Unions and the Gig-Economy: The Case of AirBnB
The so-called gig-economy is celebrated, maligned, fetishized, and qualified by analysts. Whether it is called the collaborative, platform, crowd-sourcing, or sharing-economy, the rise of peer-to-peer exchanges does raise important questions for workers. Do emerging ‘sharing-economy’ platforms such as Uber and Airbnb mark a significant shift in production and distribution systems? Are they emancipatory or exploitive? How can they be regulated across multiple jurisdictions and multiple platforms (e.g., Airbnb, Homestay, Uber, Lyft)? These and other questions have been raised by those emphasizing the platforms as a growing source of employment for contingent workers and their power to transform waged work into different relationships such as dependent contracts. Kim Moody recently offered that these platforms are simply advanced ways for workers to ‘moonlight’ in an age characterized by depressed wage growth and the majority of new employment being in low wage, precarious jobs. Despite the success of these services with consumers, there are contradictions for the future of work and implications for organized labour that unions are only starting to address – albeit in contradictory ways.
In mid-July 2016, the interim report on Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review was released. The 300 plus page report said very little specifically about the gig-economy with the exception of a few sparse mentions on the role technology plays in changing employment relations.The Review is interested in how to extend workplace protection to workers using platforms such as Uber, TaskRabbit and Airbnb to supplement their incomes. Indeed, much of the report focusses on the general challenges of misclassification of workers as contractors.Here, the options presented to deal with gig-economy work are to either: maintain the status quo and exclude many of these workers as independent contractors; recognize these workers as ‘dependent contractors’ (e.g. Uber drivers) and extend employment standards to them; or develop new regulations and standards that are specific to dependent contractors with exemptions for some sectors and workers.
Gaps and Exemptions
The narrow framing of the options misses some important points. First, regulation of ‘dependent contractors’ in the gig-economy will be subject to exemptions for specific sectors and workers just as other sectors managed to be exempt from the Employment Standards Act (ESA) in the past. Exemptions in the present ESA have been documented, such as the exclusion of a disproportionate numbers of women, young people, and racialized workers in sectors such as agriculture and hospitality. Second, there is an ‘enforcement gap’ that persists even when innovative and appropriate standards are established and applied to broad sectors. If employers in small workplaces cannot be held accountable to the ESA, then how can the state ever enforce standards in a hyper-fissured gig-economy with private platforms organizing thousands of contractors? There are legal challenges to classifications, but the courts are inefficient in finding timely resolutions through litigation over classification and enforcement. Third, and perhaps most important, is the fact that new platforms continue to erode traditional employment relationships and threaten unionized jobs in existing sectors. Taxi drivers are replaced by Uber drivers and unionized hotel labour is replaced by Airbnb hosts and subcontracted cleaners. The platforms effectively download risk and investment to individuals as personal assets (i.e., cars and homes) are more deeply integrated into processes of accumulation. Workers earning substandard income in precarious employment are trapped in a vicious circle where they are forced to moonlight using Uber or rent out their homes via Airbnb to make ends meet.
At same time, capital is also able to use the platforms to create new types of operations. For example, property owners with multiple housing units can now rent out their properties on a short term basis at a daily rate much higher than longer term rentals with minimal transaction costs. These economic activities, mistakenly all lumped together as ‘home-sharing’, undermine unionized jobs and employment in sectors such as accommodation and have wide ranging impacts on rental housing markets.
The Rise of Airbnb
While the social costs of Uber were the first to be discussed at length, there is also the case of Airbnb and smaller short-term rental platforms. The rapid expansion of the Airbnb platform in Toronto is astounding. There are currently over 12,000 listings for Toronto on the Airbnb platform as the number of listings doubled in 2016 from 2015. Airbnb’s recruitment and marketing image as an opportunity for individual ‘hosts’ to share their rooms or their homes to earn money for vacations and holidays is challenged by the data. First, a majority of rentals and revenues are ‘entire homes’ not extra room rentals or shared accommodations. Second, over 50 per cent of revenues from Airbnb are generated by ‘multi-unit hosts’. These are professional operations holding multiple units – sometimes in the same condo facility – using the platform to enter the short-term rental accommodation sector.
