Brishen Rogers

For Temple Law professor Brishen Rogers, companies like Lyft and Uber offer more than just a convenient ride. They’re the first movers of an economic evolution, if not a revolution, and Rogers has some questions about where they will take us.

Rogers teaches and studies labor law, which he says is “about workers using collective action to build economic power and using economic power to work towards justice.” Rogers says that innovative companies like Uber and Airbnb have created what he calls the platform economy, in which buyers and sellers conduct their transactions over an online platform provided by a third party. “What [Uber and Airbnb] do is set up apps that match consumers and workers or service providers,” explains Rogers. He’s quick to point out that the companies’ preference for the term, “sharing economy,” is misleading. “I use the term ‘platform economy’ instead of ‘sharing economy’ because we have to realize these are entirely economic relationships. Nobody is ‘sharing’ anything through Uber or AirBnb. To quote Robert Nozick, ‘these are capitalist acts between consenting adults.’”

Rogers believes this innovative economy has the potential to open up a new frontier in how economic power is created and distributed – if we proceed with care. One of his goals as a scholar is to advocate for just that.

“The emergence of the platform economy raises questions about how best to structure it,” he muses. “How does it require us to adapt our thinking to new circumstances, and how do we adapt workers’ rights protections to those circumstances? How is the growth of the Internet likely to change work? How is that going to change the economy and political economy more generally? That’s the set of questions I have.”

Rogers’ interest in these questions is driven in part by his involvement in worker justice issues dating back to his college days, when he joined a living wage campaign on behalf of campus workers at the University of Virginia, and discovered a passion for the organizing process. That led to a five-year stint in community and union organizing, including work for Service Employees International Union (SEIU), after which he enrolled at Harvard Law School to study labor law. After earning his J.D., Rogers served for two years as legal counsel at Change to Win Labor Federation in Washington, D.C. before returning to Harvard Law as a Climenko Fellow in 2008. A member of the Temple Law faculty since 2010, he has been a prolific scholar whose insight on labor issues is widely sought by legal and lay audiences alike.

“The emergence of the platform economy raises questions about how best to structure it,” he muses. “How does it require us to adapt our thinking to new circumstances, and how do we adapt workers’ rights protections to those circumstances? How is the growth of the Internet likely to change work? How is that going to change the economy and political economy more generally? That’s the set of questions I have.”

One reason Rogers is in such demand is his keen understanding that the issues he studies are far from “academic.” “Union organizing, especially, was a really fascinating experience, because I saw workers standing up for their rights in a way that changed their understanding of themselves and even their place within society,” he recalls. “If you are a low-wage worker, you’ve been told for a very long time by most of the world that you’re not really valuable, your work isn’t valuable, and that you’re not contributing much to society. When workers decide to organize and are able to win some kind of a victory, they realize that if they work collectively, they have power. It’s a dramatic transformation. People go from feeling completely downtrodden to feeling very powerful, and you see changes in other parts of their lives as well.”

It’s the impacts those human experiences of dignity and self-worth have on our choices about how to structure the economy that fascinate Rogers. And from that perspective, the “new and innovative” platform economy could turn out to be revolutionary – or it could be anything but.

“In the 20th century,” Rogers explains, “white male workers in auto plants and elsewhere were making pretty high wages with great benefits, but people of color and women were working low-skill jobs that weren’t unionized, and so they were excluded from New Deal protections. The market for their labor was highly informal, contingent, and marked by all sorts of racial and gender inequalities. That remains true about a lot of work being performed today. This informal sector has in fact become the larger part of the economy. The platform economy contributes to that, and has the potential to push it in a good direction in some places.”

If you are a low-wage worker, you’ve been told for a very long time by most of the world that you’re not really valuable, your work isn’t valuable, and that you’re not contributing much to society. When workers decide to organize and are able to win some kind of a victory, they realize that if they work collectively, they have power. It’s a dramatic transformation.

Imagine, Rogers suggests, that services like home health care, child care, tutoring, and landscaping – all typically performed by low-income women and people of color – were available via an app like Uber. “Let’s say someone sets up a platform and that platform is the employer,” he begins. “The platform takes out the taxes, purchases a group health insurance plan, sets up a 401k. Whether the workers organize themselves or the platform is owned by some enterprise, now the workers have more protection. And the fact that it’s a potentially national scale company or cooperative that’s going to do that makes it economically feasible in a way that it has not been in prior generations. As a result, markets that are very informal can acquire a degree of formality that’s actually very helpful to both workers and consumers.”

That’s a good outcome, in Rogers’ opinion, and one for which he advocates in his writing. The alternative, he says, is that the familiar pattern of inequality and exploitation simply unfolds in a new and innovative setting. Quoting his former boss at the SEIU, Rogers sums it up neatly: “Change is inevitable,” he says, “but progress is optional.”



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