Opinion | Civil Rights

Big labor efforts threaten choices and freedoms for working women

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

One year into the pandemic, the hardship felt by service industry workers reveals the economic disparities in our labor force. Increased vaccination efforts and warmer weather months bring great promise for workers. But efforts by organized labor to boost its power could hinder that growth. We need opportunities, especially flexible work, that put women and workers in full control of their time and earnings instead of union bosses.

The coronavirus significantly erased gains made by women in the labor force. More than two million women dropped out of the economy since the start of the pandemic, including over one million mothers. Women have suffered some of the heaviest losses amid the downturn and made up 80 percent of Americans who left the labor force in January.

There are two unsurprising reasons for these occurrences. First, women tend to be concentrated in the leisure and hospitality industry, where jobs took a nosedive thanks to pandemic closures. The lockdowns and severe restrictions upon dining and travel eliminated millions of jobs and forced hundreds of thousands of small businesses to shut down. Second, women shouldered more of the caregiving duties, especially related to school and daycare closures. Many were not lucky enough to avoid such disruptions to their employment by being able to transition to remote work.

As devastating as this was, it could have been worse had it not been for flexible opportunities, notably in the gig economy. These jobs let women earn a living around caregiving and household duties. InstaCart, UberEats, DoorDash, and Amazon launched hiring initiatives early in the pandemic which drew many women to join their ranks. Seven out of ten InstaCart shoppers are women, around half of UberEats and DoorDash drivers are women, and nearly half of Amazon workers identify as women.

Flexible work was of utmost importance to women working in the gig economy even before the pandemic. A majority of women prefer to be independent contractors rather than employees of the firms that pay for their services. This is very different from the narrative that labor leaders, activist groups, lawmakers, and journalists are pushing. Some have even characterized major technology companies like Amazon as "plantations" run by "slave drivers" who seek to take advantage of workers.

Nothing stirs the emotions of Americans more than slavery analogies, no matter how wrong and inappropriate it is to do. Opponents also describe independent contracting in the gig economy as harmful to workers, but there is nothing more favorable to workers than being in control of their own schedules and decisions. Independent contracting is an alternative to the traditional employer model. Gig economy opponents uphold the outdated system as the best option for workers because, among other things, traditional employees can more easily form unions.

Moreover, freelancing is a wildly popular preference for nearly 60 million Americans, almost half of whom are women. Around half of freelancers have special circumstances, like health issues or caregiving duties, that prevent them from working in traditional jobs. Independent contractors understand that they forgo benefits and wage guarantees that employees enjoy such as overtime and paid leave. Yet they choose to be independent contractors for a whole variety of other individual reasons.

Lawmakers should not take that choice away by changing our labor laws. Congress should certainly not be in the business of choosing winners and losers in working classifications by placing employees above independent contractors or union members above other workers. But that is what the Pro Act would do. The bill aims to bolster organized labor, which has seen numbers of members decline among private sector workers.

The bill would lead to independent contractors losing income and flexible opportunities as many did when California had passed similar legislation. Millions of workers prefer to negotiate the best compensation package for their individual needs directly with their employers. At the same time, new technology is delivering flexible employment opportunities that also meet the special circumstances of women and many other workers.

Unions and activists view these trends as threats, so they are pushing the Pro Act and corporate organizing drives such as the recent vote to make an Amazon warehouse in Alabama the first in the nation to form a union. Not every woman wants to or can hold down a traditional job. There may also be reasons that a woman chooses not to join a union. Women want freedom and choices in employment. Drawing them back into the labor force can fuel a strong recovery, but that will depend on smart policies and more opportunities, not the ideas of unions and activists.

Patrice Onwuka is director of the Center for Economic Opportunity at the Independent Womens Forum. You can follow her online @PatricePinkFile.