Worker Worries Are the Seeds of Worker Action


There exist no break rooms or bathrooms for platform delivery workers. For ride-hail drivers, there are no visual markings beyond small stickers or dashboard lights, because most drivers use their own cars. For grocery shoppers filling orders for online clients, there is no formal way to recognize one another in the aisles. The platform workplace, at its core, is spatially and socially atomized. It is made up of strangers. Perhaps the same might be said for most workplaces, to an extent. Yet the app-based workplaces of delivery workers, ride-hail drivers, and grocery shoppers are unique, particularly because of the extremes to which platforms go to build and maintain barriers between workers. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that apps, both implicitly and explicitly, are designed to keep workers strangers to one another.

This atomization and isolation makes it all the more worthy of note, then, when these strangers—that is, workers on the same platform—worry about one another. Especially in the midst of their own hardships.

For Mateo, a 35-year-old Peruvian immigrant, the pandemic has meant not only the end of his job as a valet manager in Washington, DC. It has also meant the end of four years of work as an Uber driver. When we spoke in July, Mateo said: “Sometimes I leave the Uber app open five hours. I don’t get any trip. It’s terrible.” He tried to drive for Uber Eats and Grubhub but couldn’t get approved on one app or snag orders on the other. And yet, in the midst of his own severe concerns, Mateo worries about his peers, including those who leased cars to drive for these platforms: “It’s $215 average every week [for the lease]! How you gonna pay that? So I really don’t know how they are doing it.”

Such worries are shared by Jabari, a Black 30-year-old IT professional, who switched from Uber to Instacart when the pandemic arrived: “It’s kind of sad that people still [drive for Uber]. … I feel bad for all these drivers. A lot of them, it’s all they have.”

I heard this refrain over and over in conversations last summer with platform workers, whom I’ve been interviewing and surveying for the last five years, with Kafui Attoh and Declan Cullen. Workers like Mateo and Jabari harbor worries for their peers. They worry that peers aren’t earning enough, getting unemployment insurance, or staying healthy in the face of the global pandemic. More than compassionate thoughts, such worries hold important potential: they are seeds of care.

Such seeds—hard to come by, difficult to nurture into broader group understanding and group action—might seem to point toward a positive future for platforms, if only they could be properly reformed. This may be why, despite the dangers of the platforms as workplaces, Juliet Schor’s After the Gig: How the Sharing Economy Got Hijacked and How to Win It Back cautions that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The challenge facing the platform workplace is to confront and overcome, rather than simply repackage, the alienating pressures of the capitalist city.

Platforms, she and her research team argue, can be useful in building “radically different, and better” worlds. Based on seven years of data collected about a large array of platforms—from nonprofit food swaps and time banks to commercial Big Tech apps like Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Uber, and Postmates—After the Gig unearths the democratic possibilities of new technologies. In After the Gig, worker cooperatives offer a way forward, a way to build a collective in an otherwise alienating world. For Schor, who writes without a polemical bullhorn, platform cooperatives—apps staffed, managed, and owned by workers—are evidence that “a different way of work is possible.”

In this, Schor is partially correct. Being in a co-op likely would have made Mateo’s and Jabari’s jobs better, which is no small feat. But that is, unfortunately, not an adequate end goal.

It is not enough to build cooperatives. They are necessary but woefully insufficient. Imagine a city flooded with ride-hail cooperatives: then imagine congestion, pollution, and a race to the bottom for prices. Or imagine a grocery store run over with delivery shoppers: crowded aisles, long lines at the checkouts, and delayed deliveries. If nothing else, California’s Prop 22 has reminded us that we must think about the role of the state alongside the future of platforms. And the state should not only work to convert these platforms into more equitable versions of themselves.

The challenge facing the platform workplace is to confront and overcome, rather than simply repackage, the alienating pressures of the capitalist city. This is especially important, because such a city is simply one iteration of sociality, among all the possible ones we can forge. We must go beyond the capitalist city. To build solidarities, practice anti-capitalist living, and prepare more just futures, we must tend to seeds of care.


Someone once joked that platforms do what moms used to do: meal preparation, chauffeuring, laundry, and errands. In other words, platforms help us perform the work of social reproduction—but through the market. And therein lies part of the problem.

Platforms present themselves as solutions to actually existing problems of austerity and neoliberalism: underemployment in the wake of the Great Recession, decaying mass transit, deep-seated racial inequities, and increasing anxieties about global economic competitiveness. And yet, platforms offer up solutions that suppress alternative visions for social life. These alternatives include worker cooperatives, but also investments in public infrastructure like childcare and rapid transit, debt relief, noncommodified housing stock, decent wages, shorter work weeks, and a national job guarantee.

Platform companies seem to understand the present crisis. They know it involves widespread alienation (both in and beyond the workplace), and also that it concerns how we care for one another.

Many, like Mateo and Jabari, work to overcome that alienation by worrying over and talking to others. Some, like Anh, an Asian 34-year-old who used to drive for Uber but now shops for Shipt, can’t. She tries to avoid fellow workers in aisles: “You can kind of tell by everyone just nose-deep in the phone. … And some of them wear the T-shirts, too.” She prefers “to go incognito.” She explained: “I feel like I get better service [from the stores], and people don’t really stop me and ask questions, like where things are. People just leave me alone because they assume I’m a normal shopper.”

As Anh’s decision shows, what is important about Mateo’s and Jabari’s worries—or seeds of care—is not that they exist. Rather, what is important is just how difficult it is to tend to them, to allow these seeds to grow into trust, relationships, or even a collective consciousness.

In a study, my colleagues and I found that Uber drivers not only do not know peers on the platform when they begin work. They also do not meet them in the course of everyday work.

