LOS ANGELES: Veena Dubal was a featured panelist for the “Organizing Tech” panel at the October 2019 AI Now Symposium in New York. AI Now is a research institute founded by Kate Crawford and Meredith Whittaker which examines the social implications of artificial intelligence from the perspective of rights and liberties; labor and automation; bias and conclusion; and safety and critical infrastructure.
These are worthy initiatives, and a watchdog group to monitor what is done with people’s data and information is a necessary component to maintaining a free society. The unfortunate component of this is in their quest to advocate against a police state, where are the advocates to monitor the monitors?
Veena Dubal, UC Hastings School of Law and Labor Unions would like to be on the forefront of controlling this aspect of labor automation and its narrative. The AB5 law is part of their plan to achieve it. (What is California’s New AB5 Law, and How Will it Affect Employees & Employers Within the Gig Economy?)
At the conclusion of the Organizing Tech panel which included two other activists against AI and technology overreach, Dubal was asked by Meredith Whittaker what her 5-year dream scenario for the future of “the worker” would be. Dubal replied,
“I’d like to see Big Tech broken up, I’d like to see Taft-Hartley repealed (a United States federal law that restricts the activities and power of labor unions). And once I repeal Taft-Hartley and break up Big Tech, I’d like to see much more, not just worker democracy, but worker ownership in this particular sector of economy.”
“…once I repeal Taft-Hartley and break up Big Tech” – Veena Dubal
Huge ambitions for an ivory tower associate professor; which is exactly why the Labor Unions and their comrades tapped her for the creation of AB5.
In reading through Dubal’s scholarship, along with her Twitter timeline, she is laser-focused on the gig economy as represented by Uber and Lyft, and other app-based businesses like DoorDash and InstaCart.
Amazon gets a mention here and there, usually by other fellow travelers who Dubal retweets.
Dubal attacking app-based business models
But it is the business model of the app-based corporations that seem to stick in Veena and her colleague’s craw. There is no end to the misclassification and mistreatment of workers they seem to find. It’s almost like they are searching for it under every rock.
Now, take notice that the words “people”, and “individuals”, is never part of the lexicon of Veena and her colleague’s language when discussing living, breathing human beings with agency and free will. Veena’s goals and the goals of her Labor Union counterparts are to make us all “workers”.
Any agency afforded us is for the sole purpose of organizing with your fellow “workers” and the rights of the unions to manage and control your ability to do that. Pure and simple.
As outlined in part 2 of my series, Veena’s intent with AB5 is to destroy the independent contractor business model, most prominently represented through the app-based companies like Uber and Lyft.
In a September 2019 Wall Street Journal video posted after the passage of AB5, Veena explains her reasons for going after this model.
‘The reason why it’s so incredibly important, is because If we hadn’t put the brakes on this business model, what is to have prevented all other service work from going down this road?”
The emergence of app-based businesses
Since the inception of the iPhone in 2007, app-based businesses have not only taken off, but dominated the new millennium. Traditional brick-and-mortar businesses have caught on, offering an extension of their services via apps. This new way of conducting commerce has afforded more convenience to the customer, reduced overhead for businesses, and given fresh opportunities to independent-minded individuals either seeking a side gig, or flexibility and work-life balance.
The app-based economy has freed up millions of lives and created millions of new startups and businesses. It has turned paupers into millionaires, and in many cases maximized one’s ability to not only earn a living wage but to earn substantially more than that in less time than what is spent at a 9-5 brick and mortar workplace.
Why would Duval, who claims to care about the precarity of workers, oppose gig worker success?
Midway through the Organizing Tech panel, Veena spoke about the dangers of independent contracting coupled with the app-based models.
“Exploitative business model, that is independent contracting, where it met with the massification of app-based technology, we were seeing that exploitation spread all around the world…”
In her Berkeley Law Journal scholarly paper, “The Drive to Precarity: A Political History of Work Regulation,” Veena uses case studies of chauffeurs, and then taxi drivers in San Francisco to prove a pattern of what she calls “precarity”: a move from protected and secure work to a condition of physical and economic insecurity.
“As the ‘Uber economy’ model rapidly expands into other spheres of service work, I maintain that the political history of how chauffeur work went from precarity to security and back may hold important lessons for contemporary labor struggles[.]”
Veena points to the 50-year period when taxi driving across the United States was regulated, union work.
