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The price of "free"

Protest_against_Amazon_by_East_African_workers_(32446948818).jpg"This isn't over," we predicted in April 2021 when Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama voted against unionizing. And so it has proved: on April 1 workers at its Staten Island warehouse voted to join the Amazon Labor Union.

There will be more of this, and there needs to be. As much as people complain - often justifiably - about unions, no one individual can defend themselves and their rights in the face of the power of a giant company. Worse, as the largest companies continue to get bigger and the number of available employers shrinks, that power imbalance is still growing. Antitrust law can only help reopen the market to competition with smaller and newer businesses; organized labor and labor law are required to ensure fair treatment for workers (see also Amazon's warehouse injury rate, which is about double the industry average). Even the top class of Silicon Valley engineers have lost out; in 2015 Apple, Google, Adobe, and Intel were fined $415 million for operating a "no-poaching" cartel; Lucasfilm, Pixar, and Intuit settled earlier for a joint $20 million.

One lesson to take from this is that instead of treating multi-billionaires as symbols of success we should take the emergence of that level of wealth disparity as a bad sign.

In 1914, Henry Ford famously doubled wages for the factory workers building his cars. At Michigan Radio, Sarah Cwiek explains that it was a gamble intended to produce a better, more stable workforce. Cwiek cites University of California-Berkeley labor economist Harley Shaiken to knock on the head the notion that it was solely in order to expand the range of people who could afford to buy the cars - but that also was one of the benefits to his business.

The purveyors of "pay-with-data-and-watching-ads" services can't look forward to that sort of benefit. For one thing, as multi-sided markets their primary customers aren't us but advertisers who don't sell directly to the masses. For another, a company like Google or Facebook doesn't benefit directly from the increasing wealth of its users; it can collect their data either way. Even the companies like Amazon and Uber, that actually sell people things or services, see faster returns from squeezing both their customers and their third-party suppliers - which they can do because of their dominant positions.

On Twitter, Cory Doctorow has a long thread arguing that antitrust law also has a role to play in securing workers' rights against the hundreds of millions companies like Uber and DoorDash are pouring into lobbying for legislation that keeps their gig workers classed as "independent contractors" instead of employees with rights such as paid sick leave, health insurance, and workmen's compensation.

Doctorow's thread is based on analyzing two articles: a legal analysis by Marshall Steinbaum laying out the antitrust case against the gig economy platforms, which fail to deliver their promises of independence and control to workers. Steinbaum highlights the value of antitrust law to the self-employed, who rely on being able to work for many outlets. In what the law calls "vertical restraint", the platforms dictate prices to customers and require exclusivity - both the opposite of the benefits self-employment is supposed to deliver. Any freelance in any business knows that too-great dependence on one or two employers is dangerous; a single shift in personnel or company policy can threaten your ability to make rent. It is the joint operation of antitrust law and labor regulation that is necessary, Steinbaum writes: "...taking away their ability to exercise control in the absence of an employment relationship is a necessary condition for the success of any effort to curtail the gig economy and the threat it poses to worker power and to workers' welfare."

Doctorow goes on to add that using antitrust law in this way would open the way to requiring interoperability among platform apps, so that a driver could assess which platform would pay them the best and direct customers to that one. It's an idea with potential - but unfortunately it reminds me of Mark Huntley-James' story "Togetherness", which formed part of Tales of the Cybersalon - A New High Street. In it, a hapless customer trying to get a parcel delivery is shunted from app to app as the pickup shop keeps shifting to get a better deal. (The story, along with the rest of the Tales of the Cybersalon, will be published later this year.) I'm not sure that the urgent-lift-seeking customer experience will be enhanced by, "Sorry, luv, I can't take you unless you sign up for NewApp." However, Doctorow's main point stands.

All of this is yet another way that the big technology companies benefit from negative externalities - that is, the costs they impose on society at large. The content moderators who work for Facebook, Uber's and Lyft's drivers, the behind-the-scenes ghost-worker intermediaries that pass for "AI", Amazon's Amazon's time-crunched warehouse workers...together add up to a large economy of underpaid, stressed workers deliberately kept outside of standard employment contracts and workers' rights. Such a situation cannot be sustainable for a society.

Illustrations: Amazon warehouse workers protesting in Minnesota in 2018 (by Czar at Wikimedia, cc-by-2.0.)

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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