In this article, views of Jay Youngdahl are expressed followed by a response from Ai-jenPoo and Palak Shah
Greed-Washing the On-Demand Economy: The NDWA’s “Good Work Code”
By Jay Youngdahl
Readers of New Labor Forum are familiar with the depleted state of America’s unions, workers’ depressed living standards, as well as of the emergence of responsive ideas, strategies, and struggles. The current ferment will surely to lead to successes, but in the process a number of counterproductive strategies are emerging.[i]
Though led by smart, empathetic activists, one of the oddest and most problematic of the new efforts is the Good Work Code (GWC or the Code) for the on-demand or “gig” economy, formulated by the National Domestic Workers Association (NDWA).[ii] While the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in particular, are engaged in unionizing strategies in the tech sector, and enterprising wage and hour lawyers are confronting the sector’s wage theft, the NDWA, working with a number of corporate partners such as the Uber-like delivery company DoorDash, has created an aspirational code for tech-sector employers.
An analysis of the GWC is a lesson in the problematic nature of a number of trends in the Philanthropic Labor Movement (PLM). Unfortunately, within the non-profits in the foundation-funded PLM, worker agency, power, and democracy, the bedrocks of a strong movement, are often hard to find.[iii]
The Code was unveiled last fall with a splashy website and media campaign, after the well-respected NDWA canvassed “on-demand” employers.[iv] Signatory companies committed to endorse general “values” for their work forces Safety, Stability and Flexibility, Transparency, Shared Prosperity, A Living Wage, Inclusion and Input, Support and Connection, Growth and Development––and to make public a few sentences about what “progress” they will make in relation to two of the eight values.[v] Nothing more was required. In exchange, they received a kind of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to trumpet on promotional materials, backed by the progressive reputation of the NDWA.
Codes which inure to the benefit of workers are sometimes developed for areas in which worker power is lacking and protection at work sorely needed. But like codes for organic food or product safety, many are simply corporate greedwashing.2) As the trajectory of the Fair Labor Association has shown in the garment supply chain, “many companies adopt codes to assist with their reputational risks over questionable labor practices,” says Ben Hensler, Deputy Director of the Workers Rights Consortium.[vi]
Good codes exist, but to work, Hensler continues, they “need several attributes including legal enforceability, independent and transparent monitoring of compliance, and meaningful involvement of worker representatives.” One successful code is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety (the Accord) in Bangladesh negotiated between international trade unions at such companies as Fruit of the Loom and Benetton. Coming on the heels of the Rana Plaza building collapse in which, scandalously, more than one thousand people were killed, the Accord is a legally binding agreement covering over two million workers. To ensure a safe working environment the Accord includes inspection programs, public disclosure of reports, a democratically elected factory-based health and safety committee, and a right to refuse unsafe work. Fruitful codes are present in the U.S. as well. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, through a strategy of farmworker organizing, consumer education, and boycotts, has forced a number of retail companies, including Walmart, to sign onto its Fair Food Code of Conduct, which contains labor protections. And, the NDWA’s original caregiver’s Bill of Rights is a solid type of code, whose use has advanced efforts to protect in-home labor.
