Whether workers in the gig economy have a chance at being more than app-based serfs is on the line in Seattle's unionization ordinance.

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In the 19th century, many Industrial Revolution employers saw their workers as little more than freed serfs, easily replaced commodities toiling in the “dark satanic mills,” as William Blake famously styled them. These immense factories disrupted the old ways of life centered around agriculture and villages. It took much statesmanship, progressive legislation and union bloodshed before employees gained the opportunities, rights and protections we take for granted. Or, at least, we used to.

This is why Seattle’s law allowing for unionization of app-based ride sharing outfits such as Uber and Lyft is so important. Despite all the hype over the ride-sharing services as a leap of convenience based on apps, their vast profit potential comes from having very few employees. What a grand way to further redistribute money upward to the 1 percent until we can have self-driving cars and be done with humans entirely.

Drivers are “independent contractors,” who lack the many advantaged that lifted up the broad American middle class in the middle of the 20th century. It carries the sexy name “gig economy,” but for many it is a bottom-feeding, desperation economy. It also eliminates real full-time jobs that offer any security, benefits and ladders up. While some of these contractors are doing the work by choice, many are not. The Seattle law, which allows drivers from the companies above plus other ride-share, taxi and for-hire outfits the right of collective bargaining, would be a beginning at restoring some balance.

As my colleague Jessica Lee reported, the law is attracting more powerful opposition. The National Right to Work Foundation and the Freedom Foundation (the former with deep ties to the right and the Koch brothers) are representing a handful of drivers suing to stop Seattle. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has re-filed its challenge, which was previously dismissed as premature. Teamsters Local 117 recently received permission to begin an organizing drive.

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This will be an important test. It represents much more than an attempt to arrest, or hasten, the decades-long retreat of organized labor in the private sector. That has complex roots, not least public policies geared to favor employers but also union missteps and overreaching.

Seattle’s case looks at the future. If gigs are the future for more and more Americans, will they fall back to conditions of the robber baron era — becoming a vast multiplier of the inequality and falling share of labor income already hurting us? Or will the gig future carry the worker empowerment that especially comes from unions? It’s romantic to think the individual needs no laws, no unions, no balancing institutions to protect him or her in the economy. But that only happens in Ayn Rand’s fiction.


Today’s Econ Haiku:

Neiman was Dallas

But Hudson’s Bay’s flowing south

The climate’s changing