Veena Dubal on Employee Status in the Gig Economy

Published on: Author: Joan Williams

I have been thinking a lot about my brilliant colleague Veena Dubal’s work on the underbelly of the gig economy or (as Dubal prefers to call it) the precariat. Professor Dubal’s two articles, Wage Slave or Entrepreneur? and The Drive to Precarity combine sophisticated doctrinal analysis with deep ethnographic research to raise some big questions that go well beyond labor law: how can we as Americans offer jobs that yield a stable middle-class life to anyone willing to diligently pursue the American dream?

Professor Dubal decided to work on San Francisco taxi drivers while she was a public-interest lawyer trying to persuade them to fight to be recognized as employees so they could gain the rights employees have but independent contractors lack under American labor law. She found that many of the drivers valued their independent-contractor status and did not want to be employees. Partly it was the romance of “being your own boss.” Many South Asian drivers also saw independent-contractor status as a protection against dispatchers’ and co-workers’ racism.

To me, the most interesting story was one with sweeping political implications: the story of how progressive San Francisco abused the cab drivers while systematically favoring the likes of Uber. After taxi drivers paid $250,000 for taxi medallions (licenses that allow the holder to drive a cab), mayor Gavin Newsom allowed rideshare companies to break the laws taxis had to abide by, causing the value of medallions to plummet. Then the city issued even more medallions, further eroding their market value. Progressives in San Francisco had little interest in blue-collar cabbies, many of them immigrant men of color. They were too caught up in a bromance with the “disruptive” companies run by elite white guys.

I couldn’t think of a better example to explain the election of Donald Trump. “Why did so many people vote against their own self-interest?,” one senator asked me recently. My response: they didn’t. Both Trump and Sanders voters felt that neither Democrats nor Republicans have stopped the hollowing out of the American middle class. They’re right. In my parents’ day, good blue-collar jobs was a key issue for progressives. Until it is again, progressives will be playing into Republican hands.

Relevance to current politics is just one nugget to be gleaned from Professor Dubal’s work on labor law, and for those interested in the richness of the intersection of labor law and the gig economy, Professor Dubal’s work is a must-read. She meticulously documents how the doctrine in this arena got so incredibly messed up that we need to shove people into the awkward “employee” box lest we deliver them up to capitalism red in tooth and claw. And she offers doctrinal solutions that are both simple and elegant. That’s a lot in just two articles. Read them.