It is easy to see why tech companies would like the Good Work Code. NDWA’s anointing of DoorDash as a company that provides good work gives the company a powerful weapon when questioned about the compensation of its drivers.[vii] And, for a troubled public company like Care.com, the reputational boost from its NDWA seal of approval is valuable.[viii] But why would the NDWA, a very well-respected organization, leverage its prestige with this mealy-mouthed GWC, even as an experiment?[ix]
First, the sparkly potential of the “on-demand” economy glimmers for many schooled in social entrepreneurship, and is seducing too many labor advocates.[x] The Good Work Code is based on the Silicon Valley utopian vision featured in TED talks with breathless paeans to “innovation” and “disruption.” In this Garden of Eden, it is claimed, wonderful “new opportunities” exist for workers featuring “flexibility” and “freedom.”[xi]
Further, the GWC is a manifestation of the Good Capitalism movement. Here, the “rich can save the world,” and “capitalism itself can be philanthropic, working for the good of mankind . . . by [innovating] to benefit everyone, sooner or later.”[xii] In what the writer Anand Giridharadas has called the “Aspen Consensus,” generosity becomes a substitute for justice. Companies are exhorted to “Do More Good,” but never, “Do Less Harm.”[xiii] And, in Good Capitalism, “the business approach is the only thing that can change the world.”[xiv]
Worker power is Lilliputian in Good Capitalism, and worker “betterment” is mediated by well-meaning politicians, foundation program officers, and PLM leaders. Ideas of confrontational unions, with their worker solidarity and messy democracy, is shunned. Describing the GWC, Ai-jen Poo of the NDWA told Forbes, “Our goal is to create a new story—a new narrative– that’s not about abusive employers and downtrodden workers, but rather that brings companies front and center into the conversation about the future of good work.”[xv] Given the realities of life for Silicon Valley workers, this brings to mind Barbara Ehrenreich’s writing on the perils of positivity as “an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy;” lower-rung “gig” workers are simply “modern” day laborers.”[xvi] Even one of the signatories of the GWC admitted that in the “new economy” “the basics remain much of the same … a time clock used to be something that was mounted on the wall of a factory; now it’s a mobile app.” [xvii]
For those who would say that criticizing the Code is just “old labor” negativity, consider Poo’s statement to Forbes that, “We see a moment of opportunity right now because the gig/online economy is relatively new and its values and principles regarding work are still forming.”[xviii] There is much to chew on here, but it is farcical to claim that the “values and principles of these Silicon Valley creations are still forming.” Silicon Valley has a well-formed negative ethical code– raw profit-seeking individualism. Their leaders are constantly in the news for some kind of unethical actions whether in their personal lives– cheating a sex slave or closing public access to beaches for their private use– or in their business–cheating workers out of their wages.[xix] As to the “evolving ethics” for employees, advocates and discharged workers know that many business models are based on “exploiting workers and disregarding employment laws.”[xx] The bigger on-demand companies such as Uber and Instacart have recently cut pay to their drivers. And, an “occupational segregation” exists in the Silicon Valley as full-time jobs are replaced with low-wage subcontracting work staffed by predominantly black and Latino workers.[xxi] A recent report found that the average blue-collar subcontracted worker has an annual income of $19,900. A living wage for a single mother with one child in this area, for example, is at least twice this amount.[xxii]
New ideas for worker justice and power are needed and certainly a thousand flowers should bloom, but the Good Work Code is a bad strategy even though advanced by good people.
[i] For a light “taxonomy” of these “new labor” formations and commentary of their promises and perils, see, Jay Youngdahl, “Is a Progressive Phoenix Rising? The New Labor Movement is Approaching,” Social Policy Winter, 2016. http://www.socialpolicy.org/component/content/article/4-latest-issue/779-is-a-progressive-phoenix-rising-the-new-labor-movement-is-approaching
[ii] The NDWA is led by Ai-jen Poo, who is on the Board of the New Labor Forum.
[iii] Recent events have shown that success may come in areas of personal identity and work culture from PLM activities, such as shown coworker.org petitions demanding the right of retail workers to dye their hair blue, red, or pink. Challenges to income inequality do not fare as well.
[v] Palak Shah, the leader of the GWC, said that each signatory commits to “focusing on at least two of the eight as priorities over the next year. The idea is to kick off a conversation– it doesn’t mean these companies will get to all eight right away, but it means they aspire to do so, and they are taking public steps to do so. And it means they won’t have to do so alone, but rather in a community of practice grappling with the same questions.” Michael Zakaras, “Can the Online Economy Become a Labor Leader,” Forbes, November 13, 2015 http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2015/11/23/can-the-online-economy-become-a-labor-leader/2/#67260bac4a87
[vi] The Fair Labor Association has been called a “fig leaf” to cover supply chain labor abuse. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/technology/critics-question-record-of-fair-labor-association-apples-monitor.html
[vii] Lyft recently was forced to admit in court that it has taken $126 million in compensation from drivers through its classification of them as independent contractors. http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_29677142/lyft-settlement-faces-scrutiny
[viii] The case of Care.com and NDWA is especially interesting. Given Care.com’s business space and the mission of the NDWA, their closeness is understandable. Like the UAW and GM or the APWU and the USPS, unions often stand by their employers. Unfortunately though, unlike GM and the USPS, Care.com staff is not unionized.
