While the app-based gig economy derives a certain sexiness from its association with the tech world, the gig economy has existed offline for generations. Some workers have been pushed into the gig economy by circumstances beyond their control, while others have always and will continue to choose it, either due to the nature of their occupation or for personal reasons. Workers in gig situations get new jobs through the strength of their reputations; the difference in the on-demand economy is that workers don’t own their reputations.
“Just like domestic workers were tugged away in people’s houses, digital laborers remain invisible, tugged away in between algorithms,” said Trebor Scholz in his opening talk at the Platform Cooperativism conference in 2016. This observation resonated with me, because I worked for many years with home-care workers and their allies in the disability rights movement, who have the slogan “Invisible No More.” One of the big differences between domestic workers and platform workers (especially online-only platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk) is that the domestic workers have word of mouth, and references, and do work that is geographically located in a specific place.
Most of us employed in traditional jobs have things like resumes, coworkers that we can rely on for references, networks of people who will tell us about jobs, and other advantages that help when we’re looking for new work. I personally have changed jobs twice in the past two years, and both times I took my reputation with me—through word of mouth, through work-related networks, and yes, through LinkedIn recommendations. In some ways, the platform economy has the potential to be wildly democratizing, because more transparent networks for finding work should mean larger numbers of people getting new opportunities.
Many of these platforms don’t let workers have any control over their reputations. I don’t want to sugarcoat the problems of reputation for workers with traditional jobs, but in some ways reputation is much more punishing for platform workers. There have been many stories about Airbnb, Uber, and others removing workers from their platforms, with little to no notice or ability to correct problems. In fact, Uber drivers are required to maintain a certain rating in order to stay on the platform—a fact that few passengers know. Workers in most cases lack the ability to challenge the stain on their reputations, and sometimes they don’t even know why their reputations might have suffered. Platforms are highly dependent on customer ratings for policing the quality of their workforce, but they haven’t figured out how to correct for those same customers’ race and gender bias. It can feel to the worker like it’s “one strike and you’re out”—and that arbitrariness just adds to the instability of gig-work. In addition, reputation isn’t portable. If Uber drivers want to change platforms and start delivering packages for Instacart, they have to start from scratch to build up a good reputation on the new site—even though they are using skills that are valuable to both sites.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and the offline gig economy reminds us of that.
Meet my friend Dave. Dave is an actor who lives in New York City. The nature of acting is contingent—even the longest-running Broadway musical will come to an end long before the end of an individual actor’s career. The same is true for movies, TV shows, commercial work, recording audio books, and Shakespeare in the Park (or, in his case, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot).
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Like most gig worker, Dave has multiple sources of income throughout the year—and to supplement them, he also works as a catering bartender. In years when he books more acting work, he might bartend less, but he’s been a steady bartender for a long time. Catering is itself seasonal work. There’s lots to do in December, when rich people or companies are having their holiday parties, but much less in January. Catering managers know him, and they know he’s reliable. They keep calling him for jobs, even in years when he might be turning them down frequently for acting gigs.
For Dave, one part of the solution to his “gig” insecurity is his union, the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA. The union negotiates multi-employer agreements within different industry sectors—so the contract for TV commercial work in New York is different from the contract for recording audio books—but all the employers pay into common health, benefits, and pension funds, on a per capita basis. If Dave books a one-day commercial shoot, the ad agency pays less into the pension than if he books a recurring role on a TV show, of course, but all the money goes into one pension that Dave will eventually be able to retire on.
It’s important to understand that there are existing worker-led organizations that are set up to deal with multi-employer, disaggregated work situations—and that we can build from their model, rather than starting from scratch. Not every union was set up to deal with jobs in which workers stayed with the same company for years on end. Lots of people are starting to think about ways that workers can organize in the gig economy—and I want to urge all of them to think about how to build reputation best-practices into their efforts. A decent reputation system should be:
- Able to take input from multiple companies (if that is relevant to the worker)
- Resistant to bias and prejudice
- Fair in how it distributes rewards
- Correctable with improved behavior
- Equipped with some kind of a grievance process
Dave’s union was formed the old fashioned way. Actors struck in Hollywood in 1929, and then radio producers in 1939. The technological tools that actors have worked with have changed over the years—and the union has transitioned with the new technology. Now, for instance, it is organizing workers who voice video games, figuring out how to deal with new channels for distribution of content like YouTube and Hulu, and taking on the digital advertising industry. SAG-AFTRA hasn’t had to “solve” the reputation problem in the way that online platform worker organizations will—but that is because they are dealing with employers who want to see actors’ work through auditions before they cast them. We don’t get to ask to see samples of our TaskRabbit’s work assembling Ikea furniture; we choose them based on their on-site ratings instead. Dave still relies on reputation in his catering work, but that’s delivered through his existing (and offline) personal network.
We are already seeing tech companies develop ways of aggregating our online reputations—through sites like LinkedIn, Karma, MakerBase, and Work Hands—but those platforms still haven’t caught up to the best-practices of the offline gig economy. And let’s be honest: You wouldn’t want a union that just exists to protect workers’ reputations, just as we don’t organize offline unions only around issues of worker reputation.
Those of us who are striving to organize workers in the online economy have to build a theory for reputation portability and protection into our other organizing work. We can’t let reputation management become disaggregated from the platforms on which workers get work. So build a better mousetrap. We should take a lesson from Dave’s union too, and build organizations that can evolve as the technology work evolves.