The limits of consumer action

February 7, 2019 (1615 words) :: Instacart workers recently organised against a change in pay structure, and won. Bizarrely, some saw this as a victory for consumer action.
Tags: gig-economy, class-struggle

This post is day 38 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Something really cool happened in gig economy news yesterday: After Uproar, Instacart Backs Off Controversial Tipping Policy (by Kevin Roose for the NYT).

Now, Instacart is a grocery delivery startup based in San Francisco and serving a few cities in the US. They’re a typical gig economy company: founded in the last decade (2012, in this case); a unicorn (valued at $7.6 billion); relying on a large army of underpaid workers with few legal protections and whose interactions with the company are mediated by a smartphone app.

Last year, Instacart changed its payment structure to make it (you can probably guess) less worker-friendly. The workers were switched to a system which guaranteed $10 minimum per delivery, but it turned out that tips were sometimes deducted from that $10 minimum. From the NYT article:

Angry shoppers collected shocking examples of low pay, like a receipt submitted by an Instacart shopper who appeared to have been paid a total of $10.80 after a $10 tip. (Instacart claimed that the payment was an “edge case,” and that it was putting new policies in place to prevent similar incidents.)

Now, the whole idea of a tipping system for low-wage workers is pretty dubious in the first place, as they really should not have to rely on the generosity of customers to be able to survive. In this case, though, it seems like tips could be pretty substantial (remember that your average Instacart customer is going to be way more affluent than your average worker). So the workers organised against this change:

The workers’ complaints started to be picked up by news outlets including Fast Company and NBC. And they caught the attention of Working Washington, a union-backed labor group in Seattle, which collected more than 1,500 signatures of Instacart shoppers who objected to the company’s pay practices. Some began asking for cash tips outside the app, while others encouraged customers to leave 22-cent tips — a nominal amount meant to show solidarity with workers — through the app and then adjust the tips higher after a delivery was made.

And yesterday, Instacart announced that it would again be changing its payment structure, but this time to the benefit of workers: tips would be calculated separately, and even more incredibly, workers would receive back pay for lost tips.

Organising worked, in other words. The company, worried about the fallout from the negative publicity of worker organising, caved under pressure.

It’s really perplexing, then, that the NYT article concluded that consumers needed to be leading the charge for more ethical business practices in the future:

Many gig economy workers still face economic insecurity and exploitative platform policies, of course, and lawmakers may ultimately need to come to their rescue. […]

But ultimately, it may be up to customers to demand more accountability and worker-friendly policies.

This sort of framing is bullshit. For one, the idea that lawmakers need to swoop in and “rescue” these workers out of the goodness of their hearts is mistaken - it gets the order of events backwards. Laws change primarily because the affected groups build power that can no longer be ignored, not through the valiant efforts of lone heroes acting out of charity instead of solidarity. For another, consumers were only relevant to this incident to the extent that some of them supported the complaints of workers. It wasn’t consumers who surfaced these demands in the first place, as they wouldn’t have known about the tipping policy on their own anyway. It was workers who organised, and whose actions made the difference here.

This might sound like a semantic point, but it makes a world of difference. Treating consumers as the most viable originators of social change is a deeply flawed lens through which to see the world, and it gives rise to some questionable political assumptions.

The first problem is that it glosses over the fact that consumers don’t always have an option to consume (or not consume) in a way that is “ethical” (hence the saying, “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism”). If you want to participate in society as a fully-fledged member, there are certain things you’re going to need to buy, and there are always going to be unethical practices hidden in the supply chains of your smartphone and t-shirts and sneakers. Your choices as a consumer are always limited, and if the burden of forcing corporations to uphold ethical standards is placed on the consumer, then the result is that most corporations will just continue doing what they’re doing, often under cover of secrecy. And even if the worst practices are revealed, not everyone is able to withhold their consumption power by participating in boycotts, often due to a lack of viable alternatives - a lack that has been cultivated by the companies themselves.

In any case, corporate solutions that are purportedly ethical are so milquetoast in their vision that it makes you question the potential power of consumption-oriented social change. Buy a pair of TOMS, and they’ll throw a cheaper pair at some kids in Africa. Buy a $4 waterbottle from Starbucks and they’ll hurl water balloons at the residents of Flint. (Anand Giridharadas’ book, Winners Take All, has a good critique of this reasoning, and you can find lots of similar analyses of corporate social responsibility in left publications like Jacobin, so I won’t go any further with this.)

The other is that it neglects the true source of value under capitalism: labour. Without the continued acquiescence of the workers who pick and deliver the groceries, Instacart’s revenue would quickly vanish.

Now, in our current political climate, in the waning dusk (one hopes) of neoliberalism, we’re used to seeing gig economy workers have very little bargaining power. Even if the unemployment stats are technically low, more and more of the available jobs are poorly paid and generally just shitty, which means working for a company like Instacart is sometimes the best option. As a result, these companies wield outsize power over their workers, to the point where they get away with employing them as contractors (and thus abdicating responsibility for health insurance, benefits, sick pay, etc). So it sort of makes sense to assume that the only possible avenue of change is consumer action, if workers can’t organise.

But see, workers are organising. That is what they did at Instacart, and it’s what they’ve been doing across the world, in the gig economy and elsewhere. Teachers strikes are spreading (still!) across the US like wildfire. Logistics workers are able to coordinate actions at different points in global supply chains.

Workers know that they are key to corporate profitability; as the IWW song goes, “They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn / But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn”. And if they’re treated poorly enough, and the climate is ripe for organising, they will push back.

I suspect that the prospect of workers fighting back is a scary one for Instacart’s CEO, a 32-year-old whose experience prior to founding Instacart appears to have consisted primarily of starting failed businesses (and subsequently failing upward). Like most tech executives, he’s never had to deal with angry workers who are coordinated and threatening his profitability; instead, in our post-Thatcher/Reagan era, when unions have a fraction of their former power, the focus is on consumers. Making customers happy is seen as the route to profitability, and so it becomes the all-consuming goal. (Amazon is a good case in point: focusing on the experience of the customer, while treating workers like absolute shit).

It takes a radical disruption of the status quo to remind corporations that workers will also need to be taken into consideration. This is especially true when those workers are contractors who string together “gigs” and are thought of as expendable, rather than full-time employees who actually have “careers”. (Of course, the latter will also have gripes, but they’re usually treated well enough that they don’t have to see themselves as workers, which makes them less likely to accept the possibility that their company is not always the good guy. That’ll probably change too, though.)

The point is that workers have power, too, even if it’s been mostly latent and unrealised for the last 40-odd years. Consumers have some power, sure, but unless they use their power as consumers to bolster the efforts of organised workers, then their reach is inherently limited. Consumers can stand in solidarity with workers, but it doesn’t make sense to make “worker-friendly policies” just another item on their checklist of consumer demands, along with recyclable packaging and hassle-free returns and free shipping for orders over $100. Treatment of workers should not be a matter of consumers’ personal preference, liable to be taken away if some rich customer decides he doesn’t care about worker welfare; power at the point of production is a completely different lever than power at the point of consumption, and it should be analysed as such. The latter can only really help workers in a sustainable way if it helps them build associational power, i.e., enhances their capacity to bargain as a class in itself, for itself.

I hope DoorDash is paying attention to this, and that they’re scared, too. These gig economy companies have come to depend on a pliant (or at least replaceable) reserve army of contract workers for too long, and have attained dizzying valuations premised on the continued severe extraction of their surplus value. It’s not going to last.

Thanks to Xavier Denis for inspiring this post.

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