[ix] I want to thank Ai-jen Poo and Palak Shah for speaking to me as part of my writing in this area. I salute their openness. Shah, to her credit, told me that the GWC is an “experiment,” to “shift the conversation to workers.”
[x] A close look at the public relations push behind the “Portable Benefits” movement and efforts to replace worker “employee status” with a form of “independent contractor status” highlights this attraction to Silicon Valley language and thought. See, https://medium.com/the-wtf-economy/common-ground-for-independent-workers-83f3fbcf548f#.ossv8im0x and Jay Youngdahl and Darwin Bond-Graham, “When Labor Groups and Silicon Valley Capitalists Join Forces to “Disrupt” Protections for Employees,” Working In These Times blog, December 4, 2015 http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/18643/when_labor_groups_and_silicon_valley_capitalists_join_forces_to_disrupt_pro
[xi] As to flexibility, when asked, “Legal arguments aside, why is DoorDash opposed to having its drivers classified as employees?” the company responded that: “Our goal at DoorDash is to provide meaningful, flexible work for people across the country. When we speak with Dashers we regularly hear that one of the most important benefits of their work is flexibility and we want to ensure we continue to provide them with that option. We are proud to have created opportunities for a growing community of tens of thousands of Dashers that offer them flexibility, freedom and a meaningful source of income.” In fact, this flexibility and new opportunities remind one of the famous quote of Anatole France in “The Red Lily.” “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
[xii] See, http://philanthrocapitalism.net/ Recently, the former head of BP, the company responsible for the largest environmental disaster in the U.S., wrote on how companies can “tackle big social problems,” lauding Walmart’s success in this area. http://bit.ly/1Y2BDO9
[xiii] While a fellow at the Aspen Global Leadership Network, Anand Giridharadas gave a speech which included these remarks. https://medium.com/@AnandWrites/the-thriving-world-the-wilting-world-and-you-209ffc24ab90#.3pquhumbl
[xiv]Unfortunately, the NDWA is not the only organization that has been seduced by this “business case.” In “old labor”, for example, many labor Capital Strategies activists use the term “human capital” to describe workers, even their own members. And the labor program at Harvard, partially financed by unions, is starting a “human governance” research program http://www.hrmaturity.com/human-governance-a-groundbreaking-research-program/ “Human Governance as a management paradigm that emerges when an organization recognizes and seeks to fulfill a commitment to the never-ending pursuit of societal value through realizing the full potential value of its entire human capital.”
[xv] At a recent White House forum Poo told President Obama that NDWA found that many on-demand employers “just wanted to do the right thing and it wasn’t clear what that was.” Poo followed that there were “no standards, no guidelines” for employers. The President responded that he was a fan of collective bargaining.
[xvi] Barbara Ehrenreich, “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America,” Picador Press, 2010.
[xvii] See, Cole Stangler, “Meet the Gig Economy Companies That See Investing In Workers As a Smart Business Strategy,” March 17, 2016 International Business Times http://www.ibtimes.com/meet-gig-economy-companies-see-investing-workers-smart-business-strategy-2336721
[xviii] See, Greg Bensinger, “Grocery-Delivery Startup Instacart Cuts Pay for Couriers,” March 11, 2016 Wall Street Journal http://www.wsj.com/article_email/grocery-delivery-startup-instacartcuts-pay-for-couriers-1457715105-lMyQjAxMTI2MjE0MTIxNzE3Wj
[xix] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-03-16/how-an-affair-between-a-valley-vc-and-exotic-dancer-turned-toxic; http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/24/business/tech-mogul-asks-for-30-million-to-reopen-martins-beach.html?_r=0;
[xx] http://www.administrativeconsultantsassoc.com/blog/2015/08/12/what-zirtual-and-any-virtual-staffing-agency-workers-need-to-know/; recently a lawyer for Wage Theft Coalition echoed the former Zirtual employee: “In Silicon Valley, exploitation is part of the business model.” Jennifer Wadsworth, “Recent Cases Highlight Silicon Valley’s Wage Theft ‘Epidemic,’” March 9, 2016 SanJoseInside http://www.sanjoseinside.com/2016/03/09/recent-cases-highlight-silicon-valleys-wage-theft-epidemic/
RESPONSE: New Business Models Demand New Forms of Worker Organizing
Response by Ai-jenPoo and Palak Shah
We welcome the opportunity to discuss the merits of the Good Work Code (GWC) and engage with Jay Youngdahl’s critique. As we read it, Youngdahl poses three main objections to the GWC: (1) The values framework articulated is aspirational and unenforceable; (2) it “greedwashes” companies engaged in bad labor practices; and (3) it is based on the notion that “Good Capitalism” can be mobilized to solve the problem of worker exploitation. In the course of his critique, Youngdahl also targets what he calls the “Philanthropic Labor Movement,” that is, those of us with the temerity to organize workers outside the frame of traditional labor unions.