The result is the rise of ‘ghost hotels’, buildings or properties in close proximity with one another owned by a single operator renting out multiple units as short-term rentals on platforms such as Airbnb. The impact on the hotel sector is not insignificant. Airbnb has grown from almost nothing in 2010 to over 12,000 listings in the Greater Toronto Area and it is estimated to have already captured over 5% of the market share in Toronto and Vancouver. With over 1,000 rooms booked through Airbnb each night in Toronto, it is the equivalent of Toronto’s Chelsea hotel, the largest hotel in Canada, being rented to almost full capacity. There have been relatively few new net rooms added to the city’s hotel room supply over the last 15 years. Development has largely been restricted to smaller co-developments which include hotels and condos. At the same time, the owners of the Chelsea and other hotels are seeking to convert their properties to condominiums, further removing significant hotel room supply from the market. Conversions not only threaten unionized hotel jobs, but also diminish the city’s capacity to attract and host large conventions and events.
Even more significant than the employment effects is the removal of units from the rental housing stock. The shift of entire units from long term to short rentals has implications for Toronto’s housing supply. Research from David Wachsmuth and colleagues at McGill University has found that Airbnb alone removed 13,700 units from the housings stocks of Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. The bulk of these listings are in high demand neighbourhoods. The expanding short-term rental units do not pay commercial property taxes (which are double that of residential property taxes) or any special hotel taxes, reducing the municipal revenues that are needed to pay for public housing and tourism promotion.
Other impacts have also been reported in the media. The disruption of Toronto neighbourhoods by ‘party Airbnbs’ where multiple unit hosts operate are a concern. Even more disruptive and contentious is the explosion of Airbnb rental units in condominiums, some of which have bylaws prohibiting short-term rentals. In a recent twist, Airbnb is now partnering with condo developments, engaging in one-on-one agreements with condo boards over issues such as security and complaints and agreeing to revenue sharing with the boards themselves. This privatized regulation allows the Airbnb platform sole access to condos that might otherwise pass bylaws to restrict ghost-hotels in the property or allow competing platforms to operate. Airbnb is also used by hosts to secure mortgages for homes they might not get financing for without the additional short-term rental revenue stream. It is hardly surprising that Airbnb has even floated the idea of building its own brick and mortar properties.
Airbnb is currently valued at $31-billion and growing rapidly in major urban areas. The company aggressively lobbies municipalities seeking to regulate its operations and does not hesitate to litigate. Currently, there are multiple battles to regulate short-term rentals and Airbnb as the largest platform. There are a number of issues at play, ranging from restricting short-term rentals to in-home units, forbidding multiple listings by ghost hotel owners, and platform accountability. Unions have engaged with the rise of short-term rental platforms in different ways, with UNITEHERE taking the lead in Canada with the formation of the Fairbnb.ca coalition to fight against Airbnb’s unregulated expansion in Canada’s largest urban markets.
Union Response to Airbnb
Fairbnb.ca is a coalition founded by UNITEHERE Local 75 in July 2016. The coalition includes some tenants’ rights organizations, neighborhood groups, condo owners’ associations, hotel ownership groups, and sympathetic academics (including the author). It is best described as what Amanda Tattersall and David Reynolds term a ‘support’ coalition. Such coalitions are initiated by a union and largely resourced and administered by a single organization with some input from supporters. The coalition can operate at multiple scales, but in this case focuses on municipal bylaws. Fairbnb.ca is organizationally driven by UNITEHERE Local 75 representing 7,000 hospitality workers in Toronto. The coalition is entirely union-financed with in-kind contributions from coalition partners. The motivations for supporters range from primary concerns with lack of affordable housing in the city, to neighbourhood disruption, to the loss of hotel jobs. Further, there is a cross-class component to the coalition with the union partnering with some hotel employers fearing the loss of market share to short-term rentals.
Despite the structural limits of support coalitions, Fairbnb.ca has had significant success in raising the issues related to short-term rentals in Canada’s large cities. It has also been successful in getting municipalities to consider the impacts of short-term rentals seriously and regulate online platforms through municipal bylaws. This has been achieved primarily through media campaigns and lobbying efforts countering the superior communications and lobbying resources of Airbnb. In Toronto, proposed legislation will establish a licensing and registration system and restrict ‘multiple listings’ from a single host. Still contentious is the issue of allowing home owners to list ‘secondary suites’ (self-contained units in homes) which can potentially be used as long-term rentals. There also remains a lack of clarity over how accountable platforms such as Airbnb will be in reporting violations and sharing data with the city.
