Meet The Platform Workforce


NewCo Shift Forum

A conversation with workers on the front lines of the on demand economy

What happens when millions of jobs are automated? This question was a major theme of the NewCo Shift Forum earlier this year, and to insure we heard from all sides, we gathered three representatives from the on demand workforce to hear about their experiences first hand. Read on to hear their insights into the future of work.

John Battelle: Concern about the future of jobs, and the impact of automation and AI is a major theme of this event. As we were putting together the program, it struck me that we can sit here and talk about all this and wave our hands. But shouldn’t we have the people whose jobs are actually being impacted be on the stage to talk about it?

We’re in the knowledge industry, in the technology industry, we have senior executive positions at large companies — so we think we’re going to be the last to go. The truth is we’re all impacted by it. If you want to truly get a report from where the rubber hits the road, you should invite the folks who are driving the trucks.

With that, I’d like to introduce a panel of the platform workforce. Please welcome Peter Bergen. Peter Kwan, and Bill Aboudi. I love the trucker hat. I was going to introduce you guys, but I’ll let you guys introduce yourselves. Tell us who you are and what you do. Let’s start with you, Peter.

Peter Bergen: Hi. My name is Peter Bergen. I am a partner with Uber, which means I drive for Uber. I also bartend three nights a week.

I also teach for a theater in Washington DC, and I work for myself doing the day, bringing improv lessons and workshops to Middle and High Schools in the DC area as well as businesses that want improv tenants, as far as teamwork collaboration, team building and stuff like that in the workplace.

I’m also a corporate trainer for the theater I teach for.

John: You have four or five jobs.

Peter B: Many.

John: Peter Kwan?

Peter Kwan: Hi. My name is Peter Kwan. I’m an Airbnb host. I live in San Francisco, and I share a spare bedroom in the living space out of my home in North Beach right here. I started a community support group for hosts in San Francisco about three, four years ago called, “Home Sharers of San Francisco.”

A couple of years ago we also started the “Home Shares Democratic Club” as well.

John: Bill?

Bill Aboudi: Hi. My name is Bill Aboudi. I run a trucking company, small trucking company, in Oakland. I also have several other businesses. I run a service providing business to truckers at the port. Until recently, I ran a 24-hour mini mart/truck scale.

John: You have lots of businesses as well.

Bill: All out of need. It started with the trucking, and there’s gaps. I tried out the lowest gaps.

John: We’re going to get into a number of topics, but I want to start with…Do you guys feel secure? Do you feel like what you’re doing is a full-time, secure job that you feel like you’ve got your benefits and day to day, week to week, month to month, you feel confident that you’re going to be able to make a living doing what you’re doing?

Peter B: I feel good, and part of it’s because I do a lot of different things. Most of the things I do are people driven. I was listening yesterday to one of the people after your lunch break forums talk about the things that are really in jeopardy with the advancement of AI, and technology are things that require muscle, lifting, things like that.

Working as a teacher, working as a trainer, even working as a bartender, and even as an Uber driver, those people skills, personality skills are applicable and hard to replace.

When it comes to benefits and stuff like that, it’s a lot harder when you do a lot of work on a W-9. I’ve learned the hard way that you have to be prepared and frugal. I’m that these days. I also married pretty well. I’m doing OK there.

[laughter] I feel confident now just because I’m me.

Peter K: Speaking personally for me, home sharing is a source of supplemental thing. I don’t rely on it to live day-by-day. Speaking for most folks in San Francisco, that’s the case as well. In San Francisco, in fact, it’s illegal to do full-term rentals in a place that’s not your permanent residence.

You can’t legally have three or four properties all around San Francisco and put them all on the platform for short-term rentals. That limits the amount of income that person can derive legally through short-term rentals. For most of us, it helps us get by, but we can’t rely on it entirely for our living expenses.

John: Bill?

Bill: From a trucking perspective, with invisible angst, we move everything. We get affected by technology. It makes our jobs a lot easier, the smartphones. We don’t have to carry maps anymore, things like that — looking up phone numbers.

Where it changes for us (is) as people higher up make decisions on trade. I work at the port of Oakland. I commit my trucks to the port of Oakland. If something happened with trade, then there’s less volume coming in. We’re very fluid, we’ll adapt, and we’ll move to something else domestically.

