Spring at low tide

Here we are already – the last day of February. It’s been a fairly tough month with consistent high winds, including a couple of storms that have seen winds of 80+mph here on the Range, with an impact including the destruction of the roof of a neighbour’s polytunnel (pic may be to follow) as well as large amounts of rainfall that have left the ground saturated and animals struggling – though the regular deliveries of hay to the neighbour’s sheep seem to have provided ample compensation for grass that is still brown and lacking in nutrition.

It can’t have been pleasant to be out in, though – and hats off to all the crofters in Iochdar that are out in all weathers, checking on and feeding animals. I don’t have animals (even if we do seem currently to be minding a couple of woolly escapees from a neighbour) so, with lockdown on top, I’ve anyway been staying in – although the lack of posts this month perhaps points to a volume of work (and I have indeed also been busy).

Yesterday and today, though, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was the first day of spring, with a warmth to the sun, the sky a healthy tint of blue and the wind dropping below 15mph. Yesterday lunchtime was a low tide – not quite at its lowest but pretty much so ahead of what will be spring tides tomorrow and Tuesday, and it gave us a good chance to get out and blow a few of winter’s cobwebs away. Here’s a selection of snaps taken just about half an hour to an hour after low tide and when we could walk out a long way before hitting the water, where the soft sands of Mol Mòr give way to a more clay-like texture and to limpet-covered rocks that probably don’t get their share of Vitamin D.

Paired-up Herring Gulls (still on the lookout, just in case)

Sanderling in flight

Hollows in the sand, sculpted by the waves

A natural reflecting pool

Surf crashing on the rocks off Rubha Hornais

And back home where Spring is, well, springing

Plenty of time for more bad weather yet – no chickens being counted here and, if it’s true that March comes in like a lamb but out like a lion, there’ll be plenty more to keep the crofters occupied and their minds on their animals.

Uber is, after all – and as we know – an employer

This morning’s Supreme Court judgment that workers employed by Uber are, in fact, workers rather than people operating on an entirely bogus self-employed basis is welcome. Uber has been getting away with this kind of regulatory arbitrage for too long and the unions – both mainstream (GMB) and grassroots (the app drivers union) – as well as the officers and representatives, and members, responsible for bringing it to the very top of the UK court system deserve praise and congratulations.

The simple lesson is that unions work – do join one.

The Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers are workers because:

  • Uber sets the fares and the drivers have no say
  • the contractual terms under which they work are dictated by Uber
  • while drivers are free to log in and out of the app as they choose, their choice of whether to accept rides is constrained by Uber
  • Uber exercises a significant degree of control over how drivers offer their services via specifying age, colour and condition of their car; as well as the route they need to take to carry the passenger. The approval ratings system also has something to say here, too
  • Uber restricts communication between passenger and driver to the minimum necessary to perform the trip; Uber handles all the co-ordination between driver and passenger.

As a consequence of these facts, the Supreme Court agreed with the conclusion of the original employment tribunal that Uber drivers were ‘workers’. The Supreme Court also ruled that Uber drivers were working whenever they were logged in not, as Uber had argued, whenever they accepted a trip request. This important finding in relation to the operation of the working time regulations means that Uber drivers are entitled to the minimum wage in respect of periods when they are logged-in to the app but not engaged on trips. Uber, while now licking its wounds, is clearly thinking about what to do next.

The UK court decision came shortly after a Dutch court decision ruling earlier this week (in Dutch) that employees there of Deliveroo, the courier-based food delivery operator, were also employees on the grounds of the control to which they were subject while at work administered through the (in)famous company algorithm which allocates tasks and which controls ‘the line’ between the production of food and the couriers bringing it to customers’ front doors.

It’s also an important tribute to the work of the UK court system – the lower level specialist courts (the employment tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal) got this decision entirely right, as did the Court of Appeal. Uber has lost at each of the four stages of the UK court system, and all three of the appeals (on how each lower court had applied the law) that it was permitted to make. The decision of the UK court system is, as a result, entirely clear – and this will be important in the future.

This is indeed welcome news for a Friday – but, on Saturday, the hard work comes.

Firstly, the UK court decision is that Uber drivers are ‘workers’ – a slightly strange ‘halfway house’ in UK law which distinguishes between employees on the one hand and self-employed people on the other and, in the middle, the self-employed who are offering their services as part of a business carried on by others. The ACAS website has a helpful summary of the differences between the different classes but, essentially, while ‘workers’ are entitled to some rights of employment, they are not entitled to all and, importantly, they are excluded from unfair dismissal laws, from protection against redundancy and from paid sick leave and parental leave. Furthermore, those employed on zero hours contracts, working ‘as and when’, are frequently classed as ‘workers’. Those gaps (still) need closing.