Though UNITEHERE has had significant success in engaging Airbnb through its coalition strategy, other unions have chosen a quite different path of engagement with the platform. Unifor in particular has publicly supported Airbnb as ‘progressive’ capital given the company’s support for a higher minimum wage, partnerships with settlement agencies housing refugees, and alleged openness to fair regulation. In a statement submitted to Toronto city council, Unifor President Jerry Dias argues that:
“Airbnb is setting an example for a path forward that couples the potential of the digital economy with the reality of working people across the country, and has demonstrated its willingness to operate in a manner consistent with the goals of broader society. Because of Airbnb’s progressive approach, Unifor is exploring ways to work together with them. We will continue to explore areas of mutual interest to improve the public good, and if possible work toward a national partnership.”
This ‘partnership’ is indeed politically useful for Airbnb as it conveniently gives the company some progressive legitimacy and provides councillors who wish to side with Airbnb against Fairbnb.ca some political cover. Less clear is what Unifor has to gain through such a social ‘partnership’. In the USA, SEIU did attempt to undermine UNITEHERE with a similar partnership with Airbnb that promised the union access to organizing short-term rental room cleaners. But this deal collapsed after SEIU faced public criticism (and perhaps also recognized how difficult it would be to organize workers in ghost hotels). Unifor may be seeking a similar arrangement or even an understanding that would allow the union to represent brick and mortar hotels being planned by Airbnb. Here, we see echoes of the union’s controversial strategy to form a partnership with Magna with its ‘Framework for Fairness’ agreement a decade ago.Yet short-term rentals employ far less workers than the auto parts sector. In a recent report released by The Hotel Association of Canada, it is estimated that the hotel sector in Canada generates 191,600 full-time equivalent jobs, while Airbnb generates only 1,037. At this time, evidence indicates that short-term rentals simply do not generate nearly the same number of jobs as the traditional hotel sector which provides a full range of hospitality services. It is difficult to see how large numbers of new members might be organized through this strategy and whether any partnership with Airbnb will give Unifor any leverage in reaching these precarious workers.
It may be that Unifor’s involvement with Airbnb is more related to recent conflicts among unions. In July 2016, Airbnb made a great deal of fanfare of its hiring of Alex Dagg as its Canadian Policy Lead to head-up its municipal lobbying efforts. Dagg, once heralded as a promising and innovative labour organizer in Toronto was a leader of UNITE when it merged with HERE in the mid-2000s. Following an intense internal fight, the UNITE portion of the UNITEHERE merger left the union to form Workers United and joined SEIU. The relationship between Dagg and what now constitutes UNITEHERE Local 75 might be charitably described as ‘strained’. Dagg soon left SEIU to become Director of Operations for the National Hockey League Players Association. The hiring of Dagg to counter Fairbnb.ca would appear to be more than coincidence and quite strategic on the company’s part. Airbnb in its press release announcing Dagg’s appointment focused – in keeping with its progressive capital image – on Dagg’s career experience ‘championing social justice’ in the union movement.
Unifor established a presence in the accommodation sector decades ago with its merger with railway workers in the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Transport and General Workers, which also represented the workers employed at the grand railway hotels. UNITEHERE has historically defended itself against raiding from a number of large unions operating in Canada. As part of this experience, it is not unexpected that UNITEHERE endorsed a letter to the CLC from a number of its affiliates harshly criticizing Unifor’s disastrous attempt to take over the Amalgamated Transit Union Local in 2016. In short, the opposing forms of union engagement with Airbnb may be inseparable from patterns of divisive labour movement internal conflicts which the company is trying to exploit to its advantage.
