Archives For Labor Law

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by John Newman, Associate Professor, University of Miami School of Law; Advisory Board Member, American Antitrust Institute; Affiliated Fellow, Thurman Arnold Project, Yale; Former Trial Attorney, DOJ Antitrust Division.)

Cooperation is the basis of productivity. The war of all against all is not a good model for any economy.

Who said it—a rose-emoji Twitter Marxist, or a card-carrying member of the laissez faire Chicago School of economics? If you guessed the latter, you’d be right. Frank Easterbrook penned these words in an antitrust decision written shortly after he left the University of Chicago to become a federal judge. Easterbrook’s opinion, now a textbook staple, wholeheartedly endorsed a cooperative agreement between two business owners not to compete with each another.

But other enforcers and judges have taken a far less favorable view of cooperation—particularly when workers are the ones cooperating. A few years ago, in an increasingly rare example of interagency agreement, the DOJ and FTC teamed up to argue against a Seattle ordinance that would have permitted drivers to cooperatively bargain with Uber and Lyft. Why the hostility from enforcers? “Competition is the lynchpin of the U.S. economy,” explained Acting FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen.

Should workers be able to cooperate to counter concentrated corporate power? Or is bellum omnium contra omnes truly the “lynchpin” of our industrial policy?

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown this question into sharper relief than ever before. Low-income workers—many of them classified as independent contractors—have launched multiple coordinated boycotts in an effort to improve working conditions. The antitrust agencies, once quick to condemn similar actions by Uber and Lyft drivers, have fallen conspicuously silent.

Why? Why should workers be allowed to negotiate cooperatively for a healthier workplace, yet not for a living wage? In a society largely organized around paying for basic social services, money is health—and even life itself.

Unraveling the Double Standard

Antitrust law, like the rest of industrial policy, involves difficult questions over which members of society can cooperate with one another. These laws allocate “coordination rights”. Before the coronavirus pandemic, industrial policy seemed generally to favor allocating these rights to corporations, while simultaneously denying them to workers and class-action plaintiffs. But, as the antitrust agencies’ apparent about-face on workplace organizing suggests, the times may be a-changing.

Some of today’s most existential threats to societal welfare—pandemics, climate change, pollution—will best be addressed via cooperation, not atomistic rivalry. On-the-ground stakeholders certainly seem to think so. Absent a coherent, unified federal policy to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, state governors have reportedly begun to consider cooperating to provide a coordinated regional response. Last year, a group of auto manufacturers voluntarily agreed to increase fuel-efficiency standards and reduce emissions. They did attract an antitrust investigation, but it was subsequently dropped—a triumph for pro-social cooperation. It was perhaps also a reminder that corporations, each of which is itself a cooperative enterprise, can still play the role they were historically assigned: serving the public interest.

Going forward, policy-makers should give careful thought to how their actions and inactions encourage or stifle cooperation. Judge Easterbrook praised an agreement between business owners because it “promoted enterprise”. What counts as legitimate “enterprise”, though, is an eminently contestable proposition.

The federal antitrust agencies’ anti-worker stance in particular seems ripe for revisiting. Its modern origins date back to the 1980s, when President Reagan’s FTC challenged a coordinated boycott among D.C.-area criminal-defense attorneys. The boycott was a strike of sorts, intended to pressure the city into increasing court-appointed fees to a level that would allow for adequate representation. (The mayor’s office, despite being responsible for paying the fees, actually encouraged the boycott.) As the sole buyer of this particular type of service, the government wielded substantial power in the marketplace. A coordinated front was needed to counter it. Nonetheless, the FTC condemned the attorneys’ strike as per se illegal—a label supposedly reserved for the worst possible anticompetitive behavior—and the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed.

Reviving Cooperation

In the short run, the federal antitrust agencies should formally reverse this anti-labor course. When workers cooperate in an attempt to counter employers’ power, antitrust intervention is, at best, a misallocation of scarce agency resources. Surely there are (much) bigger fish to fry. At worst, hostility to such cooperation directly contravenes Congress’ vision for the antitrust laws. These laws were intended to protect workers from concentrated downstream power, not to force their exposure to it—as the federal agencies themselves have recognized elsewhere.

In the longer run, congressional action may be needed. Supreme Court antitrust case law condemning worker coordination should be legislatively overruled. And, in a sharp departure from the current trend, we should be making it easier, not harder, for workers to form cooperative unions. Capital can be combined into a legal corporation in just a few hours, while it takes more than a month to create an effective labor union. None of this is to say that competition should be abandoned—much the opposite, in fact. A market that pits individual workers against highly concentrated cooperative entities is hardly “competitive”.

Thinking more broadly, antitrust and industrial policy may need to allow—or even encourage—cooperation in a number of sectors. Automakers’ and other manufacturers’ voluntary efforts to fight climate change should be lauded and protected, not investigated. Where cooperation is already shielded and even incentivized, as is the case with corporations, affirmative steps may be needed to ensure that the public interest is being furthered.

