OGDEN — A third of workers — and half of young workers — participate in the freelance or “gig” economy, according to Louis Hyman, an economic historian at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School.
Hyman gave a guest lecture at the Weber State’s Goddard School of Business and Economics on Thursday, speaking to a full lecture hall of business students who were eager to learn about the condition of the workplaces that await them.
This gig economy of precarious work, stripped of benefits, didn’t come out of nowhere, Hyman said — and it’s not the product of technology, either.
“Technology itself is thought to be responsible for disrupting traditional work — phasing out the employee who works for regular wage and phasing in independent contractors, consultants, and temps and freelancers,” Hyman said. “This narrative is wrong.”
“Uber is possible because the terrible alternatives that retail workers have in today’s economy,” Hyman continued. “(The company is) taking advantage of that world, which was already in existence ... Uber is the symptom, not the cause.”
The lecture Hyman delivered at Weber State is based on his recent book “Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary.”
In his lecture, Hyman argued that business leaders and management consultants made “a series of deliberate decisions” that have led to an increase in unstable, insecure work, starting in the 1950s.
Since the 1970s, there has been a collapse in secure wage work, and a decline in worker protections that were put in place from the 1930s to the 1970s.
Hyman’s lecture at Weber State focused on only a portion the history his book covers. He described Silicon Valley in the 1980s, the period when worker protections were disappearing.
While most people now think of big tech companies as workplaces full of well-paid software engineers, the industry would not have been possible without thousands of contract workers, most of them migrant women from Latin America, who made $5 an hour or less assembling the small components of computer hardware.
These operations were in San Jose, not China or the Philippines. Some workers were documented; others were not.
Hyman also said that sanctuary cities, which protect undocumented residents from federal immigration enforcement, grew out of these practices, because large technology companies in Silicon Valley did not want their operations shut down — though they still threatened workers with deportation if they attempted to unionize.
Practices like the ones in Silicon Valley rippled outward.
“The two tier world of the secure and insecure keeps everyone, even with the good jobs, afraid,” Hyman said.
“In the industrial age, we organized, we passed laws, we legislated, we forced successful corporations to pass on their earnings to their workforce. In today’s digital age, perhaps we should do the same,” Hyman said in his conclusion.
Students and faculty members alike were eager to hear about potential solutions to these issues. But Hyman’s answers were systemic, not individual.
“I am so concerned about my students, about my kids, about my grandkids, about unlivable wages ... about no security,” said Dr. Winn Stanger, Weber State’s director of career services. In this role, he oversees support services for students to help them find jobs.
Stanger is 68 years old and says he’s seen many of these trends during his work in human resources prior to coming to Weber State.
He worked as a vice president of human resources for an organization in Chicago, where he also earned his doctorate at Loyola University Chicago in corporate training and organizational development.
“I’m a capitalist ... but I’m disenchanted right now with what’s happening,” Stanger said, describing chief executives making millions annually while not paying livable wages to employees. “How do we change that formula in some way?”
“There’s many varieties of capitalism,” Hyman responded. “The story here is one kind of capitalism. We’ve had many different kinds of capitalism in American history, in world history,” Hyman said. “It can be tweaked.”
Hyman said that prior to 1970, the richest 1% paid workers wages. After 1970, the richest began to acquire that money and lend it out in the form of debt.
“I think it’s a question of how we get back on that virtuous cycle, that virtuous cycle of investments,” Hyman said, “where we’re not taking all the profits and investing it in consumer debt, in mortgage debt, in speculative assets, but instead investing it in businesses, small businesses.”
In his book, Hyman says that federal policy has made it easy for banks to lend for consumption, like buying homes, but difficult to invest in businesses.
“Let’s rebalance the lending incentives to make it as easy for Americans to own their work as to own their houses,” he says in the book, “using private capital for small business just as we did with houses.”
In his book, he also argues to end mortgage subsidies and invest the resulting $175 billion per year in safety net supports for flexible workers. This will “divert the money we have used to support homeownership into supporting work ownership,” he writes.