Beyond Cross-Class Coalitions
As a support coalition, Fairbnb.ca is not primarily designed to build a movement for affordable housing or broader regulation of the gig-economy. Fairbnb.ca’s success to date as a specific issue public campaign lies with a single organization setting strategic goals and partners deciding how best they can provide support (e.g., joint-lobbying, deputations). Admittedly, it is an effective structure for this type of campaign. In the case of short-term rentals, it can be argued that UNITEHERE’s and Unifor’s strategic choices engaging the gig-economy are also shaped by the persistent sectarianism that continues to plague the labour movement in Canada.
UNITEHERE, a small union relative to large general unions in Canada, is understandably cautious about working closely with other unions given that it has been targeted for raiding in the past. Also important is the fact that Fairbnb.ca is a cross-class coalition that does include hotel employers. While the few employers formally in Fairbnb.ca do not provide anything beyond in-kind support, the inclusion of capital from the outset structures the aims of the coalition in a very specific manner. The decision to not initially build a larger class-based coalition with multiple unions and a more expansive list of community groups limits Fairbnb.ca primarily to a media campaign and lobbying effort.
Unifor’s opposing strategy of embracing cross-class ‘progressive capital’ is as cynical as it is short-sighted. Partnership with Airbnb is unlikely to yield many new members from ‘ghost hotels’ and it remains unclear how Dias will explain partnership with a company undermining traditional hotels to his members working in the sector. Dias will also have to explain to activist members why their union is supporting a multinational firm that is removing thousands of rental units from the housing stock of large cities. While it is difficult to imagine that Unifor has embraced the partnership deal solely in response to a political difference with a smaller union, this cannot be easily dismissed as a partial explanation.
If organized labour is going to take on gig-economy employers with any success, it must move beyond limited coalitions, cross-class partnerships, and sectarian conflicts. No single union is able to take on such immense and growing sectors of the economy alone. Central labour bodies and local labour councils do not have the capacities (or the affiliate support) to coordinate sectoral responses and strategies, so new formations are needed. In the case of short-term rentals, a local sector council of unions representing hotel workers may be useful. UNITEHERE represents the majority of unionized hotel workers in Toronto, but there are other large and well-resourced unions representing hotel workers in large cities. A common sectoral strategy and approach is what concern for workers in the sector demands. On this front, UNITEHERE has begun the process of re-establishing relations with the CSN fighting against short-term rentals in Quebec. At the same time, Unifor has participated in informal local sector councils such as the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC) as it counters efforts to privatize Pearson International Airport.
New spaces of solidarity such as local sector councils where local unions representing workers in the same sector can talk to each other about common shop-floor issues are important. Further, local united fronts will more effectively confront large gig-economy firms lobbying against progressive municipal regulation – an increasingly important arena of engagement for labour, capital, and the state. While unions require an urban strategy, local sector councils do not need to abandon the arenas of provincial or national regulation or fail to engage with the Changing Workplaces Review and its implications for gig-economy work. Successful local sector councils with an urban focus will have a multi-scalar sensibility as all social movements do. Local level formations can, however, address common concerns free from national and international leadership and start to overcome destructive sectarianism. If organized labour fragmented, workers will continue to suffer in – or be displaced from – regressive gig-economy workplaces. •
[Steven Tufts is an Associate Professor in Geography at York University.]
1. Ursula Huws is a leading voice of critical gig-economy analysis in this respect. See: “Platform labour: Sharing Economy or Virtual Wild West?,” Journal for a Progressive Economy, January, 2016, 24-27.
2. C. Brooks, “Interview with Kim Moody: Busting the Myths of a Workerless Future,” Labor Notes, July 26, 2016.
3. C.M. Mitchell and J.C. Murray, Changing Workplaces Review – Special Advisors’ Interim Report. Prepared for the Ontario Ministry of Labour to support the Changing Workplaces Review, 2016. The review does briefly mention the gig economy on p. 146.
4. The Changing Workplaces Review comments: “The growth of ‘the sharing economy’ continues to challenge business, lawmakers and regulators,” p. 19.
5. The Changing Workplaces Review acknowledges that for labour advocates:“Their concern about misclassification was not limited to one business or sector, but was expressed as likely more prevalent in certain segments of the economy including: the “gig” or “sharing” economy, cleaning, trucking, food delivery and information technology – to name but a few.” p. 146.
