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.

Fairness or Envy?

After many decades of impressive and relatively steady increases in the standard of living (increases in real per capital income) of all quintiles of the American income distribution, since 2000 all quintiles have lost ground. In the run up to 2000 incomes in the top quintile increased more rapidly than those in the lower quintiles resulting in a less equal distribution income.

Mean income

The mean real incomes of each quintile are lower now (2014) than they were in 2000. However, the percentage decline has been larger for the middle and lower income quintiles (see table below) leaving the more unequal income distribution in place. Some of the relative gains of the top quintile are attributed to the growing premium for higher education, but as claimed by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, some have not been earned by providing higher valued products.

Income table

Most of us do not resent and in fact are grateful for those whose wealth resulted from inventing and giving us products we greatly enjoy. However, we are rightly angry at both political parties for increasingly supporting crony capitalists—those who benefit from their connection with and influence on the government—who benefit at the expense of the rest of us. They are capturing economic rents at the expense of the rest of us rather than enjoying the fruits of greater productivity.

The broad political consensus in the United States that we are each entitled to the wealth we each create, but must fairly share in the cost of providing our national defense, public goods and a satisfactory safety net for the poor, seems to be falling apart. In the economic sphere, the left increasingly favors one group, the working class represented by labor unions, against the professional and entrepreneurial classes. Classical liberals (i.e., economic conservatives) champion fairness – a level playing field – and the freedom to get rich if you work harder, or create a better product, or a more efficient way of producing what people want. They champion measures that facilitate entrepreneurship and economic growth without much regard for its impact on income distribution. Trade – globalization – is an essential part of promoting economic efficiency and thus growth, allowing, if not forcing, firms to shift resources into goods for export in which they are relatively more efficient in order to pay for the cheaper imports enjoyed by the average middle class consumer.

The Republican Party more so than the Democratic Party, though not by much, has increasingly been failing to preserve a level playing field in various areas (Wall Street, defense industry etc.). But the embrace of protectionism offered by Donald Trump reflects either class warfare or ignorance of globalization’s enormous contribution to our standard of living. The big trade and industrial unions of old—think of the United Auto Workers in Detroit—followed a different drummer. They were not interested in fairness but rather fought to bring economic rents (monopoly returns) to themselves at the expense of other workers via a deal with their employers to create, defend, and share monopoly returns. This worked with the auto industry, where auto workers earned at least double the prevailing wages for nonunion workers with comparable skills as long as GM, Ford and Chrysler could hold off competition from German and Japanese (plus a growing list) auto producers via a combination of tariffs and safety standards. Globalization gradually destroyed this monopoly arrangement and almost killed the American automobile industry until U.S. automakers relocated to southern, non-union states.

While good working conditions are win win for workers and employers, pushing up wages above their competitive level either drives firms to other locations (non union states or abroad) or kills them all together. Voters supporting protectionist policies either don’t understand that they lower the standard of living for most people (here and abroad) by lowering the overall productivity of workers or they seek to exploit monopoly rents for themselves at the expense of other workers.

Such thinking was dramatically illustrated by the recent strike of workers at Tesla Motor’s giga battery factory project in Nevada. As reported in the Washington Post on March 2: “On Monday, hundreds of workers walked off their jobs at the giant battery factory that Tesla Motors is building in the desert outside Reno, Nevada. It wasn’t your typical picket: They weren’t protesting bad working conditions, or making a show of force around contract negotiations. Rather, they were protesting other workers — specifically, the fact that they were from somewhere else.” Their complaint was that workers from out side Nevada were willing to work for less than the $35 per hour that members of the local union were making. These were not “foreign” workers from South of the border. These were workers from Arizona and New Mexico. The out of state workers obviously found their “low” wages with Tesla in Nevada better than the wages they would receive staying at home so they were better off coming to Reno.

The Post further reported: “That dispute explains an important debate underway right now in all sorts of skilled trades: Builders say there’s a labor supply problem, which needs to be fixed by bringing more people into the field from across the country and across the border. Worker groups say there isn’t a supply problem — it’s just that builders aren’t paying enough to make the jobs worth someone’s while.”

Trump’s pledge to protect America workers from cheap Chinese and other imports so they can produce them in the U.S. at a higher cost, is bad economics and bad policy. He is pledging to benefit one group of workers at the expense of other workers and at the expense of the standard of living more generally. This is not what the Republican Party has stood for in the past and not what it should stand for now. It should stand for fairness and equal opportunity for workers and entrepreneurs to benefit from doing things better and thereby raising their incomes and the income of the nation. The principle of fairness is widely held in the United States but has always had to battle for dominance against the temptation of the zero sum claims of special interests for government to serve their interests at the expense of others and at the expense of fairness. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are appealing to special rather than general interests at the expense of fairness.

Teachers of the Poor

The raging debate about income inequality has focused on the growing demand for well-trained workers and the declining quality of American education. The mismatch is contributing to rising incomes for the well-educated and stagnant incomes for the poorly educated. Improving the education of the poor is thus a sensible and promising target for improving the incomes of the poor.

Thus the case getting underway in California attacking teacher tenure as a source of poor teachers being assigned to the poorest schools is timely and important. Teacher tenure goes on trial in Los Angeles courtroom/2014/01/26/

The issue of the unionization of public sector workers more generally is contentious. In the private sector unions can balance the market power of employers and are restrained in their demands by their impact on an employer’s bottom line. If excessive wages make a company uncompetitive and it losses market share or goes out of business, the jobs go with it. In fact, a constructive relationship between unions and their employers can potentially improve wages and the bottom line.

Public sector workers, on the other hand, are not constrained by the government’s bottom line (tax payers). Charles Lane provides a good discussion of this issue in today’s Washington Post: Public Sector Unions Interfere with the Public Interest/2014/01/27/.  Unionized or not, public sector workers have long been protected from political interference by the Civil Service system. These protections were established in order to reduce the role of political favoritism in public sector hiring and promotion. However, the trade-off was the creation of a system in which promotion had much more to do with years of service than performance and in which it was difficult to fire anyone thus sheltering mediocre workers.

These trade offs are not easily resolved. If government supervisors can evaluate performance and reward it appropriately, they can also be easier prey for political interference. If they can’t, the worst performing employees rise to the top over time just as fast as the best performing and we get the civil service that we know and love. The plaintiffs in the California case “are nine students who say they were trapped in classrooms with “grossly ineffective teachers” who could not be fired because of the job protection laws.” (W.Post)

The solution, of course, is to leave as much in the private sector as possible. Private schools, including government funded but privately run charter schools systematically produce better results than public schools, especially for the poor.

In an interesting footnote, the plaintiffs legal team includesformer U.S. solicitor general Ted Olson and Theodore Boutrous, who most recently paired to win a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down California’s prohibition against same-sex marriage.  Olson and Boutrous had famously represented opposing sides before the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, which halted the Florida vote recount and resulted in Bush capturing the presidency. Olson’s wife Barbara died on September 11, 2001 when American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.