This article explores how Rideshare Drivers United (RDU), a fledgling union of app‐based drivers in California, works in dialectical relationship to processes of surveillance capitalism. First, the article gives a brief history of RDU's organizing strategy in the lead‐up to two strikes in the spring of 2019. RDU capitalized on social media's advertising platforms, as well as on a purpose‐built app called Solidarity, to bring together a disparate workforce. Next, drawing on Vincent Mosco's framework for the political economy of communication, the article describes how this strategy emerged in response to, and intervened in, the processes of commodification, spatialization, and structuration that constitute surveillance capitalism. Interviews with Los Angeles– and San Diego–area driver‐organizers suggest that this use of digital tools has become a mundane feature of the contemporary labor and social life. The refusal to fetishize platforms opens space for app‐based workers to challenge surveillance capitalism's logics through platform organizing.
Over the last decades, financialization, the military-industrial complex, and the sales effort have all necessitated new forms of data collection to absorb the surplus produced by monopoly capitalism (Foster and McChesney 2014). In this context, surveillance capitalism has emerged as a new “logic of accumulation in which surveillance is a foundational mechanism in the transformation of investment into profit” (Zuboff 2018: 53). While Zuboff (2018) emphasizes the crucial role advertising platforms Google and Facebook have played in instantiating this logic within the broader political economy, gig economy platforms, such as Uber and Lyft, have extended it into the service sector.
But the forces of surveillance capitalism, much like the forces of capitalism more generally, are not static or ossified. Platform organizing operates within surveillance capitalism's contradictions, challenging its structure by building worker power. While a larger techlash speaks to growing discontent with the role Silicon Valley plays in our economy, our politics, and our everyday lives, high- skill tech workers and app-based service workers alike also use platforms—both “mainstream platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Slack,” as well as “purpose-built, worker-to-worker communication channels developed by labour activists for labour movements”—to disrupt these processes and build democratic organizations (Brophy and Grayer 2021: 213).
As a case study in platform organizing, I explore how Rideshare Drivers United (RDU), a fledgling union of app-based drivers in California, works in conjunction with these dialectical processes. First, I give a brief history of RDU's organizing strategy in the lead-up to two strikes in Spring 2019. RDU capitalized on social media's advertising platforms, as well as on a purpose-built app called Solidarity, to bring together a disparate workforce. Next, drawing on Vincent Mosco's (2009) framework for the political economy of communication, I show how this strategy emerged in response to, and intervened in, the processes of commodification, spatialization, and structuration that constitute surveillance capitalism. Interviews with driver-organizers suggest that this use of digital tools has become a mundane feature of the contemporary labor and social life. This refusal to fetishize platforms opens space for app-based workers to challenge surveillance capitalism's logics through platform organizing.
CBPR and RDU
This article draws on four years of community-based participatory research (CBPR), during which I not only observed but also helped develop and execute RDU's organizing strategies. CBPR is informed by Marxist, feminist, and communitarian commitments that break from traditional notions of scientific objectivity that separate the researcher from their subjects (Leavy 2017: 237). Working in partnership with RDU, I serve as a nonvoting member on their Los Angeles organizing committee and leverage resources available to me to help serve the organization's needs, and I bring my experiences as an organizer and a scholar of media and US labor history to bear. As a former officer within my own unions, a former staff organizer and researcher at others, and a former part-time app-based driver, I was able to help the organization establish itself in its nascent period, and I continue to offer support where I can. I liken my own role, then, to Gramsci's (1971) “organic intellectual” who actively participates “in practical life, as constructor, organiser, ‘permanent persuader’ and not just a simple orator” (9). As George Lipsitz (1995) notes, organic intellectuals learn “about the world by trying to change it” and change the “world by learning about it from the perspective of the needs and aspirations of their social group” (10).
My involvement with RDU began when I met app developer Ivan Pardo at a small protest of drivers in the San Fernando Valley, holding banners over the 101 Freeway. RDU had emerged one year earlier when a small group of drivers protested their less than minimum-wage pay in Los Angeles. Pardo had heard about those protests through Facebook and began to volunteer with the organization by building technology to send cheap texts to members, allowing the group to build two more protests that year. By integrating a purposely designed app called Solidarity, Pardo helped RDU grow its ranks. During the next year, Pardo promoted RDU through small purchases of Facebook “page boosts.” By October 2018, RDU's membership had grown to a thousand members (Dolber 2019: 9).
