Watch Elizabeth Warren Explain Why America Needs to Have a Conversation About the Future of Work

Maybe the single best explainer in the Democratic Party talked about the gig economy at New America last week.

Maybe the single best explainer in the Democratic Party talked about the gig economy at New America last week.

Last week, Elizabeth Warren gave an important speech at New America, a progressive policy institute in Washington DC. Titled “Strengthening the Basic Bargain for Workers in the Modern Economy,” the speech addressed ways workers and employers can adapt to the gig economy while still keeping America’s middle class strong. It’s important to note that Warren did not attack Uber or Lyft for their employment practices, and she was not advocating a return to 1950s work standards. In fact, Warren praised those two companies for the way they encouraged “more rides, cheaper rides, and shorter wait times” than the taxicab industry.

But she acknowledged that the disruption caused by gig economy employers was affecting the nature of work in America today: fewer workers now enjoy the security of a middle-class life because their jobs have changed .”While their businesses provide workers with great flexibility,” Warren said, “companies like Lyft and Uber have often resisted the efforts of those same workers to access a greater share of the wealth generated from their work. Their business model is, in part, dependent on extremely low wages for drivers.” This is a problem: America is built on the strength of its middle class, and if we exclude low-wage workers from the economy, the economy will suffer.

So what should we do about this? We can’t (and in fact we shouldn’t want to) turn back the clock to a pre-gig economy time. Warren rightly compared the gig economy with the industrial revolution, which was another period of massive disruption:

America’s response wasn’t to abandon the technological innovations and improvements of the industrial revolution. We didn’t send everyone back to their farms. No. Instead, we came together, and through our government we changed public policies to adapt to a changing economy – to keep the good and get rid of much of the bad.

With these rights—40 hour workweeks, safety regulations, and so on—Americans could find work and employers could find workers. But those regulations also ensured that the middle class enjoyed a security that enabled them to enjoy their lives without the worry that they faced destitution at any moment: pensions, overtime pay, health insurance, and a stable salary.

So what Warren proposed last week wasn’t a call to turn back time. Instead, she called for a new set of standards for workers. You can read the speech (PDF) on Warren’s site, or you can watch it here:

Warren’s solutions closely resemble the Shared Security plan proposed by Nick Hanauer and David Rolf in the Democracy Journal last year. (The Democracy piece is referred to on multiple occasions in the footnotes.) She calls for every worker to enjoy a few basic benefits as a matter of course: Social Security, catastrophic health insurance, paid sick and family leave. She also calls for portable health and retirement benefits which a worker can carry from job to job.

Further, Warren calls for regulations to ensure certainty for all workers. And though this will never stop the trickle down crowd from crying wolf about job-killing regulations, Warren is clear that she’s not looking to penalize employers for hiring workers: “If it is done right, [a new regulatory framework] will [make it] possible to reduce red tape for large employers, small business owners, and entrepreneurs—cutting their costs and making it easier for them to employ people.” She calls to streamline some archaic regulations, making it easier to, for example, hire workers across state lines because a “small business owner with workers in several states shouldn’t have to spend her valuable time struggling to master different state regulations.” And she calls for improvements in our employment infrastructure, making it easier for American workers to get education and training and for American industry to get access to government-funded research and development.

We’re still in the early days of figuring out how to navigate the gig economy. At this point, we’re in the brainstorming stage, determining what in the American employer-employee contract still works and what doesn’t. But last week’s speech from Elizabeth Warren is a huge step forward in the process. A former teacher, Warren articulated perfectly the many problems we face, and she suggested some basic solutions with a mind to start a conversation in the political mainstream. With the definition of work changing so rapidly, this is a conversation that America desperately needs to have, and Warren is the perfect person to get us talking about what really matters.

Paul Constant

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