For many in the city, this week’s conversations have centered on how to get to work if BART workers strike. But for members of the Occupy Forum, the BART negotiations offered a prime opportunity to discuss the history of labor unions and their future in a tech economy.
The night’s title set the tone: Brutal and Unequal: Disruption, Precarity, and the New Tech Boom. Front and center was the one viable option many commuters had for getting to work should BART strike — the multitude of rideshare programs such as Lyft, Sidecar and Uber that allow ordinary car owners to work as freelance taxi drivers.
Viewed by many as a positive way to earn a supplemental income, the speakers on Monday evening described rideshare apps as tech’s way of subverting the unions.
“Rideshare is a completely unregulated industry and does not pay fees to the city,” Darwin Bond-Graham, a writer and sociologist, told the room of two dozen labor supporters. “They are robbing the public coffers.”
He argued that traditional cabs pay fees to the city through medallion sales, thereby generating revenue for the city’s transportation infrastructure.
Co-presenter Ryan Smith, a former Zynga employee, offered an “insider’s look” at what he viewed as the efforts of tech companies to keep employees from organizing. One of Smith’s biggest complaints was the improper use of contract workers — the standard practice of rideshare companies that contract with car owners rather than hire full-time drivers.
“These are not young, scrappy kids challenging the establishment,” Bond-Graham told listeners, categorizing the rideshare companies as more akin to large corporations than young entrepreneurs.
No one listening appeared to disagree.
“You have these [rideshare] drivers that have no union protections like the BART unions can give to their employees,” Javier Arbona, who teaches urban field studies at Berkeley, said after the forum. “The CEOs at tech companies would like to see the trains completely mechanized, and bust the union that way.”
For Arbona, looking at the pay of the chief executives at the city’s largest tech companies versus the wages being requested by BART workers, makes all the difference. “I think the BART union is fighting for something that’s worthy,” he said.
But, the question of whether Missionites will be contemplating the labor practices of ridesharing companies or simply hustling to find their own way to work come the next BART deadline seems to have already been answered by the boom rideshares experienced during July’s shutdown — Sidecar alone reported a 40 percent increase in business during the summer’s shutdown.