At the time, major national and international unions were not committing resources to organizing gig workers, as their classification as independent contractors denied them the right to collective bargaining. This necessitated a grassroots, low-cost approach to begin to build app-based worker organizations. With the support of grants from the MIC Center at the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University, and my home institution, California State University San Marcos, Pardo and I developed an organizing campaign integrating social media advertising, texting services, app-based communication, and data collection. Between October 2018 and January 2019, RDU spent just over $3,000 on advertisements on Facebook (Dolber 2019: 10). When drivers clicked the Facebook ads, they were taken to the RDU website, where they could become members. New members were invited to schedule calls, encrypted through the Solidarity app, with volunteer organizers, including myself. This helped develop contact between the organization and the membership base while attempting to find people who may make significant contributions to building RDU. Callers took detailed notes on each call in a field within the mobile app and assessed drivers as being disengaged, a supporter, an activist, or a potential core organizer (Dolber 2019: 12). Organizers continued to develop relationships with activists through the app, while new members could send direct messages to the organizer with whom they spoke, maintain contact with RDU, and vote in polls on which issues in the industry were most important to address.
By January 11, 2019, the end date of our organizing experiment, RDU had amassed 2,188 members. At this point, RDU planned an action outside of newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom's office in downtown Los Angeles, held on January 30, and announced its demands in a Drivers’ Bill of Rights. As both Uber and Lyft began slashing wages in the lead-up to their initial public offerings (IPOs), RDU called for a strike against both platforms on March 25, 2019, two days before Lyft's IPO. The action was a prelude to a larger, global strike against Uber's IPO on May 8, which had the support of drivers in thirty cities worldwide. By that point, RDU had grown to nearly five thousand members, largely due to earned media attention and its integration of platforms in the organizing process (Dolber 2019: 16).
RDU has continued to organize drivers. In Fall 2019, its members helped secure the passage of California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), which clarified rules around independent contractor classification to ensure drivers had the same rights as employees in California. Amidst the COVID pandemic and the need for social distancing, RDU continued to engage in platform organizing to build the organization and fight against Proposition 22 on the November 2020 ballot, which exempted the app-based driving and delivery industries. This organizing was enabled in large part by the ways platforms were already central to RDU's organizing processes. Through this ongoing campaign, and as part of a larger global movement of app-based workers, RDU provides a critique of surveillance capitalism's commodification, spatialization, and structuration processes.
Commodification, Dual Value Production, and the 2019 Strikes
While commodification always breeds ideological obstacles to worker organizing, such as alienation and commodity fetishism, these processes compound within surveillance capitalism. Social media, and commercial media more broadly, has been central to the emergence of this commodification process. In his discussion of broadcasting, Dallas Smythe (1977) explained that an “audience commodity” made the purchased advertising time valuable in exchange for the pleasures of programming offered as “free lunch.” Thus, listening to the radio, watching television, or consuming other forms of commercial media all constituted forms of unpaid labor.
Advertisers and media firms require data to determine the exchange value audience labor produces. Thus, Meehan (1984) argues, the central commodity produced by the media system is not audiences themselves but the ratings that measure them. Reflecting the turn toward neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s, such data became increasingly important and valuable as cable networks and specialty magazines targeted audiences more specifically by demographics to ensure that consumer desire would maintain demand for both goods and credit (Jhally and Livant 1986; Gandy 1993; Nadler 2017). By the 1990s, early digital ad networks integrated surveillance technologies systematically into web advertising. After the dot-com bubble burst, this model offered the potential to revitalize the financial sector (Crain 2021: 16). In 2002, Google began to mine behavioral surplus not simply to improve user services but “to read users’ minds for the purposes of matching ads to their interests” (Zuboff 2018: 63). In March 2008, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hired Google executive Sheryl Sandberg to help transform the social networking company into an “advertising behemoth” (92). The emerging advertising duopoly of Facebook and Google was closer than ever to its “holy grail,” the ability “to deliver a particular message to a particular person at just the moment when it might have a high probability of actually influencing his or her behavior” (77–78).
Social media's extensive commodification process, wherein social life comes increasingly under the domain of the market, provided a framework for accumulation in other areas of the economy following the financial crisis (Cohen 2008; Rosenblat 2018: 21–25). Firms such as Uber and Airbnb touted themselves as privatized safety nets for the working class, offering cheap services as well as opportunities for income. With few costs, these “lean platforms” outsource nearly all their assets—workers, fixed capital, maintenance, and training. They control “their most important asset: the platform of software and data analytics,” giving them “a bare extractive minimum—control over the platform which enables a monopoly rent to be gained” (Srnicek 2017: 76). Rather than simply providing rides or food deliveries, then, companies such as Uber engage in “data fracking,” as “Uber's app penetrates deep beneath the surface of everyday life to collect, direct, and leverage valuable flows of data for competitive advantage” (Rhako and Craig 2021: 192).
