Q&A: Professor Timothy Minchin

In November 2020, Kate Rivington interviewed Timothy Minchin, Professor in the Department of History at La Trobe University, about his upcoming article in the December 2020 issue of the Australasian Journal of American Studies “Be Your Own Boss?  Long-Term Labor Trends and the Rise of Uber”

KR: What brought you to this topic?

TM: One of the things that made me interested in the topic is seeing this explosion in Uber and seeing how visible it is, particularly in the US, and I was interested in what was really going on there. I could see long-term labour parallels, particularly in the argument that the drivers are not employees, they’re “contractors,” because that was an argument that employers had used for decades to save costs by not having to give benefits and not being liable. They sold it as something that was beneficial to the workforce under slogans like “flexibility” or “work when you want to.” The title of the article – “be your own boss” – was actually a slogan that FedEx came up with decades before. FedEx is definitely one of the companies that is a historical precedent for Uber in that they called their drivers “independent contractors.” Their use of “be your own boss” put pressure on their main competitor UPS and their workforce to take pay cuts and lose benefits because they were trying to compete with FedEx, just like how Uber has put pressure on traditional taxi companies. I was also struck by, in Melbourne where I live, how vulnerable these workers are. They’re often young migrant men on a pushback bike or a moped, sometimes with a huge bag of food on their back, riding around in the dark often not knowing where they are going as they’re constantly looking for a new address, and I was just struck by how vulnerable they are, and how unprotected. They don’t have proper protective equipment, and this is because the employer is not providing these things – it’s all on them, and because they’re not well-paid they have to cut costs.

I wrote a history of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Relations), and I spent a lot of time in Washington D.C. where the AFL-CIO is based. Right outside is where they have created the new Black Lives Matter Plaza. Uber is a huge presence there – both the taxis and the food delivery. I had contacts there, particularly at Georgetown University. I got in touch with a researcher named Katie Wells, who is part of a big project at Georgetown on Uber drivers in Washington D.C., more from a geography/social science perspective, so it’s more contemporary focused. They’ve done a lot of interviews and collected a lot of data, and they were very generous in sharing information with me. I met Katie when I went to Washington D.C. in July 2019 and told her about this idea – that nearly everything written on Uber looks at the present or the future, all about how new it is, but that I can see historical parallels here in workers being exploited. It’s only really been possible because you’ve had decades of unions being weakened and labour market deregulation, the rise of part time work, and coupled with huge immigration to the US from poorer countries, creating a labour force that’s will to do those jobs. She thought that it was a really good idea so she encouraged me to write the article – I wasn’t sure if the idea was something that had a lot of legs in it as I hadn’t written on Uber before, but she encouraged it. I tried to link it to the history of the AFL-CIO that I’d written about in my book, and from the AFL-CIO research I saw that they were commenting on these trends, such as contracting out, going back to the 1970s. They were concerned about it and they had a committee which they set up in 1984, the Committee on the Evolution of Work, which looked at what was happening to work, particularly in the service sector with contracting out and part-time work, and it really was a prescient body that anticipated a lot of the things that have happened. I was aware of that deeper history.

KR: What was behind that rise during the 1970s and 1980s in casualisation?

TM: I think a lot of it was connected with the structural shifts that were going on in the US economy. Manufacturing started to decline, and that was the area where unions had been strongest, and the service sector was growing and was not as unionised. There was also growth in employer confidence generally, one of the themes you see is the rise of groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, the US Chamber of Commerce, and they become much bigger and more powerful, particularly from the 1970s onwards. They help to fund the rise of the Republican party, so there is a political dimension to it too with the rise of conservatism. In terms of deeper history, the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, but it’s never accepted by a lot of companies. As soon as World War II is over they weaken the act, and then you get a movement of so-called “right to work” – taking on unions and making it illegal to have union membership compulsory in the workplace. That starts in the late-1940s as well, and goes through to the 50s, 60s. I think at the core of it is the fact that a big part of the corporate community never accepts the National Labor Relations Act. I would trace it right back to that, as I do in the article.

KR: Could you speak to your core contention – that the rise of Uber has historical precedents and is a symptom of ongoing labour environments?

TM: The technology is new, but the dynamic of an exploitative workforce is not.The independent contractor argument that Uber relies on in court was used for decades, particularly since the 1970s. A lot of the literature hasn’t really seen that because it’s focused on the technology rather than the historical precedents. There are also some interesting racial and ethnic dimensions to it that I didn’t really go into in great deal in the article, but I think it’s an area that needs more exploration. In London the Uber drivers are mostly of a racial minority – Asian and Afro-Caribbean, whereas the established cab drivers are predominately white. I think a lot more work needs to be done on this whole topic. You asked me as well about the gender dimension, which I didn’t really go into and is quite difficult to get information on, but I think it’s a really important area as well. I do say that over 80% of Uber drivers in the US are male, and I think a lot of it is to do with concerns about safety. They don’t have the protection of a normal taxi driver, it’s just like you or I going out and picking up a stranger. Uber drivers are predominately male, but it is interesting and one of the things I covered in the article, that Uber has even contacted drivers a lot with fake female personas. They’ve got research and they know how to hook people – they even use research from the gaming industry which they apply in their app. They’re using the same psychological techniques – e.g. “I need to stay in the car, a big job is going to come.” They have used these female personas as research indicates that male drivers are more responsive to these female voices.

KR: There has been a lot of coverage recently in the Australian media about Uber and unsafe work conditions. Do you think this is the most pushback this type of casualised labour has received?

TM: Reading the evidence it’s difficult to say that because one of the things we’ve seen during the pandemic is that these delivery services have really boomed. Clearly not many people are thinking “I shouldn’t use this.” There is a dilemma for people as it is so convenient even with an awareness with the exploitation of workers. Even the Democratic party used Uber as its official transportation at one of its national conventions, and this is the party that the unions give money to and is supposed to be about worker rights. In many ways it has become part of the mainstream.

KR: Could you tell us a bit more about your upcoming book?

TM: It’s called America’s Other Automakers and it’s coming out in April 2021 through the University of Georgia Press, and it’s a history of the foreign-owned automotive sector. It looks at three waves – first the Japanese who were the first to set up in the US with a Honda factory in Ohio, then there was Nissan in Tennessee and Toyota in Kentucky. Then there was a wave of European companies in the 1990s, mainly German – BMW and Mercedes set up factories in the US. More recently the Koreans with Hyundai and Kia factories. I look at all of those case studies, as well as the sector as a whole. It is a pretty interesting story about how this foreign-owned sector has grown at the same time as the American-owned companies have had a lot of problems. They’ve gone to new areas of the US that traditionally didn’t have car plants.

KR: Thanks very much for sharing your research with us!

TM: It’s a pleasure. Thank you.

Tim’s article “Be Your Own Boss? Long-Term Labor Trends and the Rise of Uber” will be out in the December 2020 issue of the Australasian Journal of American Studies. Tim’s upcoming book America’s Other Automakers: A History of the Foreign-Owned Automotive Sector in the United States is available for preorder via the University of Georgia Press website: https://ugapress.org/book/9780820358956/americas-other-automakers/