Portable benefits & unions

· January 27, 2019

Bradley Tusk’s fun book The Fixer describes some of the political fights he took on. One was for Handy, a gig economy house cleaning and services market place. Handy wanted to pay into a portable benefits plan, but avoid pushing it’s contractors into employee status, and avoiding that triggered a fight with unions (particularly 32BJ in New York).

Tusk ended up taking the issue to Congress as part of the tax amendment, but it didn’t make it. The California equivalent of the bill was AB 2675, which is still winding about the legislature, and has the same pushback from unions.

Regardless of the merits of the bill, the tension that Tusk identifies in the book is clearly present, namely that the ambiguity in the rules about what defines an independent contractor or an employee is a status quo with benefits to both both organized labor and management:

Even prior to introduction of this bill, labor representatives in Sacramento had been quite vocal in announcing their opposition to any proposal that would clarify independent contractor status in exchange for portable benefits.

Portable benefits have a whole host of advantages. Decoupling specific employment status from services seems an inevitable step, but its unclear how organized labor best fits in to this. Just as with any grouping, there are progressive and conservative segments: here the SEIU and Freelancer’s Union seem on the progressive side, with the bulk of labor on conservative turf. The thing that seems to differentiate the more flexible groups is a broad definition of their constituencies.

Unions have a huge role in the future of work, but only as so much as they are actually looking to define a future, rather than a return to a past, of work. For all the ills of the gig economy apps, the better job they can do at spreading opportunities helps break local monopsonies, particularly outside the cities.