A new piece of legislation in New York City offers a model for organizing gig workers to fight for their needs.
Last week an article in The American Prospect caught our eye. It features a new municipal law in New York City that “requires fast-food employers to give their employees the option of deducting contributions from their paychecks that would go to a qualified nonprofit that will in turn provide services for and advocate on behalf of its members.”
The first of its kind, the strategy here is different than that of traditional labor unions in that the nonprofit advocacy organization funded by the paycheck deductions cannot collectively bargain with employers over wages; something forbidden by federal law. Moreover, unlike a union shop, the deductions here are entirely voluntary. As the article points out, the innovation is that the nonprofit “will be able to advocate for a host of issues that affect its members—much as the Fight for 15 did when it persuaded New York state to raise their minimum wage to $15.”
In other words, even as direct bargaining with employers is prohibited, there are other ways to force concessions from employers when workers have a funded advocacy organization working on their behalf. The board member of a newly formed nonprofit that hopes to advocate on behalf of fast food workers outlined her organization’s goals:
The group will do traditional labor advocacy, like educating workers about the city’s new labor laws and protections—from the minimum wage and paid sick leave to fair scheduling—and pushing for further advances in the industry. But it will also go beyond the workplace, providing services and advocacy on other issues fast-food workers deal with every day, including deportation raids, police violence, and affordable housing.”
Another aspect of this innovative strategy is that membership isn’t based upon working at a particular store of for a particular employer. In other words, “under the new law, if a worker leaves her job at McDonald’s in lower Manhattan for a new position at a Burger King uptown, she can still remain a member. After all, the conditions of employment at Burger King and McDonald’s aren’t all that dissimilar.”
This model of organizing should provide a lot of inspiration for those wanting to organize on behalf of workers in the gig economy. Instead of fast food workers, think 1099 workers. Whether city by city, or state by state, legislation could be pursued that requires offering a wage deduction by which independent workers can begin funding a nonprofit that advocates on their behalf around a range of issues, including wages, benefits, retirement, paid leave, and so on.
This nonprofit advocacy organization could also educate independent, freelance, and contract workers about their rights, provide and advertise professional development opportunities, direct members to legal services, and generally provide a host of other offerings relevant to gig workers.
Just like the fast food workers in the example above, membership wouldn’t be rooted in a particular employer, but would rather be based in the workers’ 1099 status. The (rather large) caveat here being that undocumented workers must absolutely have access to membership, so more thinking would need to be done about ways to include those who are afraid to file taxes.
In general, however, this fast food worker legislation in New York City is a hopeful sign that gig workers too can be organized outside of the traditional model. Congratulations to the fast food workers in New York, we’ll be watching for developments and hoping that this movement ends up greatly benefiting you, and other workers as well.