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American Labor Unions Are Falling Down On Digital Workers

Crowdworkers are among the most underpaid and exploited on-demand laborers. So why aren't they unionized?

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There's a popular forum on Reddit for Turkers, the roughly 500,000 people all around the world who are hired by researchers, marketing companies, and the like to do tiny tasks, like gauge the sentiment of a tweet or transcribe an audio snippet, for pennies (or fractions thereof) apiece on Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform. The forum is called r/mTurk, and it's a place for Turkers to discuss their work, share tips, and create a sort of virtual watercooler (or Slack room) within a labor force that's fragmented, diffuse, and disorganized.

On Tuesday, a frequent poster who goes by the handle Tyoung916 posted a link to a YouTube video under the headline, "A soundtrack to accompany Mturks price increase taking place tomorrow, July 22nd." This is the video the headline linked to:

View this video on YouTube

youtube.com

As BuzzFeed News reported, last month, Amazon rather abruptly announced that it would be doubling and in some cases quadrupling the commission it collects on each task facilitated by the platform. Both Turkers and requesters, as people who pay them are called, expressed concern that the move — which went into effect this week — would disrupt the delicate balance of the mTurk marketplace. Some posters on r/mTurk predicted that the number of available jobs would decrease by 50%, if not more. Already, they've taken to calling the situation "Turkageddon" or "Turkgate."

This is the kind of galvanizing moment that, in a different time and a different industry, could have sparked an organizing campaign or a strike. Half a million people were facing down a significant pay cut, and they were talking about it, loudly. But the complaints scarcely made it beyond Reddit. And they certainly didn't make it to the kind of organizations that would push for a unionization drive or a strike.

In many ways, digital crowdwork — the general term assigned to platforms such as mTurk, which is the largest — is the most purely distilled version of the contemporary trend toward flexible labor also exemplified by companies such as Uber and TaskRabbit. These are people who work (and get paid) in tiny increments, often contracting out to dozens of different employers a day. They have all the freedom — over their schedules, the tasks they take, how they organize their professional lives — that champions of the so-called gig economy trumpet, and none of the protections — benefits, job security — that its detractors say are every worker's right.

And perhaps because their work is so piecemeal, Turkers are arguably the most routinely exploited subgroup of on-demand workers — not for nothing have some likened Mechanical Turk to a "digital sweatshop." Platforms like Mechanical Turk pay very little and offer no guarantee that workers will get paid for the tasks they complete, often resulting in wage theft. Workers have next to no recourse when there's a dispute with an employer, and, sometimes, don't even know who a given task's requester is.

But while the powers that be in Washington are currently laser-focused on negotiating the rights and protections of local on-demand workers such as Uber drivers — and German labor unions have taken up crowdwork as a cause — digital labor has so far gone largely unaddressed in the United States by traditional labor organizations.

Even the less traditional unions tend to focus their work on issues that impact workers who are physically present at work, like immigrant populations and Uber drivers. Some unions, meanwhile, ignore the issue altogether, preferring to focus on industries — like autoworkers and teachers — that have historically been the backbone of the American labor movement. The problem with digital labor, legal scholar Miriam Cherry told BuzzFeed News, is that the people doing are, by nature, physically isolated, and effectively invisible. "These aren't people who are going to show up at a location and do a picket," she said.

Which is why, when it comes to digital labor, SEIU 775 President David Rolf told BuzzFeed News, "most of the interesting work is going on away from the traditional labor union tables." The problem, Rolf said, is that American labor unions are designed for a 20th-century labor market, where many people working for one corporation share one boss. With distributed work, many people have many bosses, which renders traditional collective bargaining strategies useless. SEIU is interested in coming up with a way to help distributed tech workers, he said, "but that may not look anything like a traditional labor management relationship." Rolf said he could see this happening in a few ways. One would be "fair trade labels" for employers; another might be, as has been widely discussed in the political realm lately, portable health benefits. But Rolf isn't sure who should lead this charge.

"A union could do it. A company could do it. A workers' cooperative could do it," he said. "It's a question of who gets to it first."

Before Aaron Sojourner was a labor economist at the University of Minnesota, he was a union organizer for construction workers. And he thinks that what digital workers need is an alternative labor organization — one that's more flexible. "If you look over the broad scope of labor history, there are a lot of different forms of labor organizing," he told BuzzFeed News. "In America, we've had one mode that's been dominant. But it's far from the only mode by which workers can come together and advocate for themselves."

