Download a pre-submission Review Copy here
There are many messages and observations in this book, but there are two that should resonate across the range of readership, from casually interested browsers to rising labor leaders.
First is the observation that we, as individuals, have become in the modern social and commercial milieus little more than a collection of data. Our individual data is combined with data from our neighbors (whom we may never see face-to-face and who may be geographically far removed from us) to inform and enrich what the authors have called the “Digital Robber Barons.”
Second is the assertion that labor organizations could be, but are not, a point of focus, and more importantly are not a point of protection for workers in an increasingly fractured and virtual workplace.
As we read this sweeping review of workers’ relationships to their workplaces, their employers, and their fellow employees, and as we consider our status as data pools without protection, we should ask a simple but powerful question: quid tum? - so what? What does this mean for me?
In the age of guilds, it meant that you, as a skilled worker, could not easily be replaced. In a labor environment where a skilled craftsperson controlled the production process from beginning to end, losing that worker might mean a radical reduction of, or even halt to, production. One’s power as a skilled craftsperson lay in the ability to walk away from work with the knowledge that you were too valuable to casually dismiss. But the gig economy has redefined what “skill” means.
We are very far down the path from highly skilled to replaceable. A craftsman could build a vehicle and mastered skills ranging from painting, upholstering, to welding. An assembly line worker had the skill to do one or two tasks expertly - perhaps welding. That assembly line worker can be replaced by a worker who directs a robot to do the welding. That worker may be replaced by an AI program that coordinates the assembly of body parts and the robot doing the welding. As this book suggests, it may soon be the case that a graduate of an 18 month course in computer use will have the one skill that is valued - and who is one among many with that skill, making her or him even more easily replaceable than the assembly line worker.
As the industrial revolution rolled across the world of work, the evolving definition of skill meant that you might not be immediately replaced (although you probably could be replaced easily), but you could be replaced by someone who had a “skill” level that was far below that of the craftsperson. In this environment, labor unions made a great deal of sense - if the notion of your skill level has changed, and you become a replaceable part of a larger group, the only real power you have lies in the community with which you identify, and whose members can work in unison to exert its power. Replacing one worker on an assembly line is a snap. Replacing the entire workforce, not so much. Unions gained power for the worker by organizing working communities. As an example, in the United States, it is the norm that union organizing is done location by location - among communities of workers who know and see each other daily. But the gig economy has redefined what “community” means.
A manager for one of the “Digital Robber Barons” with whom I am acquainted oversees a team of workers who, until recently, had never met face-to-face. The manager arranged a meeting in London, which required the workers to travel from all over Asia, from locations widely dispersed.
They are managed by my acquaintance who is based in the Washington, D.C., area. After the short meeting, they all went back to their dispersed locations. In the gig economy, with increasingly separated workforces, this virtual community is more and more often seen, and with COVID and other pressures it may well become the norm. To organize in that environment, as this book argues, will mean that labor unions must undertake a radical rethinking of the very idea of organizing, and become comfortable with a new conception of what “power” means to the labor movement.
One can overstate the current state of life in the gig economy. Many work groups and labor unions will not be immediately affected, or at least affected as much, by the changes brought about by the digitization of the workplace. As one example, labor unions involved in organizing in the transportation industry - airlines and railroads - still represent workers with highly developed skills and a geographically constrained workplace. But even in those crafts, union representatives and workers are seeing changes wrought by automation and artificial intelligence. And in both their work lives and their social lives, those workers are adding their piles of data to the huge pile of data that we are all building - and handing over to the Digital Robber Barons.
Some readers may immediately recognize their place in the gig economy as they read this book. Others may be less affected by the changes we have seen, and may find this a fanciful look into the future. Just as predicting the future of technology development is a fraught enterprise - we often get it wrong - predicting how we will successfully or unsuccessfully react to those changes is speculative. But however you react and whatever you think after you read their arguments - the issues raised by the authors give you notice that change is here, and more change is coming. Unions and workers should prepare for the distant future now, because in a real way the future is already here.
-- Daniel Rainey
fmr NMB Chief of Staff