Secondly, as my colleague Steve Jary, National Secretary for aviation and defence for Prospect, tweeted this morning: the absence of the long-awaited Employment Bill on workers’ rights after Brexit may now be shortened and may well include a clause reversing this judgment. Court decisions are an important source of protection when it comes to rights – but they are only ever interpretations: statute law always comes first and will set aside court judgments. We know that the Director of Labour Market Enforcement Strategy – a government office in charge of investigating compliance with labour market laws, chiefly in connection with the informal economy – is already suggesting action on app-based businesses, which gives a direct feed into whatever the government intends to do about this. We can expect the government to be taking an interest not least because one of the stated reasons for Brexit is that the EU’s regulatory approach is ‘too precautionary’ (£) and that, not least in new economy sectors, businesses need to be ‘set free’ from regulation to innovate further. This is where the clarity of the Supreme Court judgment is really important – there is no ‘confusion’ here for which legislation is necessary in order ‘to clarify’.

Furthermore, Prop 22, a pro-platform ‘gig economy’ law which was consulted on in California in last November’s US elections was passed with support from Uber, Lyft and other platforms in a campaign costing them collectively north of $200m. The venture capitalists funding these platforms – which are perennial eaters of money – have deep pockets in pursuit of monopoly rents and we can now expect similarly intensive, and expensive, lobbying efforts to be made here too to ensure the Employment Bill reverses the decision. Uber will come out of this fighting – and the other platforms will join it.

Thirdly, platform companies are at the forefront of a ‘new world of work’ in which their workers are the guinea pigs. What working conditions are ‘enjoyed’ by platform workers today will, over time, become the new standard for workers in conventional companies elsewhere. This is not only a question of legislation but active defence and pushback in practice. Aspects of working life through the pandemic – with greater use of surveillance software on computers to check what workers are doing while working at home – is one aspect of this while another is to ensure that there is a ‘right to disconnect’ – a right to downtime and non-work time. This is crucially important as the pandemic has trapped us into an existence in which we not only live at home but work from there and, indeed, get our meals delivered there, too.

Finally, there is also a warning for trade unions here, too. It’s not enough to win court judgments – active mobilisation of the workers involved is also extremely important: indeed, the two must go hand-in-hand. This goes well beyond exhortations to join a union and traditional organising efforts. These are fundamental – but, to coin a phrase, they are only ever the basis of trade unionism and they are not enough by themselves. This is about hearts and minds and engagement around actually doing something. It’s quite painful for some of us to realise that the logic of collective action (Colin Crouch) is not all about orienting people towards ‘the agreement’ (Hugh Clegg) but, actually, about the logic of mobilising workers to strive for something; nevertheless, this is an important realisation which must be made. Mobilising is about workers getting out and doing something together, not about joining a union with the promise that something might happen (tomorrow, later) to improve your terms and conditions if more of you join. Gains won in courts, and in agreements, must not only be defended but advanced and ‘staircase’ agreements (reached with a view to establishing an agreement in an employer with a view to improving it) will not function unless workers are not only organised but mobilised; not just collectivised by being brought into the union but actively engaged in entrenching gains and then extending them. Mobilisation is where grassroots unions score heavily – though it is clear also that winning Supreme Court cases is likely to require the support, not to say advice, of a mainstream union.

In short, this is a great win – but it is absolutely not the beginning of the end. The hard work must start now.

EDIT 22/2/21 to put right the previous version’s incorrect inference about drivers’ entitlement to the minimum wage; and to correct the name and affiliation of the grassroots union involved in bringing the action.

Book review: Four Futures

This slim volume (150 pages) is a joint product, published in 2016, between Jacobin magazine (for which the author, Peter Frase, is an editor) and Verso Books. The book contains scant biographical details about Frase and neither does the author’s own website say too much (the ‘about’ page merely contains quotes from three well-known intellects and philosophers); but Jacobin I do know a bit about: being ‘reason in revolt’ and ‘a leading voice of the American left’ it may claim, but it has published theories denying that the Srebrenica massacre was genocide and falling for the conspiracy theory that the camps run by Bosnian Serbs were exaggerated in the effort to gain sympathy – comprehensively debunked by Peter Maass and by Adnan Delalić during the entirely justified furore over the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Peter Handke.

Imperialism (not only of the US) remains a problem but the desire to see my enemy’s enemy as my friend (as I heard articulated at meetings in London in the 1990s) is an over-simplistic cliche while it is perfectly possible to take a standpoint which both accepts that the actions of the Bosnian Serb militias were genocidal while leaving the individual free to criticise imperialism in general. The ethnic division of Bosnia as promoted by the Dayton Agreement (and, presumably therefore, at the instigation of US imperialism, in this view) has left the country not only divided and sclerotic but has also established perennial fault lines which, until they are finally addressed, continue to leave the country permanently prey to being placed in a choke-hold by ethnic extremists. The gains from that to monopoly capitalism are not obvious and, furthermore, they have, at the very least, been somewhat slow to emerge. It may still be a bit too early to tell (at least in historical terms), but it has now been 25 years since Dayton.