6. “Dependent Contractor” is the ‘common law compromise between standard employment relationship and independent contractor. See also G. White, “When will labour laws catch up with the gig economy?,” The Atlantic, December 9, 2015; D. Doorey, The Law of Work: Common Law and the Regulation of Work. Emond Publishing, Toronto, 2016.
7. L. Vosko, A.M. Noack, M.P. Thomas, How Far Does the Employment Standards Act, 2000 Extend and What Are the Gaps in Coverage, Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Labour, (Submission prepared for the Ontario Ministry of Labour to support the Changing Workplaces Review) 2015.
8. L. Vosko and M. Thomas, ‘Confronting the employment standards enforcement gap: Exploring the potential for union engagement with employment law in Ontario, Canada’ Journal of Industrial Relations 56 (5), 2014, 631-652.
9. M.A. Cherry, ‘Beyond Misclassification: The Digital Transformation of Work’, Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, 37(3), 2016, 544-577.
11. For a thorough report on the impact of Airbnb on Toronto’s housing market see T. Wieditz, Squeezed Out: Airbnb’s Commercialization of Home-Sharing in Toronto. Toronto: Fairbnb.ca, 2017. The report and other data can be found at fairbnb.ca
12. M. Lecuyer, M. Tucker, and A. Chaintreau, “Improving the Transparency of the Sharing Economy.” International World Wide Web Conference Committee(IW3C2), April 3–7, 2017, Perth, Australia published under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 License WWW 2017 Companion, 2017.
13. Recent data has found that 84% of Airbnb revenues in the GTA come from entire home rentals and 57% of revenues from multi-unit hosts. See HLT Advisory, AirBnB... & the Impact on the Canadian Hotel Industry, Ted Rogers School of Management, Toronto. June, 2016.
14. D. Wachsmuth, D. Kerrigan, D. Chaney, and A. Shillolo Short-term cities: Airbnb’s impact on Canadian housing markets. A report from the Urban Politics and Governance research group School of Urban Planning McGill University. McGill University, Montreal, August 10, 2017.
15. Bleecker Street in Cabbagetown is one such case. T. Kalinkowski, “Bleecker St. residents say ‘ghost hotels’ ruining neighbourhood,” Toronto Star, August 5, 2016.
16. L. Xing, “Toronto condo signs on to 1st agreement in Canada to regulate Airbnb rentals,” CBC News, October 25, 2017.
17. In 2016, Airbnb sued both New York and San Francisco over its regulations of short-term rentals. K. Benner, “Airbnb in Disputes with New York and San Francisco,” New York Times, June 28, 2016.
18. A. Tattersall, and D. Reynolds, ‘The Shifting Power of labor-community coalitions: identifying common elements of powerful coalitions in Australia and the US’, WorkingUSA, 10, 2007, 77–102.
19. Toronto City Council is scheduled to vote of AirBnB bylaws in early December 2017.
20. J. Dias, Letter to Mayor John Tory and the Executive Committee EX26.3.29, June 16, 2017. A similar letter was submitted to Vancouver’s Mayor and City Council on October 24, 2017 as the city debates a short-term rental policy.
21. S. Levin, “Airbnb's controversial deal with labor union falls apart after intense backlash,” The Guardian, April 21, 2016.
22. The company is hesitant to call these ‘hotels’ and prefers ‘branded home-sharing units’ or ‘community centres’.
23. On the Magna deal see S. Gindin, “The CAW and Magna: What if Magna Builds an Assembly Plant?,” The Bullet, Socialist Project E-Bulletin No. 71, November 3, 2007.
24. CBRE, An Overview of the AirBnB and the Hotel Sector in Canada, Hotel Association of Canada, Ottawa, 2017.
25. Airbnb, ‘Airbnb names new Canadian Executive’, Press release posted on CNW, July 25, 2016.
26. See T. Heffernan, “Mobilizing Workers at the Toronto Airport: Interview with Sean Smith,” The Bullet, Socialist Project E-Bulletin No. 1260, May 24, 2016.
27. On this point see the recent books: I. MacDonald (ed), Unions and the City: Negotiating Urban Change. ILR Press, Ithaca, NY, 2017; M. Greenberg and P. Lewis (eds). The City is the Factory: New Solidarities and Spatial Strategies in an Urban Age ILR Press, Ithaca, NY, 2017.