When she started working for Instacart two years ago, Heidi Carrico typically made between $600 and $900 each week from the grocery-delivery app. That was several app updates ago.
“My income has fallen by at least 50 percent, likely more,” Carrico, a Portland, Oregon-based Instacart shopper, told The Daily Beast. “I’d have to really sit down and crunch the numbers. It’s a good week if I make $300.”
Tip cuts, a mystifying new algorithmic pay system, and longer driving distances mean Carrico is working fewer hours for Instacart and making less money per hour, she said. And she’s not alone. From Nov. 3 to 5, Instacart workers nationwide are going on strike to protest what they say are worsening working conditions. It comes on the heels of strikes by rideshare app drivers and unionization efforts by workers for food delivery apps across the world.
These gig workers don’t have centralized factory floors where they can organize. Many can’t even unionize in the U.S. because their companies classify them as contractors, not employees. But through a rolling series of strikes, these workers are determined to make the gig economy work for them.
It’s an ad hoc labor movement, led by workers without formal unions. Sometimes that means trial-and-error protests as workers test their collective bargaining power. The upcoming Instacart strike will be at least the fourth time its workers have protested changes to the platform.
“Sometimes we get what we want and sometimes we don’t,” Sarah Clarke, an Instacart shopper based in Silicon Valley, California said. “The first strike we ever did, for example, is when they completely removed tips. We did a strike and they were like, ‘Fine, we’ll add the tips back.’”
This is interesting. Since they aren’t considered workers by the company, but rather independent contractors, NLRB and Taft-Hartley regulations don’t apply to them. On the other hand, actual unionization is pretty well impossible. So there are challenges and opportunities here. I provided some hot talking head action for this story.
Erik Loomis an associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, said the strategy might work, precisely because Instacart doesn’t employee any full-time workers to replace the strikers.
“Because these workers personally control so much of this Instacart system, by cancelling orders they can actually raise a lot of havoc, if they have a decent number of people,” said Loomis, who studies American labor movements. “Giving a company that kind of bad publicity very well may lead to a solution to this problem.”
The General Motors and Chicago teachers strikes were backed by unions, which many gig workers can’t join because their companies do not classify them as full employees.
“When you’re organizing contractors, there’s a fine line you’re walking between what could be considered a violation of antitrust law and organizing,” Bain said. “I think it highlights our need for enhanced and greater workplace protection because these jobs really need to be organized. These platforms have engaged in what feels like perpetual warfare against their workers.”
The lack of employee status can make protesting difficult, but not impossible, Loomis said.
“That’s not the only method of collective power,” he said of traditional union-backed strikes. “There are, one might argue, some advantages to being outside that system of power because it frees you up. The things that restrict you under a traditional union election don’t apply here.”
Certain demonstrations like sympathy strikes, for example, can land union workers in legal trouble, while non-unionized workers have more flexibility to protest.
Now, I don’t want to be too optimistic here. The challenges are real. But rebuilding the labor movement is going to have to deal with this type of worker and the more power they take into their own hands, the better off they will be.