There are of course known links between imperialism and capitalism, so this introduction to my review is not so much of a digression – Frase’s book is sub-titled ‘life after capitalism’ and his ‘four futures’ does some thinking about the alternative organisation of life and work in a post-capitalist context: two favourable and which put people first; the other two more favourable to hierarchies, or elites. A lot of thinking has been done post-2008 about whether we are in a post-capitalist state and, if so, how we define the tools and measures of economic management in view of establishing a fairer, more sustainably secure society. The starting point of this brief contribution is that, if we are not already in a post-capitalist state, the combination of rapid automation and increasingly scarce resources at a time of intense climate change will soon put us there.

What works well is Frase’s linking of theoretical thought with totems of popular culture, including TV and literature. The bringing together into one volume of speculative thought about very different futures linking four concepts of abundance, scarcity, hierarchy and equality in different combinations also has substantial merit. The first chapter explores a post-work scenario prompted by advanced robotisation at a time of an increasingly predominant universal basic income; the second a rentier economy based on the prevalence of intellectual property; the third climate change amidst scarce resources; the fourth our domination by rich hierarchies.

What doesn’t help is his choice of format: the brevity of the individual essays setting out the four different futures means that his choices take on, necessarily, a selective and somewhat random appearance; illustrative rather than explanatory; and occasionally oddball rather than pervasive. His arguments run the risk of being superficial and, while the format mostly works in enforcing a straitjacket of clarity on the thought process, Frase is not free of sections of prose that strive for intellectualism but which actually turn out to say very little. I’m always wary of taking quotes out of context but if anyone can explain what this, in the comparatively lengthy introductory chapter, means, I would be grateful:

Science fiction is to futurism what social theory is to conspiracy theory: an altogether richer, more honest, and more humble enterprise. Or, to put it another way, it is always more interesting to read an account that derives the general from the particular (social theory) or the particular from the general (science fiction), rather than attempting to go from the general to the general (futurism) or the particular to the particular (conspiracism).

p. 27

For a minute, I thought I had already advanced into a future in which even our prose was being written by robots.

The chapter dealing with abundance and equality, while looking at the principle of universal basic income, ends with a lengthy and rather odd celebration of alternative currencies (while the notion that robots will take all the jobs is in itself controversial); the chapter on intellectual property doesn’t reference the right of creative artists to earn from their creations; and the chapter on climate change has an odd belief in the ability of markets to drive socially-useful gains, prompted (apparently without a trace of irony) by the differential pricing scheme for car parking operated in Los Angeles in which more popular times of day for parking attract higher prices. Additionally, the effect of this in allowing the rich to park where they want when they want, and without any consideration of the effects on the elderly and the disabled, seems to have bypassed Frase completely.

The chapter on hierarchy and scarcity, while looking at the issue of ‘exterminism’, takes on much stronger relevance at a time of the pandemic than Frase could have foreseen before publication, but focuses only on individual examples of state agents taking out people and makes no mention of eugenics, which has quite a history in the US, for example in the US prison service. Writing at a time of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have better insight into the chilling examples of precisely the issues that Frase was considering – earlier this month, the British Medical Journal was editorialising on the ‘social murder‘ that the response to the pandemic represents globally, led by the US, Brazil, Mexico, India and the UK (which together account for one-half of the world’s deaths from the virus); while we also have other examples of forced sterilisation operations on women held by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in Trump’s America. There is, as we know, nothing new here – yet Frase makes no mention of any exterminist actions that have a class-based focus. Neither do the chapters referencing work and UBI make any mention of trade unions – which is odd, even in a post-work scenario – or, alternatively, any other form of the collective organisation of people in response to threats to them.

As Frase concludes, our future is likely to contain individual elements of all the four futures he sets out – although, as of now, some elements do look more a part even of our present than others. Ultimately, we are likely to need new names for systems in a post-capitalist world that were themselves developed in response to the problems set out by industrial capitalism (one reason for not mentioning them by name here). The key debates set out out – over robotisation, universal basic income, sustainability and climate change amidst increasingly scarce resources – are far from resolved and will continue as we define our future. We need only to think about the issues caused by tensions over availability of Covid-19 vaccines. But it is in the area of hierarchies – or elites – and our response to them that Frase’s book has, unwittingly, most resonance as well as, critically, being the one which, in our pandemic current, is thereby responsible most for dating his contribution.