Seventy-eight percent of the 40 drivers we interviewed in 2016 said they had never had a meal or drink with another Uber driver. They did not chat with them in online forums. They did not text them from their phones. They did not say hello if they saw another driver at a gas station.

We found a similar situation three years later, in 2019. Thirty-three percent of drivers still did not know any other current or former Uber drivers. Another 27 percent of these drivers knew only one other current or former driver. More telling is this finding: 79 percent of drivers who participated in the first round of interviews for this study said, three years later, that they still had never had a meal or drink with another platform driver.

This sociospatial isolation seems to have a point: to keep platform workers strangers to one another. The lack of physical space in which platform workers meet or congregate creates a material barrier to forming collective identities and deeply shapes possibilities for meaningful notions of collective worker consciousness.

Suzanna, a white, widowed 59-year-old Uber driver who also works as a freelance writer and home inspector, explained: “It’s really, really difficult to organize a group like this. Because, even with all the online resources … there is no place you can go, like a workplace, where you can reach people.” Put differently, there is no obvious place where you can turn a stranger into someone for whom you do the hard work of caring, trusting, and maintaining relationships.

Workers acting together begins with workers caring for one another.

Little research shows how workers make sense of their labor in these new workplaces. Fortunately, in this, After the Gig stands out from peer publications—Alexandrea J. Ravenelle’s Hustle and Gig (2019), Jeremias Prassl’s Humans as Service (2018), Alex Rosenblat’s Uberland (2018), and Sarah Kessler’s Gigged (2018)—because of its search for social values and cultural meaning in platform technologies. A Jamaican American named Devon, for instance, described to Schor his work on the TaskRabbit platform and his rentals through Airbnb as a kind of “alternative to capitalism.” The motivations that propel individuals to engage with platforms are the central figures of Schor’s text and, indeed, one of its central contributions to scholarship about the gig economy.

Like her interviewees, Schor has a powerful faith in the invention of digital platforms and their capacity, in a workplace schema, to cede important decisions to workers. Though not from a technological-determinist standpoint, Schor makes the case that such technologies can connect users in a city in new ways, help with logistics, and identify needs such as a meal delivery or access to a car.

Schor’s point seems to be this: the fact that platforms have generally been used to exacerbate economic inequality does not mean that they can’t be used otherwise. The fact that we have failed to use new technologies toward, say, building anti-capitalist futures, does not mean that we can’t. Like a child who learns to walk by falling down, so too may we learn how to take care of one another outside market forces and how to build places that support decent living by, first, falling down a good number of times. The challenges of creating cooperatives and the problems to be encountered along the way are substantial, but so too is the need for weaving new networks of care and trust.

We must be careful, however, not to mistake the means for the end. Platform cooperatives are an attempt to capture for workers more of the value and wealth that workers produce. They are not, in and of themselves, equivalent to systemic change.

For example, Schor profiles an online stock-photography business that is focused on distributional change—a change in the distribution of power within a workplace, not in the production of power at the societal scale. She acknowledges that cooperatives, as strategies, have limits: “Because co-ops are an intervention into the structure of firms, but not markets, they are vulnerable to the tyrannies of those markets.” We must go further and reimagine the place of these platforms within our lives; we must question, as others have done, whether platforms could be made into public infrastructure or public utilities.


Schor’s optimism about a democratic future for platforms emerges from a close scrutiny of platform capitalism’s prehistoric fossil: the sharing economy. To live better lives, Schor argues, we need to learn how to share better—and that is just what the sharing economy was beginning to help us do in the heyday of clothing exchanges and tool swaps. Had Big Tech not had its way with the nascent sharing economy, we may have skipped over platform capitalism and instead arrived at something Schor calls “sharing cities,” which to this reader mean places that are more socialist in nature than how cities are currently configured.

Schor does not engage heavily with scholarship about socialism, the commons, or commoning. Even so, After the Gig (and especially its stories about workers like Devon, who viewed his work as an “alternative to capitalism”) must be understood within the growing field of knowledge about anti-capitalist ways of living.

Commoning is a kind of practice, exercised by a group, that collectively allocates, manages, and governs a particular set of resources that are necessary for a decent life. These noncommodified resources can be houses, farms, gardens, or tools. As Amanda Huron has examined at length, commoning in the city requires work among strangers on land that is contested, saturated with conflicting uses, and subject to a whole host of financial pressures. She writes: “The pressures of life in a capitalist urban environment leave less time for nurturing bonds with family and friends, let alone creating new ties with strangers. Yet in order to change the balance of power in the contested urban environment, what is precisely needed is to create networks with people who were once strangers but could become allies and even friends.” Commoning is a way to resist the alienation of capitalist cities, but it is also something more. To common is to practice for better futures, welcome political changes, and develop political consciousness.

This process, as Heather McLean has detailed, can be messy. So too with the difficult conversations that commoning necessitates, especially conversations about intersectional inequalities and power imbalances. This is because solidarities across sites and scales do not exist a priori. They are, as McLean reminds us, something that must be made, maintained, and struggled for.

Resistance to capitalism may be possible only with a critical consciousness, the sort that emerges from collective work like commoning. To Cindi Katz, such a critical consciousness comes about when “a nondominant group does not simply recognize the conditions and social relations producing them as such, but also the means through which these social relations are obscured or naturalized in their society.” In other words, counterhegemonic power requires a collective or a group made up of individuals that not only see one another, but care for one another.

Enacting anti-capitalist ways of living means sitting with discomfort, listening to needs, and taking care of one another against, outside, or without the market as the organizing principle. The worries for others that platform workers expressed last summer are the very seeds of thinking and living otherwise that anti-capitalist efforts require. Workers acting together, then, begins with workers caring for one another.

 

This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured-image photograph by Dan Gold / Unsplash



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