Unions vs the Gig Economy

Americans largely support and benefit from a political/legal environment conducive to individual freedom and active entrepreneurship.  However, within that broad consensus, views vary over how large and prescriptive the role of government and mandatory bodies should be.  Should only doctors, lawyers, plumbers and hairdressers licensed by the state be allowed to provide their services?  Few things capture this difference more clearly and dramatically than whether cab drivers must be employees of the cab company or can work as little or as much as they chose as independent contractors– company employees or gig workers (uber drivers).

Licensed professionals, like union members, can help promote and certify a minimum standard of training and confidence. But historically they have also sheltered their members from competition. Unions provide a number of services to their members, but their overriding purpose is to confront employers with a united front from workers on wages and working conditions. They understandably exist to serve the interests of their members.  While the commercial success of the companies’ union workers work for is also in the interest of these workers in the long run (if companies are not profitable they cannot provide jobs and/or good wages) it is more remote from workers’ immediate interests.

Gig workers are independent contractors who individually agree with an employer (such as Uber or Lyft) on wages, hours, and working conditions. In fact, Uber and Lyft drivers decide on their own, hour by hour whether and when to work. Their financial reward rests more directly on satisfying their customers.  The brand name Uber or Lyft must also insure a minimum standard of service to their riders (quality and cleanliness of the car and honesty and politeness of the driver, etc.). https://wcoats.blog/2014/12/18/free-markets-uber-alles/

The incentives confronting union workers and gig workers thus differ. Union works, in the first instance, by confronting their employers seeking better working conditions and pay (wages and benefits) while gig workers are competing with other drivers to please their customers. The results can be mixed but the difference between a ride with a yellow cab driver and a Lyft driver can be rather dramatic. I never had a yellow cab driver leap out of the spotlessly clean car to open my door saying: “I hope that you enjoyed your ride.” But while Uber and Lyft provide us with better and cheaper rides, they also provide drivers with more and better options of when and where they work.  Some want to work only a few extra hours after a regular job. Some choose to put in long hours when in need of extra money. Like most transactions in a free market both drivers and riders benefit–its win, win.

My experiences with unions have not been good. My father was a Shell Oil union member.  His union went on strike long ago when my mother was pregnant with my younger brother. After a few months on strike it was growing obvious (according to my father) that it would end soon in failure from the union perspective. The union bosses feared that my father and others would return to work before the union had formally given up. They came to our house and told my pregnant mother that it would be quite unhealthy for her if my father returned to work.

While a student at the U of C Berkeley I had taken jobs for three summers with Shell Oil, one of the perks they give their workers’ children. Two summers were roustabouting in the oil fields of Kern County, California with regular Shell employees who never spoke of labor relations with the company. Instead they talked about their families and non-work activities.  The middle of the three summers with Shell, I was assigned to the supply yard behind Shell’s Kern County headquarters. I assisted the one employee there who loaded pipes and other oil field equipment onto trucks that then delivered the equipment to the fields I had worked in the summer before. Much of the time the two of us just hung out there waiting for the next truck, very unlike digging ditches to repair leaking pipes as I had done the previous summer in 112-degree summer heat. We drove around in the small portable crane used for loading the trucks. The entire time my “companion,” an avid union member, complained about how Shell Oil was exploiting us. After a few weeks I dreaded having to be around him.

After my brother and sister and I were out of the house my mother went back to school, first to finish high school and then to college and a teaching degree. She became a highly successful grammar schoolteacher who specialized in taking on (and taming) problem students. She complained frequently at the attitude and self-protective behavior of the teachers’ union members that was far more interested in protecting mediocre teachers than in teaching students.  Michelle Rhee only turned around the education system in Washington DC when she was able to break the strangle hold of the teacher’s union.

More recently we have seen yet again the destructive role of police unions in protecting bad cops in connection with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “Police-unions-minneapolis-kroll” Much has been written about how deals with police unions has thwarted needed reforms in policing. There seemed to be broad nonpartisan support for such reforms before the “defund the police” nonsense killed it.

But there is a surprising bit of good news from the election earlier this month beyond replacing Trump.  In California, for example, the state was attempting to apply a law regulating employment (AB-5) to contract Uber and Lyft drivers, demanding that they be treated as employees rather than contractors. This would have destroyed Uber and Lyft’s business models and was strongly opposed by them and their drivers. “California’s Public Utilities Commission said in an order Tuesday [June 9, 2020] that Uber and Lyft drivers are “presumed to be employees” under AB-5, the state’s new gig work law.” “Uber-Lyft-drivers-declared-employees-by-California-regulators”  California voters rejected this union effort to kill the market for gig drivers.

As The Wall Street Journal put it: “Democrats and unions in California are shell-shocked. Voters last Tuesday rejected a referendum that would have allowed racial preferences in state hiring and college admissions, defeated a massive business property tax hike, and rescued tens of thousands of gig economy jobs.” https://www.wsj.com/articles/californias-progressive-thumping-11605136309?st=ra1kvgf2okxr35j&reflink=article_email_share

The following description of Proposition 22 appeared on California ballets:

PROP 22

EXEMPTS APP-BASED TRANSPORTATION AND DELIVERY COMPANIES FROM PROVIDING EMPLOYEE BENEFITS TO CERTAIN DRIVERS. INITIATIVE STATUTE.

SUMMARY

Put on the Ballot by Petition Signatures

Classifies app-based drivers as “independent contractors,” instead of “employees,” and provides independent-contractor drivers other compensation, unless certain criteria are met. Fiscal Impact: Minor increase in state income taxes paid by rideshare and delivery company drivers and investors.

WHAT YOUR VOTE MEANS

YES A YES vote on this measure means: App-based rideshare and delivery companies could hire drivers as independent contractors. Drivers could decide when, where, and how much to work but would not get standard benefits and protections that businesses must provide employees. 

NO A NO vote on this measure means: App-based rideshare and delivery companies would have to hire drivers as employees if the courts say that a recent state law makes drivers employees. Drivers would have less choice about when, where, and how much to work but would get standard benefits and protections that businesses must provide employees.

Proposition 22 passed with a 58.6% majority in a state that rejected Donald Trump by a wide margin (64% for Biden and 34% for Trump). This result is consistent with what I hope is true, namely that a majority of voters voted against Trump rather than embracing the more government dominated management of our lives promoted by the “socialist” wing of the Democratic party. With the more skillful and predictable management of a Biden administration and a Republican controlled Senate to block any excessive expansions of government, we might be lucky enough to keep the good measures taken over the past four years (tax reform, reduction of excessive regulations, strengthening the courts, and no new wars) and get rid of the anti-market, protectionist, executive overreach, and internationally disruptive measures of an ineffective and dishonest bully.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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5 Responses to Unions vs the Gig Economy

  1. Jim Roumasset says:

    Not only do teachers’ unions protect mediocre members, but they commonly discourage innovation, since it makes the other teachers look bad. So much for the Sesame Street message (everyone is beautiful in their own way). Union members are implicitly encouraged to be uniform cogs in the wheel (if not spanners in the works).

    • Laron says:

      Given the strength of the HSTA, why do you suppose economists in Hawaii aren’t more vocal about this? Or maybe it’s because of their strength that many (not just economists) aren’t vocal?

  2. Pingback: Warren Coats’s Experience with Unions - Breaking News log

  3. Pingback: Warren Coats's Experience with Unions - Econlib

  4. Pingback: Warren Coats’s Experience with Unions | GOVfeasance

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