Robert Reich: Spot-Auction Labor Market Replacing Steady Work

Robert Reich describes how more businesses are skirting labor laws by employing so-called “independent contractors” working irregular hours for unpredictable pay.

It’s the biggest change in the American workforce in over a century, and it’s happening at lightning speed. It’s estimated that in five years over 40 percent of the American labor force will have uncertain work; in a decade, most of us.

…Whether we’re software programmers, journalists, Uber drivers, stenographers, child care workers, TaskRabbits, beauticians, plumbers, Airbnb’rs, adjunct professors, or contract nurses – increasingly, we’re on our own.

And what we’re paid, here and now, depends on what we’re worth here and now – in a spot-auction market that’s rapidly substituting for the old labor market where people held jobs that paid regular salaries and wages.

Bottom line: the 1 Percent want to rake in nearly all the profits from this economy while shifting a much bigger proportion of the risk onto workers. They have combined 21st Century information systems with 19th Century labor practices. So far, they are getting away with it.

  1. #1 by Larry Bergan on August 25, 2015 - 11:57 am

    It’s bad enough that we are called “the consumers”, but it seems like more and more WE are being consumed at the workplace. Jeff Bezos has been some hot water since The New York Times published an article about his notable productivity tyranny at the top but, of course, it didn’t start with him. He denies it all in a very rare public appearance, but I’m not buying it.

    Jim Hightower did an excellent article about his ruthless business model a while back and gets into the lower lever employee predicament on page two:

    …They are directed by handheld computers to each target. Then they must scan the pick and put it on the right track of the seven miles of conveyor belts running through the facility. Immediately after, they’re dispatched by computer to find the next product.

    The computers don’t just dictate where to go next; they also relay how many seconds Amazon’s time-motion experts have calculated it should take to get there. The scanners record the time each worker actually takes and feeds the information directly into a central, all-knowing computer. Everything workers do is monitored, timed, scored and reviewed by managers who have a mandate to fire those exceeding their allotted seconds.

    There’s no way these employees even have the time to stop and tell a joke at work, but relentless productivity pushes in this country have effected everybody. Customer service is one thing, but we’re losing something else here, and it’s not helping our society. Slow down a little, America.

    • #2 by Richard Warnick on August 25, 2015 - 2:58 pm

      Robert Reich’s point was that business is shifting risk onto workers. But beyond that, it seems they want employee loyalty but it’s a one-way thing.

      Some companies want to structure jobs so that workers are instantly replaceable and in competition with one another all the time to keep from getting fired. Amazon is leading the way, and others have taken notice.

    • #3 by Larry Bergan on August 25, 2015 - 10:32 pm

      I think back to the day they installed the cameras in our workplace and you could walk into the managers office to watch the 12 different screens. I starting laughing and told Kevin to come in and watch me walk through the kitchen. You couldn’t help but laugh because we looked like criminals on those choppy convenience store robbery tapes they play on the news all the time. And that’s just how we felt; like criminals. Plus we didn’t know if they were recording our voices.

      • #4 by Amadeus on August 26, 2015 - 9:30 am

        The reaction by employers is entirely predictable. If you mandate by law that employers provide more benefits for employees, if you mandate by law that you raise wages for the least employable employees, if you give employees more power to sue employers, if you raise the tax on employers for hiring employees, of course the predictable reaction will be that employers will shift to fewer employees. It is called the Law of Unintended Consequences.

        Tell you what, you start a business, hire the least employable people in society, pay them a high wage, give them generous benefits, get sued by them for some imaginary grievance, then get back to us and tell us how that worked out for you.

        • #5 by Larry Bergan on August 26, 2015 - 12:32 pm


          Sorry that you comment didn’t show up immediately when you posted it. It was NOT being censored or reviewed. The spam filter holds some of the legitimate comments back and I always go through the filter to release every comment daily or sooner.

        • #6 by Larry Bergan on August 26, 2015 - 1:06 pm

          The imaginary grievance seems to be yours here, Amadeus. You seem to be living in some other country or time where workers had solid rights. This is a right-to-work century.

          I can probably give you something here though. If I started a business and had no way to pay $15 and hour, and could find people who trusted me enough to risk wasting their irreplaceable, valuable time with me, hoping for a better wage or cut in the company in the future for that effort, I would hope the government would let me enter into a contract with those people, which would require transparent bookkeeping and future readjustments to the work agreement.

          This would also mean that if we installed cameras, microphones and employee monitoring computer equipment in the workplace, those dehumanizing additions would also record every movement of the owner and would be available for future court proceedings if any suspicious activity resulted in a lawsuit.

          I’m not an expert, but a co-opt would probably be a better idea and that would give everybody in the business a say in how to react to an unforeseen problem, no?

          • #7 by Amadeus on August 26, 2015 - 6:13 pm

            If you believe it co-op is a superior business model then by all means go start one.

