That’s why we have fought to get technology language in all of our contracts that reflect that you have to work with us. There has to be retraining. There has to be other opportunities.”

There isn’t much call for federal legislation to deal with these particular issues. Taylor is dismissive of the ability to get anything through Congress, so unions like his are fighting more at the state level.

California recently enacted a law, backed by Unite Here, that says that ride-sharing drivers are employees, not contractors. It would mean companies like Uber and Lyft would be on the hook for overtime, minimum wage laws, and other federal workplace requirements. It would also make organizing the companies possible since only workers can belong to a union. Uber and Lyft are backing an effort to put an initiative on the next statewide ballot rolling back the law.

How rapidly technology is getting introduced is an issue as well, Taylor said. Even when unions can address technological developments when negotiating contracts, new changes can come along, and it could be years before the union can catch up with them.

One federal-level effort the union is backing is a $15 minimum wage. That’s not because Taylor thinks that is a good wage itself, but instead because he hopes it would put upward pressure on all wages.

“The labor movement has always been about the minimum wage, but no one aspires to earn the minimum wage,” Taylor said.

The service industry is one area where organized labor remains strong. Unite Here added 21,000 members over the last year, gains that Taylor ascribes to a simple emphasis on organizing. The union has even had success in Nevada, the once high-union density state that also has a “right-to-work” law, which allows workers to opt-out of joining or supporting a union. The state has 14% of its workers in a union, well above the national average of 10.5%.

That hasn’t made Taylor view right-to-work laws any more kindly. He views them as a “free lunch” for workers, since unions are obligated to represent everyone in collective bargaining, even those that don’t support the union. Asked if he would support amending the law to release unions from the obligation to represent nonmembers, he replied, “I’d much rather get rid of right-to-work.”

That could at least be put up for debate by the next president. Several of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination have supported legislation to that effect. It is part of the platform of the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Unite Here is keeping its powder dry in the next election. For the first time in several cycles, unions have their pick of candidates, since most Democratic candidates are aggressively courting labor.

“We’re not leading to anyone right now because the field is huge. I think after it thinned out, we can have a rational discussion,” Taylor said.

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