Digital technology and on-demand hiring platforms are rapidly transforming how workers engage with various sectors of the labor market and their terms and conditions of work. Domestic work is among the many occupations impacted by new technology. Increasingly, workers and employers are matched online for child care and eldercare jobs through companies like Care.com, and the on-demand economy has penetrated the housecleaning market through companies like Handy and TaskRabbit.
NDWA turned its attention to Silicon Valley not because, as Youngdahl implies, we were bedazzled by the bright, shiny objects dangled by tech companies, but because, the fact is, these models are transforming labor markets. Increasing numbers of domestic workers, and other low-wage workers, access work through these companies. This phenomenon is in its infancy and our expectation is that it will grow. We believe these workers deserve the best wages and conditions of labor. We assume that Youngdahl agrees with us, at least on this point.
The labor movement is still in the early stages of determining how best to meet the multiple challenges posed by companies that aggregate and deploy workers through digital platforms. Mechanisms for exploiting labor are proliferating and changing far more rapidly than our capacity to organize workers and represent their interests. Tech companies are building new business models, often creating ever more precarious conditions of life and labor, lowering wage floors and job quality. However, with the exception of the ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft, most gig-economy companies are in early stages. It is in this environment, that the labor movement is called upon to develop interventions on many fronts, fearlessly exploring traditional and nontraditional means of articulating, defending, and expanding workers’ rights.
It is in this context that NDWA initiated the Good Work Code. We quickly saw the structural similarities between domestic workers and so-called ‘gig’ workers. Both groups face inconsistent hours, working without contracts, lack of benefits, little to no labor law protections, and no clear path to unionization. At the same time, those who follow the gig economy know that it has been tech companies, not unions or labor advocates, driving the national conversation. By releasing a simple values framework, we have successfully inserted the demands and voices of workers into a narrative dominated by tech companies, with the intention of creating space for a conversation about what better employment practices could look like in the digital economy. That conversation is not meant to obscure problematic or patently illegal practices. It does not take the place of workers organizing, through unions or other forms, to improve conditions. And it does nothing to resolve critical issues like worker classification–it was not meant to. It does, however, broaden worker-driven demands without unscrupulously cutting deals. Our framework consists of eight simple values that we think are foundational to good work in the online economy: Safety, Stability and Flexibility, Transparency, Shared Prosperity, A Livable Wage, Inclusion and Input, Support and Connection, and Growth and Development. The values were developed based on in-person interviews with workers in the tech economy about their experiences working on platforms— though the overarching values and principles are fairly commonsense. To participate, companies identify their current practices related to two of the values and their commitments going forward. The GWC is not a seal of approval. Its purpose is to function as a framework and an initial roadmap for companies to assess and improve working conditions for their employees. The GWC, or any derivative of it, can also begin to serve as a demand framework for all of us in the labor movement as we seek to better understand how work is changing specifically in the online economy.
So far 12 companies have chosen to affiliate themselves with the Good Work Code–launched in October 2015– and publicly endorse the eight values. Our own experience in the domestic worker movement has shown us that organizing strategies complemented with norms and culture change strategies can yield great results.
Over the last six months, we have seen the national conversation about work in the online economy advance from an exclusive focus on employment classification to what workers need and employer obligations to meet those needs. We believe we contributed to this important shift, and that the ground has been softened for a diverse range of interventions that will improve online work and increase worker power in the future.
