Working Papers

Labor Platforms and Gig Work

The Failure to Regulate


Since 2012, the platform economy has received much academic, popular, and regulatory attention, reflecting its extraordinary rate of growth. This paper provides a conceptual and theoretical overview of rapidly growing labor platforms, focusing on how they represent both continuity and change in the world of work and its regulation. We first lay out the logic of different types of labor platforms and situate them within the decline of labor protections and the rise of intermediated employment relations since the 1970s. We then focus on one type of labor platform—the on-demand platform—and analyze the new questions and problems for workers and the political problem of labor regulation. To examine the politics of regulating labor on these platforms, we turn to Uber, which is the easiest case for labor regulation due to its high degree of control over work conditions. Because Uber drivers are atomized and ineffective at organizing collectively, their issues are most often represented by surrogate actors—including plaintiffs’ attorneys, alt labor groups, unions, and even Uber itself—whose own interests shape the nature of their advocacy for drivers. The result of this type of politics, dominated by concentrated interests and surrogate actors, has been a permissive approach by regulators in both legislative and judicial venues. If labor regulation has not occurred in this “easy” case, it is unlikely to occur for gig work on other labor platforms.