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Be your own boss? Long-term labor trends and the rise of Uber
This article explores the long-term trends behind the rise of Uber, one of the most valuable corporations in the contemporary US In 2018 a study by the Economic Policy Institute found that there were 833,000 Uber drivers in the US, the vast majority of them poorly paid part-timers. Concentrating on the company’s use of technology, most of the literature on Uber focuses on the present and future. Using new technology to monitor and control drivers, the ride-sharing app has been pictured as representing the “future of work” and being “decidedly unlike other workplaces.” This article demonstrates that there were in fact many long-term precedents for Uber’s labor practices, as American workers had suffered from falling wages, a steady loss of benefits, and unprecedented levels of income inequality for decades before the app arrived in 2009. Part-time work—and the classification of workers as independent contractors to evade the protections of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act—had also been on the rise for decades. It was FedEx that pioneered Uber’s recruiting slogan, “Be Your Own Boss,” years earlier. While the technology used was relatively new, the labor conditions had many precedents, and Uber could not have grown so quickly without them. The article especially focuses on the response of organized labor to Uber’s rise, an area that deserves more attention. It shows that the AFL-CIO— America’s main union federation—foresaw the rise of casualized labor and spent decades warning against it. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic also illustrated drivers’ economic vulnerability and the need for greater regulation, validating labor’s decades-long warnings.