The current moment is without precedent. Industrial policy is destined, and has already begun, to change. Although competition has its place, it cannot serve as the sole lynchpin for a just economy. Now more than ever, a revival of cooperation is needed.

Today, thirty-nine different companies and policy experts from a wide swath of the political spectrum signed a letter urging lawmakers to create a “portable benefits” platform that will enable sharing economy companies to continue innovating while simultaneously providing desirable social safety net benefits to workers. This is well timed, as there is a growing consensus among lawmakers (such as Senator Warner) that “something must be done” to provide benefits to workers in the so-called “gig economy.”

In total, the thirty-nine signatories to the letter are pushing for changes to existing law based on a set of principles holding that benefits should be:

  1. Independent;
  2. Flexible and pro-rated;
  3. Portable;
  4. Universal; and
  5. Supportive of innovation

In a nutshell, this would effectively mean that there is some form of benefits available to gig economy workers that follows them around and is accessible regardless of who employs them (or, ostensibly, whether they are employed at all).

Looking past the text of the letter, this would likely entail a package of changes to existing law that would allow individual workers to utilize some form of privately created platform for managing the benefits that are normally obtained in a traditional employee-employer relationship. Such benefits would include, for instance, workers’ compensation, unemployment, disability, professional development, and retirement. A chief advantage of a portable benefits platform is that–much as in an underlying justification of the ACA–workers would no longer be tied to particular companies in order to enjoy these traditionally employer-based benefits.

Although platform-based work facilitated by smartphone apps is cutting edge, there is historical precedent for this approach to the provision of benefits. Unions have long relied upon multi-employer plans for providing benefits, and the healthcare industry developed portable health savings accounts as a means to free individuals from employer-bound health insurance plans. And the industry has been seeking fully private solutions to these sorts of problems for some time. For instance, Uber recently partnered with Stride Health to provide health insurance benefits to verified drivers.

There will, of course, be some necessary legislative changes in order to make these portable benefits platforms a reality. First, there probably needs to be a provision in the tax code that allows for workers’ contributions to their own plans to receive the same tax-favored treatment that traditional employer-based benefits receive (or, even better, the political give-away would need to be removed from employer-based benefits). Additionally, companies would need to be able to make optional matching contributions with a similar tax treatment. And lurking in the background of all of this is the specter of a large number of employer obligations. Thus, a necessary quid pro quo to get sharing economy companies to pay into these platforms will be some form of safe harbor shielding them from further obligations.

This is a win for both companies and workers. The truth is that our labor market is very fractured–labor force participation rates are at a low, and those who are working remain chronically underemployed. Coupled with this reality, the technology that enables work is becoming ever more flexible and, as shown by their expressed preferences, individuals are clearly interested in the gig economy as a means of easily obtaining work as needed. A portable benefits platform could provide the sort of support to make flexible work a viable alternative to employee status.

And for many employers–sharing economy and non-sharing economy alike–removing antiquated legal strictures from the employment relationship promises a number of increased efficiencies. Particularly in the context of sharing economy companies, this will include the ability to exert some form of control over platform workers without being sucked into an onerous employer-employee relationship.

For instance, Instacart recently moved a number of its platform workers to part-time employee status. Although the decision was very likely multi-faceted, a big part of it had to be Instacart’s desire to give training and guidance to the shoppers who provided services to the platform’s consumers (for instance, instructing them on the best sequence in which to pick groceries in order to ensure maximum freshness). However, to provide any modest degree of oversight would likely mean that Instacart would move from empowering contractors to directing employees, and thereby run into a thicket of labor laws.

Yet why should this particular employee classification be necessary? Platform-based work is a revolutionary way to defeat the traditional transaction costs that justified large, centrally-organized firms. Companies like Uber and Instacart enable what otherwise would have been fallow resources–spare labor, unused cars, and the like–to be fitted to consumer demand.

Moreover, forcing rigid employee classifications upon sharing economy workers will only reintroduce inefficiency into the worker-company relationship. Instead of allowing workers to sign on just for the amount of work they are willing to do, and allowing consumers just to purchase the amount of work they desire, an employee classification essentially requires companies to purchase labor in blocks of hours. At scale, this necessarily introduces allocation and pricing errors into the system. If a smart safe harbor is included in any legislative push for a portable benefits platform, companies could have much more flexibility in directing platform workers.

I am excited to see this development emerging from the industry and from policy makers, and I look forward to the response of our lawmakers (although, this being election season, I don’t expect too much from that response — at least not yet). There is understably a lot of concern about the welfare of workers in the new economy. But it’s important not to lose the innovative new ways of working, producing, and consuming that the modern digital economy affords by resorting to ill-fitted legal regimes from the past.