Entrepreneur Andrew Yang is running for president to make sure Democrats debate the future of work — and he says the Uber and Lyft driver protests disrupted thousands of commutes this week shows why that’s urgent.
Yang, a long shot for the nation’s top office, says the drivers staging the global strike have legitimate complaints. The lack of job stability for independent contractors who do not have the same benefits and protections as traditional employees is a big reason Yang’s top campaign issue is creating a universal basic income that would provide every American adult with a baseline income of $1,000 per month. He says he’s seeking to protect gig economy workers whose income fluctuates or those whose jobs are at high risk of being automated.
“We need to stop living in a fantasy land where we think these companies are supposed to treat us like family members and employ us for years,” Yang said in an interview. “Their incentives are in the opposite direction.”
The surge of driver activism ahead of Uber’s long-awaited initial public offering Friday could put pressure on other 2020 Democrats, who have largely been talking about the impact of technology on the economy in broad strokes, to define their positions on the gig economy.
Few have offered proposals as specific as Yang’s aimed at bolstering a workforce whose benefits and other protections are no longer tied to their jobs. And the political pressure is unlikely to end soon: The expected initial public offerings of other companies such as Airbnb and Postmates are drawing greater attention to the future of work.
Yang — who likens Democrats’ discussion about how technology is changing work so far to “hand waving” — is likely to get his shot to press the issue on the debate stage, as he qualifies with both polling and donor requirements. “There needs to be a much more robust debate,” Yang said.
As Uber and Lyft seek lofty valuations from Wall Street, much of their promise to investors relies on spending less on human labor, and over the long term, replacing those human drivers with computers. That’s why Yang’s proposal for a universal baseline income would be paid for by companies benefiting most from automation.
Yang thinks the automation of millions of manufacturing jobs helped propel Trump’s victory in 2016. He said if the party doesn’t start getting serious about debating technology’s impact on the economy, “we may be destined have history repeat itself.”
The Trump administration’s own actions could also force Democrats to define their own stances. The Labor Department recently affirmed that workers at one gig economy company were contractors — which could give a boost to companies seeking to defend the status quo.
“The Trump administration did those workers a disservice,” Yang said.
Yang isn’t the only 2020 candidate weighing in on today’s strike — it’s an issue that resonates with progressives who support worker protections such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Sanders said in a tweet earlier this week that he stands with the striking drivers. He criticized Uber for not offering drivers more money, and he has previously introduced legislation that would make it possible for gig economy contractors to join unions, known as the Workplace Democracy Act.
”This legislation prohibits employers from misclassifying their employees as independent contractors and would protect workers by ensuring companies do not deny or delay a first contract with workers who have unionized, protecting their right to secondary boycotts and picketing,” Sarah Ford, a spokeswoman for his campaign, said in a statement. “Bernie understands when the United States has strong protections for unions, we have a strong middle class.”
But Yang warned that giving drivers collective bargaining rights would only be “one piece of the puzzle.” He said unions have weakened over the past 50 years, and that alone would not solve the drivers’ problems.
He noted companies no longer have the incentives in place to give workers broad benefits, and policymakers need to adapt to that reality and make it possible for benefits typically associated with employers — like health care — available to all Americans.
”It’s very hard to turn back the clock,” Yang said me in an interview. “We have to stop pretending it’s the 1960s.”