Over the past few weeks, we’ve been discussing long-term changes to the economy and, by extension, our society. Those details help to inform the way that we think about the future, but it’s also important to understand that whatever future we fight for won’t be the only future on offer. Powerful actors will have their own versions.
Early in the newsletter, we looked at some of the futures billionaires have on offer: the green capitalism of Elon Musk that sells a false solution to the climate crisis, and the more distant visions of space colonization. But there are more insidious futures that we put on full display this past week — and no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump.
While much of the media was focusing on the national election in the United States and who would win the presidency — a preoccupation that continues as I write this — there was an important vote taking place in California that passed under the radar.
California is one of a number of states that allow groups to put laws on the ballot at election times. While that can allow positive initiatives to pass, like the wave of cannabis legalization in recent years, it also gives powerful groups the opportunity to spend large amounts of money to pass laws skewed in their interests. That’s what happened on November 3 with Proposition 22.
For those not familiar with the situation in California, a brief update. In recent years, gig companies like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and others have had their business models threatened by new labour legislation codified in Assembly Bill 5, which clarified that their contract workforce were employees and needed to be recognized as such.
Employee designation would grant those workers a minimum wage, benefits and a lot of rights and protections that contractors don’t have, including the right to unionize. It would also require gig companies pay additional taxes to fund unemployment insurance and other social support programs.
Obviously, the gig companies didn’t want that. Uber and Lyft were almost forced to reclassify their drivers this summer and threatened to pull out of the state altogether. A last-minute court decision delayed the reclassification until after the election.
To ensure their contract workers did not become employees, the companies poured more than $200 million into the campaign in support of Proposition 22. (The unions and workers’ rights groups only raised a tenth as much.) They used that money to buy endorsements and send out misleading mailers, while using their apps to flood users and drivers with notifications in support of their initiative.
They positioned the ballot measure as an improvement to the rights of gig workers compared to their current status, even though it gives them far fewer rights that they’d get as employees of the company. It was a campaign designed to appeal to progressive voters who didn’t know better, and it worked.
The proposition won with 58 per cent of the vote — solidifying a “third class” of workers with fewer rights than an employee. Afterward, the companies’ share price soared. Based on what they spent on the ballot measure, writer Edward Ongweso Jr calculated that “Uber saw a return on its spending of nearly 19,300 percent, while Lyft saw a more modest return of around 3,670 percent.”
For several decades, the quality of employment has been slowly eroded to the point where many people cannot find the “good jobs” of the past and are instead left to do low-paid service and gig work to pay the bills. It’s not because they aren’t skilled or couldn’t do other work; that’s simply all that’s available to them in an increasingly competitive job market.
Usually this process plays out in a way that isn’t easy to see for the average person, but the move taken by the gig companies makes their goal incredibly clear. Companies like Uber and Lyft have never turned a profit — Uber still loses billions every year — and their business model is premised on denying workers rights, benefits and fair pay. Liberals will often roll their eyes at the idea of class war, but that’s exactly what this is: class war by the capitalist class against the working class.
It’s obvious we need visions of a better future that work for everyone, not just the small number of people at the top. That’s what I explained in issue 23. But we won’t be coming up with those visions in a vacuum. Rather, while imagining and fighting for that better future, there will be a concerted effort by powerful corporations and the lawmakers they fund to further decimate our prospects. The only way to challenge their power will be for workers to build their own.
Perspectives From Around The World
Bianca Mugyenyi, former co-executive director of the Leap, explains why the Trudeau government isn’t backing an international nuclear arms treaty.
Laura Kruse, Communications Officer for Public Interest Alberta, explains how the UCP is using consultancy firms to justify an attack on Albertan workers.
Walidah Imarisha, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood, argues we need visionary fiction to help activists, artists and organizers build a better future
Grace Blakeley, staff writer at Tribune Magazine, explains how the economy has been designed to deepen inequality at every turn.
On Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Aaron Benanav (whose book I wrote about in issue 23) about why automation isn’t to blame for worsening job prospects and how utopian and science fiction inspire us to imagine better futures.
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