That’s where we’re not afraid of our jobs going away, because everybody is going to need a truck to deliver their groceries. Every product that you receive is going to come by truck at one time or another. It’s just what mode? Are you doing containers, intermodal from the port, or are you doing it from the factory in the US?

John: Two of you work with Uber. Uber bought the auto and automated trucking company and already delivered a truck full of Budweiser autonomously. Are you guys concerned? Is it existential to you that the most highly valued private company in the world is hell bent on automating your jobs, or do you feel like, “That’s a long time in the future. We’ll worry about it then.”

Bill: No, actually a lot of us feel that it’s going to make life a lot easier for us, especially the people that are going long distance. Typically, for the port truckers, intermodal, we’re working within a 500-mile radius max because we don’t compete with trains after 500 miles.

Typical trips for us are a hundred air mile radius. We deliver from the port. That’s something that auto(mated) cannot do. I don’t see it happening in the future. It might come close, but typically what they’re trying to master is exit to exit.

But to try and back up a truck into a dock or deal with opening the doors on a trailer and unhooking, drop, and pick, these are things that you need a human being to do.

It’ll definitely make the driver’s job a lot easier. Instead of sitting behind the wheel staring at endless road, to be able to put the auto pilot on and go to sleep. He’ll be fully rested when he gets to the other side.

John: So it will augment the work as opposed to replace it. How about you, Peter?

Peter K: As it relates to Uber, it wasn’t much of a concern until I sat here all day yesterday (and heard talks about automated cars). It’s more so now. I do do a lot of things. I like to think — this is on another thing that came out of the group discussions when they came up here and shared. People are lazy consumers. They like what they like. Change is hard. Convenience is something that they gravitate towards. I don’t know, there’s something about a connection that some people will always want.

If I can push an app and have an automated ride, fine, but I tend bar and do most of my driving after work, between 2:30 and 4:30 in the morning. People just want to talk.

John: We should just spend 20 minutes telling us stories of what you’ve seen.

Peter K: They want to chat.

John: I imagine that’s not the only thing they want to do in the back of your car.

Peter B: Right. I have confidence that people still like a human connection on some level in that regard, maybe, not in every regard.

When it comes to something like that, as long as they’re getting where they want to go at a reasonable price, then Uber’s more and more reasonable, almost to the detriment of the driver.

It’s more of a concern, but I do think that people still will want that human connection. At least, for a little while.

John: Peter, I’ve stayed in Airbnbs around the world. I have to say I’ve met the hosts 10 to 15 percent of the time. The image of it is that you meet a guy like you, you’re in his home. You say, “Hey, here is the cool places to go in San Francisco. Here’s North Beach. Check out this café. The coffee’s not so good at that café.”

That hasn’t been my experience, so that human connection piece, which is awesome when you have it, but it seems there’s a certain isolating part of the experience, not just for the traveler, but for the host. Is there a way to know how to do this job?

Peter K: Part of the reason why your percentage connection with the host is so low is because when you search, you’re probably searching for an entire apartment. You can also search for your own private room.

There, the chances of you actually living together with your host is much greater because you’re sharing. You’re just renting a room, and not the entire place.

In those situations, from the host perspective, what I’ve learned is that you need to find out very quickly once you greet the guest, what they’re looking for.

To the extent that we can beforehand in communication, I always ask my guests, “Tell us a little bit about the purpose of your trip so that I can, in whatever way I can, make your stay in San Francisco more special for you.”

Honestly, we have people who come for business. They just want a place to sleep at night, out in the morning, early in the morning, and they come back late at night. They never see you. It’s fine for them, it’s fine for me.

Other people like a lot more handholding. They have never been to America before. They’ve never been to San Francisco. They’re a bit bewildered and like to have a lot of recommendations of what to do. I would sit down with a glass of wine and talk to them and give them my recommendations.

John: They may not play you as much, Peter Bergen and Bill, the traditional job…This is something that Andy Slavitt who ran the Center for Medicare and Medicaid, under HHS, said yesterday, “The traditional job has been how we have delivered security to the population. That’s breaking down.”

The response to the last wave of capitalism, in terms of the workers, has been unions, worker organizations that ensure wages, proper benefits, and so on, and lobbies on behalf of workers.

Uber is not a fan of that concept. I would imagine that the unionization of hosts is not in the cards either. What is your point of view on that structure and whether or not there needs to be, either something akin to unions going forward or some new social safety net that protects and encourages people to take more risks, like you are, by doing the things that you do?

