Tag Archives: Labor

The State of Buffalo’s Creative Gig Economy

7 Sep

Turns out I’m not the special unique snowflake I thought I was. Turns out I’m a  special unique snowflake that looks just like one-third of the US workforce.

When I moved back to Buffalo four plus years ago, I had trouble finding a “real” job. You know, one where I put on a shirt and tie everyday and went to the same office and did the same thing and derived the majority of the family income from one employer and got health insurance and a retirement plan. A job where I worked 60 hours a week for one organization and structured my life around that schedule. A job that looked a lot like the military career I was leaving, at least as far as pay, healthcare, vacation, advancement opportunity and an office with a computer were concerned.

So instead I settled for a tenuous, shadowy unreal job: full time consultant. I made a home office, incorporated for the tax advantages, got a business credit card, and hired myself out to a DC-based defense contractor. Buffalo was my bedroom community, and my “employer” flew me around the country for work. I got irregular paychecks, no health insurance or retirement plan, and had to hire an accountant to make sure I paid correctly into income taxes, social security and unemployment insurance (which, being effectively self-employed, I’d never be able to claim). I worked when the work was available, and vacation meant not only no pay, but the fear that I’d be passed over for the next consulting job.

Over time I’ve added to the income stew. I raft guide on the weekends and am trying to write more, finishing a book and finding magazines that pay. My wife started her own consulting company on the side to pick up extra work and do the statistical research she enjoys. Between the two of us, we have six jobs: one real one (hers) that doesn’t pay well but provides the family health insurance, and five fake ones that provide a mix of personal satisfaction and funding for everything from daycare to date night. All this time my self talk, the little voice of Catholic guilt and inadequacy in my head, has told me that my inability to secure a “real” job is a fundamental failure. All this freelancing is just temporary playing around. My situation, no matter the actual enjoyment I derive out of it, is less desirable than the stability and structure of a “real” job. If I am part of a general statistic, it is the increased unemployment rate among military veterans.

Spot Coffee - how much work is happening here?

Turns out the group I should have tossed myself into is the growing Gig Economy (a clever play on words, referencing both the electronics and temp job slang) as a ronin, now 33% of the American workforce.

For Labor Day, The Atlantic magazine has run a series of stories on the new freelance economy, which they describe this way:

It’s been called the Gig Economy, Freelance Nation, the Rise of the Creative Class, and the e-conomy, with the “e” standing for electronic, entrepreneurial, or perhaps eclectic. Everywhere we look, we can see the U.S. workforce undergoing a massive change. No longer do we work at the same company for 25 years, waiting for the gold watch, expecting the benefits and security that come with full-time employment. We’re no longer simply lawyers, or photographers, or writers. Instead, we’re part-time lawyers-cum- amateur photographers who write on the side.

This idea isn’t new – Richard Florida has been hawking books about his Creative Class for years – but the uncertain economy is bringing the issue to a head. The Atlantic notes that the government doesn’t even collect statistics about this nebulous world of freelancing. We may be caught in a cycle where companies are waiting for certain business stats (unemployment rate, etc) to improve before they invest their piles of cash, but the economy has so fundamentally changed, and the government statisticians are so far behind, that they might as well be waiting for Godot. Higher old-fashioned unemployment rates in urban areas becomes a reflection of the size of the freelance culture, while low rates in the Great Plains simply means everyone is still stuck in a “real” job.

The Atlantic rightly notes that the labor laws of our country are based in a New Deal vision of the workforce, and the protections it delivers workers (unionization, limited workweek, healthcare, vacation, etc) mean little in a freelance world. Particularly galling is the recent uninspired Healthcare Reform legislation that doubles down on propping up insurance companies and the employer based system of providing care. The limited healthcare Co-Ops, slow to be implemented and unknown to most, barely scratch the surface of the necessary reforms. In time, President Obama’s compromised initiative may well look a lot like France’s pre-World War II investment in the Maginot Line: hopelessly and embarrassingly archaic, a failure of vision.

Closer to home, Buffalo has never fared well on comparative Creative Class rankings, and its worth asking if we collectively even want to. Our energies are still directed at attracting and retaining companies with traditional jobs (like most of the rest of the country, to be fair) in sectors of the economy not conducive to freelancing: specialized manufacturing, cross-border logistics, food processing. But like much else in Buffalo, there is organic timely change happening at the fringe, outside of the official channel – Accidental Success as I have called it. The Main Washington Exchange is attracting start ups and freelancers. Kissling Interests made a splash converting the old casket company into live-work lofts in Allentown, though one better be a successful freelancer to afford the rent. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, our dark horse in plain view, has opened the Innovation Center adjacent to the old Trico plant to attract fledgling bio-research companies. These “companies” tend to be individual scientists looking for lab space, freelancers in all but name in their chosen field.

The idea of a small business incubator is well known. What would a freelance incubator look like? Something beyond free wi-fi and strong brew at the downtown coffee shops? Is the MWE the answer? Do we need ten more? Or is the whole question anachronistic itself, and the answer already exists online, a virtual community that gets freelance tips from robo Twitter accounts?

American Axle Profits Double, So it Closes its Cheektowaga Plant

19 Aug

As American Axle closes its Cheektowaga plant, ending its dalliance with western New York, consider the UAW’s point: 

Negotiations broke down on July 31st when UAW Local 846 Members voted 98% in favor of rejecting what American Axle said was its “last best and final proposal,” UAW Representatives said.  During contract talks, American Axle demanded more money and benefits from its Workers, UAW Officials added.  Union Workers have already taken concessions, but were willing to negotiate a contract that helps keep jobs in the local community.  Meanwhile, in late July, American Axle released figures showing that its profits soared to $47.9 million from $25.3 million a year ago.

“This is an indication that Hard-Working People are sick of constantly helping companies through concessions and back to profitability and companies refusing to share in that,” said UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, who directs the Union’s American Axle Department.  “Here’s a business that started out as an American Company providing good-paying jobs to six-thousand employees.  As a result of the hard work of these employees, it has grown to an international company with thirty-two factories worldwide.  All of this success was achieved off the backs of the original six-thousand Hard-Working Americans.”

The numbers show that, even in a crappy economy, even with the labor costs currently extant in Cheektowaga, the company was making money, improving its standing thanks in part to concessions labor made in its last round of contract negotiations.

Those workers took concessions, and worked hard day in and day out for that company, helping it almost double its profits.  In doing so, they asked for a living wage, and that the company reward them for their earlier concessions and increased productivity. No luck.

The trend now is for management to demand more work for less pay from labor, and then shipping jobs to China or Mexico when labor’s had enough. This has to stop.