“The sharing economy is here!” we are frequently advised. “We must devise a new labor deal for a new century!” we are warned. So why is making a deal between Airbnb and unions so fucking hard?
That question is a little disingenuous. Life is hard. Still, at a time when the economy is changing and unions are weak and everyone agrees that this wondrous “new economy” must somehow be harmonized with the need of people to, you know, earn enough money to live, it would seem that any signs of unions making inroads into thus-far-non-unionized super-valuable internet companies would be a good thing.
It is not that simple. Yesterday, news broke that the SEIU, one of America’s strongest unions, is in advanced talks with Airnb to strike a deal for Airbnb to employ unionized house cleaners who earn at least $15 an hour. This, in isolation, would be a good thing. The problem is that, in the much larger picture, many union and labor activists think that this deal would simply result in the SEIU providing political cover to Airbnb to allow the company to further its expansion in America’s largest cities, even though many in labor view Airbnb as an enemy company that destroys good hotel jobs. Allegations of sellout-ism are flying! The SEIU says it is just doing what it should be doing: promoting union jobs with a big company. Much of the rest of the labor movement is rolling their eyes and saying that the SEIU should be fighting Airbnb’s expansion, not aiding it by allowing it to claim that it is allied with a union—which would certainly smooth its political path in major cities where unions are strong and the laws around Airbnb’s business model are still being decided.
Before everyone gets too mad to function, it is important to establish clearly and realistically where we are right now. “The gig economy,” touted by tech gurus as the future of work, is a terrible prospect for workers. It would provide low-wage work without the benefits like health care that come with traditional jobs. It would be a loss, and if that is the future of work, America either needs a huge social safety net paid for by the government, or it needs to pass laws that force “gig economy” companies like Uber—that make their money by not treating workers like workers—to take care of their employees.
Distinct from these “gig economy” exploitation factories are the “sharing economy” companies like Airbnb, which focus more on unlocking the value of unused assets, like your house when you’re not using it. (Of course, Airbnb can encourage people to turn desperately needed apartments into unlawful hotel rooms, which makes the housing crisis worse; but fundamentally Airbnb and Uber are different. Uber drivers are workers; Airbnb users are owners.) The “sharing economy” does not and cannot be treated by labor the same way the “gig economy” must be. For the gig economy, the issue is helping workers trapped inside it; for the sharing economy, the issue is proper regulation. Airbnb is big because it is a good idea. Airbnb needs to be regulated by government and taxed by government so that it is playing by the same rules as the industries it hopes to disrupt. The anger at how Airbnb is killing hotel jobs is properly directed at government, which needs to regulate Airbnb. Tax that shit! And give the money to affordable housing. Airbnb is a corporation. Corporations are robots that act with the purpose of maximizing revenue. It is up to the government to control them.
The labor movement needs to accept that the gig economy and the sharing economy are here to stay. Angry unions trying to protect hotel jobs will not put Airbnb out of business or stop its expansion. To the extent that Airbnb exacerbates the housing crisis, the answer is: regulation. The societal good that comes from Airbnb will not come mostly from union labor, because Airbnb’s use of labor is minimal, particularly compared to hotels. The societal good will come from taxing the hell out of Airbnb and putting that revenue to good use. This will also make Airbnb more expensive and less able to ravage neighborhoods and wholly replace hotels. If they want to use unionized house cleaners, great. It’s a side issue. Unions should extract as much value as they can out of Airbnb and then spend the rest of their political capital making sure the company is regulated and the money is put to good use. That is the only path forward.
Uber, on the other hand, has a ton of labor and no unions. That is the part of the new economy that the labor movement needs to attack. Feckless politicians are the ones who should be handling Airbnb. In the meantime, let’s not eat ourselves alive over this. Unions aren’t strong enough to spend their time fighting each other.