Peter B: I like the idea of…I would love to be able to have a network of Uber drivers to talk about concerns and voice and things like that because you are, essentially, an independent contractor. If you have a problem, tough, really is how it feels.

If this were my main source of income or only source of income, I’d be wracked with anxiety about it. As far as somebody who does it on part-time — and I don’t know what the percentages of Uber drivers who have it as a secondary income. But it’s almost like resignation, as far as that can’t happen. I’m just going to do what I’m told, that sort of thing. As far as, when you say social safety net, you mean like…

John: You know, retirement, pension…

Peter B: That is something that I’m a little late in the game. I started in my early 30s. I’m in my late 40s now, but learning to be responsible in IRAs and investments and saving money, marrying well, things like that. No, to be an adult and to take responsibility for your own finances is something I have to do because so much of what I do is self-employed, independent contracting sort of thing.

John: Bill? I imagine you have some opinions on this.

Bill: Oh yeah. We have lots of opinions about being organized. There’s a lot of misinformation about trucking and trucking jobs. 90 percent of truckers are independent contractors.

What that means is they own their own truck, and they work for themselves. They have authority to operate that truck. We ran into a campaign at the port in 2002 that tried to organize these independents.

The campaign was run pretty good, but dishonest. That’s why it failed. The unions came in. The particular union was the Teamsters Union that came in and, basically, ran the platform of, “Do you want to get paid more money? Do you want respect?”

Of course, everybody says yeah. “OK, you’re with us.” What they were trying to do is they were trying to put those independent guys out of their truck and force trucking companies to buy those trucks, so they can become employees.

Look, truckers didn’t want that. As soon as they discovered that’s what the ultimate goal was, all of those guys that supported turned against, and the Teamsters failed.

The unions these days are not your mom-and-pop union. At one time, companies that are huge, were abusing their workers, especially at factory floor. I’ve seen where the ILW union which was started here in San Francisco…

You hear stories. My stomach turns, the things those workers had to go through to get a job. This doesn’t happen here, especially in California with all the labor laws that we have.

Now it’s more of a — in some meetings, they admit it. They’re like a mafia. They go in, and they place these laws on the books for us that we’re not paying attention. They politically get in and write these laws. Then they come back, and they hit you.

As an example, class action lawsuits which is very popular here in California. Most people don’t realize if I file a class action lawsuit against a company, and you guys all work for that company, I send you a little card.

If you don’t respond and say, “Get me out of this class action lawsuit,” you’re in. That’s how a lot of these class action lawsuits are successful.

We’re ignorant to that as business owners. We’re busy trying to do the day-to-day work. We miss all these little laws that get put in place that they can use to leverage and affect your business and do a shakedown of your business.

It’s very important that the politicians, business owners pay attention, get together in an association and protect their interests because that’s what’s happening with the unions.

They are getting together, and they’re protecting themselves when they’re not needed. Why do I pay union dues when I don’t need you to represent me?

John: That’s interesting, I did not expect to hear that. Now, one final question. A quick answer, but you have this opportunity to tell the big tech companies one thing. What’s your opinion of them, or what would you like them to do that they’re not doing now — whether it’s Uber or Google or Airbnb?

What would you like to say to them?

Peter B: I don’t even know if you’re not doing this, but there’s not enough valuing of work ethic and people. I didn’t graduate college. But I think I’ve done pretty well for myself.

I was in the military. I do a lot of performing, I do a lot of good advocacy stuff. Just look at the whole person and what they bring to the table rather than just, maybe, a résumé, that sort of thing.

John: Peter?

Peter K: Actually Airbnb has been very responsive to the host community point of view, especially recently with a lot of legislative and political activism around, restricting short-term rental laws in San Francisco. They’ve engaged the host community much more vigorously.

I don’t feel as if we’re being ignored. There is one thing I would like to say to Airbnb. Perhaps, we have some ideas of how the platform can help hosts more in getting registered and creating new ways of cutting down on the bad actors, for example.

John: Bill?

Bill: One of the big things that I see is in a leadership position, you have to be open-minded and look at both extremes that are being presented to you.

Be able to do the legwork and drop down to the worker level. Be an undercover boss and see what that job entails. I see it constantly. People assume what’s best for you. No, come down and check it out, and then you’ll understand from that level.

We’re not whining as workers, we just want things to be efficient. We want the company to be successful. We want our customers to be successful. We want to keep on rolling.

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