          • #8 by Larry Bergan on August 26, 2015 - 8:04 pm

            If you think making $7.25 an hour is the road to Oz and you’re as jealous of the poor as you seem, there’s nothing stopping you from doing that. Good luck finding that job; it’s not always as easy as it sounds these days and they haven’t even raised the minimum wage yet.

  2. #9 by Richard Warnick on September 6, 2015 - 5:11 pm

    What The Uber Economy Means For The Future Of Work

    The new “gig economy” has spawned a whole industry of workers who are considered to be freelancing their services, rather than formally employed by a company. App-based endeavors like Uber, Lyft, and Postmates all bill themselves not as employers but as infrastructure through which ordinary people can hire each other’s services. And as a result, these companies get around paying a host of benefits, saving thousands per person per year by treating workers as contractors. Some estimates suggest the number of these so-called contingent workers who labor outside the traditional employer/employee model make up as little as five percent of the economy. Others put it as high as 30 percent.

  3. #10 by brewski on September 7, 2015 - 6:26 am

    “these companies get around paying a host of benefits,”

    What benefits? Healthcare?

    Why didn’t Obamacare end the irrational tie of your healthcare to your job? That would have been actual reform. What we got was anti-job crap.

    • #11 by Larry Bergan on September 7, 2015 - 11:17 am

      What are you talking about. The ACA absolutely ended the dilemma of not being able to change jobs because of your healthcare for many people. Why do you even say that?

      • #12 by brewski on September 7, 2015 - 4:21 pm

        I am referring to the employer mandate. That discourages hiring from the employer’s point of view. Period.

        • #13 by Larry Bergan on September 7, 2015 - 4:47 pm

          I’ve said this before, but here we go again.

          If the employers wanted to get out from under this employer/healthcare thing altogether, they should have been sending lobbyists to push through Single Payer.

          But then, maybe they were just trying to put smaller companies out of business who can’t afford it. Which was probably the strategy of the job/healthcare connection in the first place.

        • #14 by brewski on September 7, 2015 - 7:53 pm

          I agree with you. Corporations would love to get healthcare off the backs of employers. I don’t know why they didn’t.

    • #15 by Richard Warnick on September 8, 2015 - 9:29 am

      Basically, you’re asking why we don’t have single-payer Medicare For All (which is truly the “universal health care” both Obama and Hillary promised in 2008). I think the answer is timid Dems wanted the Tea-GOP to support health insurance reform, so they proposed RomneyCare/HeritageCare in the naive belief that the other major political party would vote for its own creation. But then in January 2009 the party formerly known as Republican morphed into the Party of NO and that was that.

      Apologists for the “Uber Economy” or “Gig Economy” often say that workers could do well enough if only the USA had a European-style social safety net and/or a guaranteed minimum income. However I think you’ll agree that’s a very big “if.” The Tea-GOP not only stands in the way of improving benefits, they are ideologically opposed to what little is already available. They actually want to roll back unemployment insurance, the federal minimum wage, and SNAP (food stamps).

      A guaranteed income for all Americans of working age isn’t something the Tea-GOP even knows about, but if they did it would conflict with their anti-safety-net agenda.

      • #16 by Amadeus on September 8, 2015 - 4:29 pm

        So then after January 2009 the timid Dems had the opportunity to pass single-payer Medicare For All, but they didn’t.

        • #17 by Richard Warnick on September 8, 2015 - 8:28 pm

          The Dems wanted Republican buy-in, therefore single-payer was taken off the table even before the 2008 election. But they didn’t count on the Party of NO, which was born on January 20, 2009.

          • #18 by brewski on September 8, 2015 - 9:56 pm

            Blaming the Democrats’ legislative agenda on the Republicans. That is quite a novel theory.

          • #19 by Richard Warnick on September 9, 2015 - 10:08 am

            I totally blame the Dems for their legislative agenda. If they weren’t corporatists at heart they wouldn’t be pushing stuff like RomneyCare (HeritageCare) and looking to the Tea-GOP for political cover. If a majority of Dems were progressives, they would have enacted a much better economic recovery bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, and a bunch of other stuff in 2009.

          • #20 by brewski on September 12, 2015 - 2:03 pm

            I thought you just blamed the GOP for the Dem legislative agenda. Which is it?

          • #21 by Richard Warnick on September 12, 2015 - 4:39 pm

            You often think I said something I didn’t say. It’s a known bug.

          • #22 by brewski on September 13, 2015 - 8:45 am


            ” I think the answer is timid Dems wanted the Tea-GOP to support health insurance reform, so they proposed RomneyCare/HeritageCare in the naive belief that the other major political party would vote for its own creation. But then in January 2009 the party formerly known as Republican morphed into the Party of NO and that was that.”

            Richard Warnick blaming the GOP for the Dems legislative agenda.

          • #23 by Richard Warnick on September 13, 2015 - 12:31 pm

            Read what I wrote. The Dems made a big mistake in trying to get buy-in from the Tea-GOP for a corporatist health care “reform” bill that progressives didn’t want. It was Clintonian triangulation at its worst- I am totally blaming the Dems. And they get additional blame for failing to anticipate the Party of NO phenomenon.

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