South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg reiterated his vision to let gig economy workers unionize during the second round of Democratic primary debates on Tuesday night in Detroit.
"There are people in the gig economy who go through more jobs in a week than my parents went through in their lifetime," said Buttigieg to a round of applause. "It's why I've proposed that we allow gig workers to unionize because a gig is a job and a worker is a worker."
The remark reflects one of his recent proposals, which centers around "empowering workers in a changing economy" by increasing workplace protections, particularly for those who choose to work in the gig economy. As it stands, Buttigieg sees their status as too precarious.
But in order to successfully execute that plan, the presidential hopeful would need to ensure those workers are reclassified as fully-fledged employees, as opposed to independent contractors. That may be a tough sell: The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) already ruled that Uber drivers cannot unionize because they are independent contractors, and the Department of Labor similarly declined to classify gig economy participants as employees. Both agencies said that those individuals are free to work when they please, can set their own hours when it best suits them, and are permitted to work for competing companies. Those criteria, and several others, make them contractors.
Changing their employment status would be fairly devastating to the gig economy business model that makes that work possible and those services accessible and affordable. Mandating employee status for all workers would allow them to unionize, yes, but it would also require those app companies to provide benefits and supply workers with a minimum wage.
Buttigieg says that would be a good thing. But such a move would send labor costs through the roof, catalyzing a significant spikes in prices—something that will disproportionately affect low-income individuals, who benefit immensely from access to these services. Higher prices would reduce demand and make such jobs less available. In New York City, 90 percent of app-based drivers are first-generation immigrants, a testament to the opportunity such apps give the disadvantaged. With Buttigieg's plan, those opportunities would surely shrink.
And as Reason's Nick Gillespie points out, private sector union participation is small, a trend that's unlikely to reverse itself. As the country continues to move away from industrialized labor, so, too, have workers moved away from unionization.