A few years ago, Sojourner had a team of researchers evaluate the net impact of Turkopticon, a website that lets Turkers rate their employers. He found that, when working for employers with higher ratings — employers who are most likely to pay what's owed and make accurate estimations of how long tasks will take — workers made 40% more than they did without the aid of Turkopticon. Sojourner thinks that forums like Turkopticon represent a promising alternative to traditional labor organizing for crowdworkers.

"The falling cost of communications technology and information management has unleashed new organizational forms, new ways of doing work, decentralization, outsourcing, crowdsourcing," he said. "You don't need the traditional employment relationship as much. But those same changes in communications technology and falling costs enable workers to communicate and share information — to come together in a way that wasn't possible before. You see these new forms of organization happening that couldn't have before."

Meanwhile, outside the U.S., traditional labor organizations appear to have kept up with the times and the tech — and may represent an example for their American counterparts. IG Metall is Germany's largest trade union and one of the largest unions in the world. It represents both blue- and white-collar workers from all of Germany's major car manufacturers, as well as workers in metal, electronics, plastics, textile, and other industries. But it's also invested in organizing in new jobs, industries, and categories of work; the union's focus right now includes office workers, IT workers, and students.

In May, IG Metall launched a new initiative dedicated to improving working conditions for crowdworkers — sometimes called clickworkers in Germany. The union hired Six Silberman, co-founder of Turkopticon, as a project secretary, heading up the fair crowdwork project, which includes a new, Turkopticon-like website, Faircrowdwork.org, where workers can rate and review the companies they work for, and a hotline that workers can call with questions about their rights. In a recent interview with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, IG Metall's executive director, Christiane Benner, called working conditions for crowdworkers "brutal and unilaterally imposed," and argued that crowdworkers have the same right to social security, a fair wage, and job security that other German workers do.

"Our plan is to rate the most important platforms worldwide," she said in the interview. "I know that seems cocky and crazy, but that's what we are sometimes."

Organized labor isn't the only force in Germany taking on the issue of fair treatment for digital laborers — the platforms themselves are in on it, too. Earlier this month, a company called Testbirds, which uses crowdwork to test apps, published a "Code of Conduct" for crowdworking platforms. The 10-item code supports workers' right to privacy, clear feedback, transparent communication, and fair pay, among other things. Some other digital labor platforms, including Clickworker and Streetspotr, have already signed on, but the document is ultimately more of a toothless statement of good faith than an enforceable regulatory document. Plus, said Testbirds CEO Philip Benkler, not all platforms are going to listen. "There are at least 110 platforms Crowd Working in Germany," Benkler told media website Kress.de. "Among them there will certainly be some who do not abide by the Code of Conduct. It's up to them whether they want to adapt their business processes to it or not."

It's hard to imagine an American company signing on to something like Testbird's code of conduct, especially if doing so could ultimately compromise its ability to maximize profit. But in Germany, there's historical and legal precedent for giving greater agency to workers. A law known as Mitbestimmung, or co-determination, requires that, for companies with over 2,000 employees, at least half of board of directors has to be comprised of workers. Because of this, German employers have an expectation that workers will have, if not control, at least a say in business practices, meaning that new companies in Germany are more likely to bake protections for workers into their business models from the beginning than they are in the U.S.

Niloufar Salehi is a graduate student in Stanford's Human Computer Interaction program and a longtime observer of digital labor. Salehi built Dyanmo, a platform where crowdworkers can author and discuss petitions in hopes of giving some control and agency back to digital workers.

The day Amazon announced the Mechanical Turk fee hikes, Dyanmo user careful_owl started a petition to "Tell Amazon that the commission changes are unfair to workers and will result in lower pay, less work, and the loss of valuable requesters!" Over the last month, dozens of users have commented on this thread, suggesting, among other things, writing an open letter, providing a public wage data analysis, and picketing outside Amazon's headquarters. Unfortunately, wrote Salehi in an email to BuzzFeed News, "we still haven't figured out a good way to act."

Collective action and distributed power is the dream of the internet, but the reality is that a crowd can be hard to manage. When it comes to the niche issue of crowdwork — and to digital labor more broadly — U.S. laborers have had a relatively engaged discourse around the issues of what fair treatment should look like. But, whereas in Germany a historical focus on giving power to labor has made it possible for both enterprise and legacy labor organizations to stake a claim in this debate, digital workers in the U.S. have largely been left to their own devices, leaving them vulnerable to profit-minded corporations like Amazon and beyond. And ultimately, though platforms such as Turkopticon and Dynamo have allowed crowdworkers to communicate, there's only so much they can do when the power dynamic is so thoroughly skewed.

"Traditional unions still have resources," said Sojourner. "They can make things happen in a way that a group of individuals can't."

Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Caroline O'Donovan at caroline.odonovan@buzzfeed.com.

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