Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How Piecework Is Draining America Dry

  1. Piece work(or piecework)
    is any type of employment in which a worker is paid a fixed piece rate for each unit produced or action performed regardless of time.

Last month, Yahoo News reported that one-third of American workers are now freelancers (34%). That's 53 million Americans who are no longer hold traditional full-time jobs with benefits (which often feel skimpy, but represent at least a token level of employer commitment).

Thsee numbers come from a survey by the Freelancers Union, whose name is one of those Orwellian oxymorons that only America can breed -- since it's actually an association, rather than a traditional union that bargains for members' interests. However, "Union" carries more weight on a letterhead than "Association," right? We'll revisit that issue shortly.

Behind all the buzzwords ("freedom," "flexibility" and "independence") lies a dark side, though.
A Freelancers Union internal survey cited in the New York Times (3/24/13 shows 58 percent of its members earning less than $50,000 per year; 29 percent taking home $25,000 or less; 12 percent received food stamps during the recession; and 40 percent spent a great deal of time chasing down unpaid compensation. By any measure, that's a lot of struggling people, even though the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't feel obliged to count them.

"Don't negotiate with the bosses. Abolish them."
(Graffiti: Paris Riots: May 1968)

If you're on the receiving end of these tends, you know the drill too well. To the person engaging your services, you're a replaceable widget, a nuisance to swat aside after the bean counters whack budgets for the umpteenth time. That's the new American way: "You're doing OK? Great, let's take you down a notch." You either take the gig, or risk losing income if you say no. Most of the time, you'll get a flat that stays stubbornly frozen, even though bills never stop flying across your desk.

To the government, you're simply a cash cow. Whether you're an army of one or 100, self-employment taxes bite notoriously deep -- and, since you're paid on a per-piece, per-project basis, fripperies like health insurance, retirement and vacations remain an elusive dream, one reserved for the inner ring of lucky bastards who've locked them in. (Michigan lawmakers, for example, earn a $71,685 base salary, making them the fourth highest-paid state body after California, Pennsylvania and New York, respectively.)

To the media, you're a figure of envy (look, Ma, they're getting to sleep in, and work in their pajamas!), or a romantic loner surfing against the Man -- take your pick -- although neither of these comic stereotypes captures many newly-minted freelancers' feelings about the Gig Economy, as the Times's story makes plain:

"But many freelancers would prefer not to participate in that economy at all. They would rather have regular jobs, but companies will often hire them only as independent contractors. Companies find these workers less painful to dismiss and generally loss costly because they rarely receive severance pay or benefits like health insurance or paid vacations."

"I hear a gang cry...on the human factory farm..."
(The Clash: "This Is England")

The above quote is among the few honest nuggets in the Times's story, whose subjects bandy about buzzwords like "flexibility" and "new mutualism." If you closed your eyes and heard those words being read aloud, you might be tempted to see the steady erosion of collective bargaining rights since the Reagan era as some quaint little social experiment being conducted with white gloves and lab coats.

The Piecework Industrial Complex's subjects have a rather different take on the matter, I suspect. How can the creation of a permanently insecure contract worker underlcass really be considered good for the economy?  However, such complexities don't seem to bother Kyle Zimmer, who's working with the Freelance Union's executive director, Sara Horowitz, to set up a health cooperative for its members in Oregon.

According to the Times, Zimmer lauds Horowitz as someone who "stepped into that space, navigated through difficult waters, and created a successful insurance company that takes on traditional insurers. She did this in a way that would make anyone who believes in private enterprise proud."  Hearing such talk makes me shudder under my breath: "Be very very afraid." (And before you whip out the confetti, read the Dissent magazine story below about how much the Freelancers Union charges for insurance, and who actually gets it -- it's an eye-opener.)

Although such projects are theoretically admirable, their value is questionable if no social change isn't in the cards...especially since the Freelancers Union doesn't bother to agitate for them on a greater societal level. The companies who pushed workers into the Non-Benefit Ghetto will keep doing it, since nobody's putting any heat them on change their ways (least of all Ms. Horowitz, whose many connections include a seat on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Board). 

"The savage mutilation
Of the human race
Is set on course

"It is up to us
To change that course

Protest and survive!
Protest and survive!"
(Discharge: "Protest And Survive")

Funnily enough, however, all this starry-eyed prattling about "mutualism" between corporations and contractors doesn't impress those on the receiving end of the deal. That's why it's worth scrolling through the comments section of any article, such as this telling little exchange from a story on the same topic: 

Gigger #1: "Freelancers saturated the market and lowballed the veteran freelancers. The veterans like myself are now going back as direct hires with bennies.  The good times in freelancing are over. Put a fork in it."

Gigger #2: "After 20 years of freelancing, 10 years ago I gave it up, 'sold out' and took my first full-time jobs with benefits and 'security'...said I'd never go back to the uncertainty of freelancing...Now I'm about to be laid-off as our company closes its doors and while I know I will not starve and become homeless; at 50 I do not relish the constant search for the next payday."

Well, there's only one thing left to do...sing with me now, everyone, "Born free as the wind free as the grass grows..." --The Reckoner

Links To Go (A Taste Of Stark Reality, For Those Who Can Stomach It):
Dissent Magazine: The "I" In Union

Fast Company: Tales Of Freelance Health Insurance

The New York Times: Tackling Concerns of Independent Workers

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