“Drivers worked full-time, but not over-time, earned a ‘living wage’ and enjoyed the dignities of work and a political voice alongside their union brothers.”
In Veena’s worldview, security involves 1) a living wage; and 2) union protections.
When taxi driving went to the independent contractor model during the 1970s, this is when she surmises that precarity of work developed and spread. It is fascinating that someone who appears to have never known economic insecurity and champions for the security of workers could so cavalierly destroy security for millions of California’s independent contractors and freelancers, truckers, and artists.
“To understand and, more critically, to address the predicament of work and workers today, we must go beyond our investigation of present-day precarity and also investigate what produced the exceptional years of security preceding it.”
It is even more fascinating that a September 2019 San Jose Spotlight on taxi drivers in the Silicon Valley’s response to AB5, pushes back on Veena’s romanticized narrative of safe, union work, and the precarious nature of independent contracting.
Larry Silva, president and general manager of Yellow Checker Cab Company Inc. said in the article,
“At my company of affiliated drivers, I know none that want to be an employee. If you found more than 10 or 15 in the state that actually truly want to be employees, I would shake your hand because I don’t think they exist.”
Another 20-year career taxi driver, Karan Deep agreed with Silva, saying the flexibility is something drivers choose. That it provides satisfaction in both pay and work-life balance.
In Veena’s other scholarly work, “An Uber Ambivalence: Employee Status, Worker Perspectives, & Regulation in the Gig Economy”, she points to 400 sworn statements from drivers that Uber submitted in court, saying that they did not want to be employees. [emphasis mine]
“To date, these findings and assertions have played a powerful role in averting the regulation of gig work as employment. The results of my survey research on Uber drivers who work in San Francisco, conducted between February 2016 and August 2016, affirmed this data and the gig companies’ assertions about driver preference. Regardless of gender, immigration status, and whether Uber driving was their only, primary, or supplemental job, a majority of Uber drivers stated they preferred to be independent contractors.” [emphasis mine]
So what is Dubal’s reasoning for wanting to destroy a model that works for the majority of people who prefer to contract in this manner?
None of us who work as independent contractors deny that some employers use the model to dishonestly misclassify laborers as independent contractors when they rightfully should be employees. There are already legal measures in place in the federal and state labor codes to address this, and Dubal herself points to the uses of the codes in the actions against Uber.
So to use rampant misclassification as an excuse to eliminate a model that works for the majority makes no sense.
Tao Leung, an employment law attorney for the international firm of Hogan Lovells tells this writer about the harm caused by the AB5 law. He said very practically and plainly,
“There is a certain set of a workforce that does not want to be employees. They know what the law is, they know what the risks are, but you cannot force people to be employees. So what are you left with?”
The fact that Dubal only uses the transportation aspect of the independent contractor model shows another hypocrisy in her one-size-fits-all approach. Just like all apps are not created equal, neither are all contracting relationships. As long as two or more business professionals agree on the nature and scope of this, it should be left to them how, when, and for how much they choose to conduct business.
Veena Dubal and her political crony Lorena Gonzalez, California State Assemblyperson, are using a wrecking ball approach to break the independent contractor model. They do not care about the damage done to lives or the California economy by the flying concrete and rebar.
Essentially, Dubal’s scholarship distills down to case studies on how the Labor Unions can regain control of the labor force in general. And your labor specifically. What Dubal sees as lack of control for the “worker” and an inability to recruit and organize by the Labor Unions, others see as a choice to do the work that satisfies and pleases them. And allows them to have a work-life balance that fits.
Is there precarity inherent in independent contractor work?
Of course! But life involves choices and tradeoffs. Where one person wants to be told what to do for 7.5 hours at a “living wage” with two 15-minute rest breaks, and a 30-minute meal break, another person would rather have the ability to command the wage they want. Which may well be above a living wage. They also want to dictate the seasons and hours they wish to work.
Uber and Lyft (not to mention Yellow Cab Company Inc.) have done their utmost to beat back against re-classification and make it difficult for the unions to collectively bargain against them. Despite the specious lawsuits, the tepid app-driver protests (40-50 people at most), and efforts to push back these corporations’ progress for the independence of labor and their right to engage with their laborers.
So the passage of AB5 was a boondoggle for the Labor Unions, and for Dubal’s well-paid, scholarly career.