How will this improve the lives of workers? The simple answer is that we don’t know yet. The vision of the GWC is to articulate aspirational values that extend beyond the rights and protections provided to workers by law, even when those workers are classified correctly as employees rather than independent contractors. But of course these are values, not yet measurable standards or specific rights enforceable by contract, though we support the emergence of concrete standards and enforceable contracts. Not being represented by unions, these workers currently have no contracts. NDWA and the GWC do not stand in the way of union efforts to organize these workers or any other efforts to realize gains for workers. And we understand that the ultimate arbiters of how these companies are doing are neither the GWC nor NDWA, but the workers themselves. However, what Youngdahl interprets as “greed-washing” we offer as one tactic or intervention, in a rapidly changing environment, which we believe has the potential to improve the work lives of tens of thousands of workers. Organizers and advocates would do well to keep their eyes on both long-term goals and on the full range of ways to improve working conditions in the current context.
Youngdahl suggests that we suffer the illusion that “Good Capitalism” will somehow reform itself and begin to operate in the interests of workers and all humankind. To the contrary, we understand that digital technology has, in most cases, exacerbated already stunning levels of inequality in our economy. But our own experience has taught us that an orientation toward collective bargaining or nothing at all is counter-productive and limiting. In the absence of an aggregated workforce, domestic workers have experimented for decades with multiple tactics and strategies to win better wages and decent work. Further, we believe– as we assume most workers do— that some companies are better to work for than others. They pay better wages, they don’t sweat their workers, they provide avenues for advancement, they encourage and incorporate worker input. Perhaps their owners adhere to a set of moral and ethical values that ultimately lean contrary to the demands of capital, and they actively engage that contradiction. Whatever the case, short of a comprehensively unionized workforce or universal worker control of production and service provision, we orient toward making consistent progress on impacting the framework of dialogue and meeting new challenges with new tactics.
We would remind Youngdahl of something he surely knows: Unions have had the opportunity to organize domestic workers since the dawn of the U.S. labor movement. They have chosen not to. Worker organizers outside traditional union structures, with the welcome support of foundations, have pioneered ways to organize neglected sectors of the working class to exercise their power and win better conditions of labor. Youngdahl’s cut at what he calls the “Philanthropic Labor Movement” seems to imply that it would have been better to leave these workers unorganized, or to continue to wait until traditional unions determined that organizing domestic workers was a worthwhile endeavor. We disagree.
As for the notion that those who fight for the rights of workers within the context of non-profit organizations squelch worker agency, power and democracy, we invite Youngdahl to meet the worker leaders and members affiliated with NDWA and dozens of other worker centers. Their power, voice, initiative, creativity, strategic thinking and commitment are the foundation for multiple victories that have expanded the rights and lifted the dignity of previously unrepresented workers.
We understand ourselves to be part of one labor movement, unified in its interest in winning the best deal for workers. We depend on our friends and long-term allies in traditional unions to stand with us in our joint effort to build a powerful and inclusive labor movement. We expect that there may be tactical disagreements among us along the way, but reject Youngdahl’s troubling assertion that we are deluded and that our methods are dangerous.
The reality is that none of us, including Youngdahl, know what it will take the rebuild the power of the labor movement in this country. What we do know is that the future of technology and the future of work are inextricably bound, and that the best work happens in the field. We contend that simply protecting and promoting a model of traditional trade unionism is not sufficient, nor is it working. We need many experiments, new forms of organizing and organization. And, we believe that changing the conversation–the cultural and narrative environment around work– is a key part of creating the context for the ultimate success of a new workers’ movement in this country. Capital is adaptive and sophisticated; at minimum, we must be as well.
 See: www.goodworkcode.org
 Each company and their public commitments are listed here: http://www.goodworkcode.org/companies/
 We are puzzled by Youngdahl’s consistent misrepresentation of the structure and nature of the Good Work Code as an initiative. We have consistently clarified that the Good Work Code is a commitment made by companies, not an endorsement by NDWA. Misrepresentation of these facts changes the nature of the initiative and we can only imagine is being employed to better suit Youngdahl’s argument.