What Happens When the Gig Economy Doesn’t Need Its Workers?

Usagirlusagirl
5 min readNov 29, 2020

by Bill de Blasio, Mayor of the City of New York

Photo Credit: Ed Reed, Mayoral Photo Office

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Five years ago, I saw the writing on the wall and tried to take on Uber. I tried to put a stop to the flood of cars clogging our streets and the downward slide in wages crushing working people.

But back in 2015, the gig economy hadn’t yet lost its luster. And the notion that customer convenience would come at a terrible cost — in livelihoods and lives lost — wasn’t yet established.

And so, I got my butt kicked.

Uber flooded the airwaves with millions of dollars in ads blasting new regulations.

It even weaponized the Uber app by adding a “De Blasio’s Uber” feature misleading its customers into thinking that our rules would make them wait 25 minutes for a car.

Uber ran right over that first attempt to rein it in and the costs to New York City were enormous. More cars kept coming by the thousands every single month, grinding Midtown traffic to a halt. And what was once part of the bedrock of New York’s middle class, an industry that helped immigrants buy their first homes or send a kid to college, collapsed.

Finally, in 2018, with a new coalition of outraged drivers and progressive groups, we passed rules that set a fair minimum wage for drivers and stopped Uber from flooding the market.

It was a big victory for working people.

But now we see, it was barely Round One of a much bigger fight.

Because corporations like Uber aren’t just staking their future on downgrading workers’ livelihoods. They’re out to eliminate workers.

Today, at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I’m meeting with fellow mayors from across the country to talk about protecting America’s workers from automation. Now, this is hardly the kind of nuts and bolts issue mayors are used to facing in their day to day. But without a coherent national strategy, it’s fallen to us to confront the challenge before the damage is irrevocable.

Roughly 36 million Americans are working jobs that could evaporate with automation in the years ahead according to the Brookings Institution. Driverless cars, artificial intelligence and entire factories without workers are no longer remote ideas, they are manifesting themselves in our cities more and more with every passing year.

A lot of us are trying to hold the line. In New York City, we’ve launched a new Department of Consumer and Worker Protection with a mandate to protect gig workers and freelancers left out of traditional labor laws. We’ve been able to keep big companies from deploying untested driverless cars on the same streets where millions of pedestrians pack the sidewalks and crosswalks. Just this past fall, we had to warn FedEx after it started testing a package delivering robot in the heart of Midtown.

But we’ve got to get ahead of the game, because confronting this vast change one Uber at a time, is not sustainable for any of us. We need new ground rules, not just when it comes to a specific company or even a whole industry. We need rules for the phenomenon of automation itself.

Don’t let the TED Talks fool you — this is not some inexorable economic force beyond our control. In fact, organized labor, economists and progressive leaders are starting to recognize the need to better regulate automation.

I’ve called for a Robot Tax that taxes the profits generated when jobs are automated and invests that money not only in training but in direct placement for good-paying jobs that are growing in fields like health care, green energy and early education.

We need a new federal agency to ensure that workers displaced through automation are rehired by their same employer or provided fair severance pay.

And we have to close the loopholes that actually incentivize corporations to eliminate jobs through automation by letting them deduct up-front costs from their tax bills.

I believe all this as mayor of the most innovative, forward-looking city in the country, a city that teaches every kid computer science and partners with the tech industry to train the next generation of talent.

I truly believe technological change can do working people good, not just harm.

But government cannot be missing in action.

I saw in my own city what the unchecked power of corporations can mean to the livelihoods of the working people we represent. And I saw what government, organized labor and working people can achieve when they unite to take that power back.

Round Two is just getting started. For the sake of millions of working Americans, we have to win it.

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