June 4, 2023

When more than 11,000 film and television writers in the Writers Guild of America union went on strike this month, they called for deteriorating working conditions, criticized unfair pay and said they feared losing their jobs to artificial intelligence.

One of their demands stood out: Hollywood writers wanted studios to guarantee them weeks of work at a stretch, which gave them some security, rather than some new method that would take them on a day to day basis. In other words, they want to avoid becoming part of the gig economy.

Adam Conover, a comedian, said studios tried to “hire us one day a week as if we were Uber drivers”. David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire’, wrote that screenplay had become “a ruthless gig economy.” And Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, a writer and producer for “Law and Order: SVU,” tweeted that “we’re fighting for writing as a career and not a cheap gig.”

“We’re looking at a future where writers can be hired by the day to come in and work on an ongoing series,” Ms. Takeuchi Cullen said in an interview. Writers already work on a freelance basis, but she said the day-to-day appointments were more unpredictable and left them in trouble, unable to predict their finances or pay their rent. “Suddenly, a television writer is going from job to job to job, trying to get his annual income together.”

In other words, for some, gig work has become a shorthand for instability and low wages. Minnesota state lawmakers thought so too, when they passed a bill this month that guaranteed a minimum wage for Uber and Lyft drivers, which they said would add an extra layer of security to a challenging career. It was denied by the governor on Thursday, a sign of how fraught the issue of protections for ad hoc workers has become.

The writers’ strike and demands have led to renewed attention for gig work, where a person can work for several companies or for themselves, often with irregular hours. It’s an old concept, with musicians performing and artists and other creative types working their own hours while selling their work.

In the past decade, the idea of ​​gig work has been popularized by app-based platforms such as Uber and Lyft, which classify their drivers as independent contractors and do not treat them as employees. Many full-time workers, especially those in low-paying jobs, were lured to these platforms by the prospect of working flexible hours and driving passengers around to make money.

The lure of flexibility soon gave way to a reality of low wages and unreliable hours, labor advocates say, though the companies say driver wages are still rising and record numbers of people are riding their rigs.

Still, the changing perception of Uber and similar companies has led some workers to sour the idea of ​​gig work, even though online platform workers make up only a small portion of the gig economy and less than 1 percent of the total workforce. by some estimates.

“Gigwerk has become a dirty word. Ten years ago it still included the freedom of the 9-to-5,” said Louis Hyman, the author of a book on the gig economy and casual work. “It has gone from the possibility of freedom to the certainty of insecurity.”

It’s hard to determine the size of the US gig workforce today, in part because gig work has so many different possible meanings. Most estimates, including from federal data and academic studies, suggest that 10 to 15 percent of U.S. workers rely on or participate in substitute work or odd jobs, although some figures suggest that as many as one-third of U.S. workers occasionally type of supplemental income receives from this work.

While drivers for Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart make up a small percentage of this workforce, their concerns — about making less money, rising spending, and the rising dangers of their jobs — have reverberated in the gig industry.

Bitter battles between labor advocates and the corporate sector have erupted across the country over whether drivers should be considered part of the gig economy at all. Labor activists claim the platforms misclassify their drivers as independent contractors and deprive them of employment protections and employee benefits, while not allowing them to act fully autonomously. The companies say drivers prefer the flexibility of being independent, and they’ve cobbled together a number of compromises that offer limited benefits while maintaining that flexibility.

Some drivers say they have seen their wages drop. When Eid Ali first started driving for Uber and Lyft in Minnesota nearly a decade ago, he said he was making as much as $400 a week, driving full-time. In recent years, it’s been more like $100 or $150, after fees, in part because his costs have gone up.

For drivers like him, “it was a slow realization,” said Mr. Ali. He said drivers were initially excited about the benefits of being a gig worker, with decent pay and flexibility. Now they are more likely to dissuade others from doing such work.

“They used to say something positive about the gig economy: ‘Yes, we make enough to feed our families, it’s flexible, we work whenever we want,'” he said. “That’s not there now – it’s gone.”

Mr. Ali, the president of an advocacy group called the Minnesota Uber/Lyft Drivers Association, helped push the bill for the Minnesota action.

Others say they haven’t seen much of an erosion in the promise of gig work. It’s still a popular way for people to make money on the side, and a coalition called Protect App-Based Drivers and Services, backed by the gig companies, said driver revenues are on the rise. The coalition pointed to compromises — such as California’s Proposition 22, which did not classify drivers as employees but gave them minimum wages and limited benefits — as signs of progress.

“More than 1.3 million Californians choose to work with an app-based rideshare or delivery platform because this type of work offers guaranteed income and benefits, such as access to health care benefits,” said Molly Weedn, a spokeswoman for the coalition.

Alexsiya Flores, a part-time gig driver for companies like DoorDash and Shipt, a delivery service, said she “hasn’t seen that much setback — I’ve seen things get better” because of minimum wage bills like Prop 22.

“I’m always looking for things that are flexible,” says Ms. Flores, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who is part of the industry coalition.

Still, labor experts and advocates say the term “gig work” has become, in the minds of many, a substitute for low-paid or exploitative work — in part because of how people view companies like Uber.

“Uber and Lyft have made that more negative connotation more prominent,” said Laura Padin, the director of work structures at the National Employment Law Project, who has argued that gig drivers should be classified as employees. “There’s been a shift in what people see about those kinds of jobs – people realized they’re not as good as they seemed”.

Low wages and unhappy working conditions are far from exclusive to the gig economy, and could even be one reason why gig work continues to grow despite the drawbacks.

“These kinds of low-paying platform jobs are only possible because the rest of the economy has let down the American worker,” Hyman said, arguing that the financial stress for workers in the retail and service industries made Uber seem like a viable alternative.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, a trade association representing motion picture companies, challenged writers’ striking characterizations that studios are trying to turn Hollywood work into part of the gig economy.

“Employment as a writer has almost nothing in common with standard ‘appearances,'” the group said in a statement, noting that many television writers have a certain number of weeks or episodes of employment, and writers often receive benefits such as health insurance. and contribution to a pension. Access to those benefits depends on how many weeks of work writers get.

But writers say the rise of streaming has led to fewer TV show episodes and shortened writers’ rooms, leading studios to employ writers for shorter, more sporadic periods.

Such a system harms both the quality of television shows and writers’ ability to earn a decent wage, they said.

“How do people make a living if they are vulnerable to short-term benefits?” Mr. Simon, the creator of “The Wire” said in an interview.

He said people on the picket lines had been discussing how the kind of gig work associated with Uber had arrived in their industry. “The formula is always the same: labor is just a cost, and to the extent that they can cut costs, they will.”