Lean platforms have offered a strategy for growth in an era of stagnation, providing venture capitalists and multinational firms such as SoftBank with sites of investment. Simultaneously, they reproduce the problems of concentration while outsourcing operating costs and risk to workers (Srnicek 2017). Although Srnicek (2017) argues data must be “worked on” before capitalists can extract surplus value (56–57), data are central to the value gig workers produce. Uber, for example, has used $20 billion from investors to subsidize the cost of rides to achieve predatory advantage, offering the promise of autonomous vehicles, made possible by data collected during rides, as a false hope for eventual profitability down the road (Horan 2019; Lawrence 2022). Rides then are loss leaders that allow for the collection of large amounts of data to attract capital investment. App-based workers create value by providing services such as rides or deliveries as well as by producing data that has both use value (enabling platforms to hone the labor process) and speculative value (attracting investment based on the data's potential). Van Doorn and Badger (2020) term this “dual value production.”
Platform customers are not solely passengers but also investors, who speculate on the future value of collected data. Much as Smythe (1977) described the audience commodity as a “blindspot of Western Marxism,” data production remains a blind spot in most discussions of gig labor. Just as “free lunch” content masks the extensive commodification processes central to media industries, and particularly social media, the piece rate wages gig workers earn mask the total value they produce within surveillance capitalism. Thus, drivers tend to understand their exploitation in terms of their low earnings that decline persistently over time and the increasing share the companies take from fares.
Esterphanie, one of the founders of RDU, notes that drivers first began to organize in 2017 when driver earnings became decoupled from the fare. This model of “upfront pricing” depends on data extraction.1 As Uber's webpage explains it, upfront prices are calculated using “many data points . . . including the estimated trip time and distance from origin to destination, as well as demand patterns for that route at that time . . . any applicable tolls, taxes, surcharges, and fees” (Uber, n.d.). While platforms claim this offers transparency, predictive algorithms enable the companies to generate increasing revenue from passengers while keeping drivers on the road for longer durations.
“At that time, Uber said . . . that our relationship with the customer is our business. And we can charge the customer what we want. And you're getting exactly X amount per mile you know, so we can basically do whatever we want,” said Esterphanie. This model allowed Uber and Lyft to engage in a race to the bottom, cutting their rates in the lead-up to their Spring 2019 IPOs. Ben, a driver-organizer, became increasingly angered by the rate cuts. “Every time Uber would drop, Lyft would drop too. . . . It was something that was not manageable at that point anymore, so I pretty much stopped driving for Uber.”2 This culminated in March, when Uber announced in an email to Los Angeles–area drivers that they were to cut mileage rates by 25 percent, from 80 cents to 60 cents per mile.
Following the initial Facebook ad campaign, social media continued to play an important role for drivers to make sense of and respond to the commodification process. On a WhatsApp group, RDU leaders discussed the need to make a statement and generate press coverage. One leader said, “We need a real plan of action that is easy for many to participate in and will be noticed by Uber” (pers. comm., March 11, 2019). Others sent screenshots from simultaneous Facebook discussions using the hashtag #uberstrike (pers. comm., March 11, 2019). Highlighting the ways the labor process is controlled through algorithmic management, one Facebook commenter wrote, “Let's strike!!! Let's not drive in LA tomorrow. Fuck Uber!! Cmon we can do it! Disrupt the algorithm.”
Drivers, though, tend to see their power coming from generating revenue through fares, rather than in producing data for speculation. One driver-organizer wrote on the WhatsApp group, “[The] longer a strike is the more effective it will be. . . . If we really want to make an impact we have to hit them where it hurts and that's their pockets” (pers. comm., March 11, 2019). Within two days of Uber's announced cuts, drivers organized a meeting where they determined to strike on March 25, for 25 hours, to restore the 25 percent pay cut. With millions of app-based drivers worldwide, and with the instantaneous ability to pass costs onto passengers in response to lower labor supply, three thousand drivers in California withholding their labor would have little direct impact on the companies’ bottom lines. However, RDU demonstrated that striking, as part of a broader platform organizing strategy, can still challenge the system of surveillance capitalism, building global networks of workers within a highly concentrated, transnational sector and garnering the attention of policy makers.
Spatialization, Solidarity, and Globalization
RDU has used platform organizing to challenge surveillance capitalism's dominant tendencies toward social atomization at a global scale. While communication and information have long played key roles within capitalism in making and remaking space, today platforms mine data from all corners of the globe at minimal expense. By 2019, more than 3 billion people, or half the world's population, were social media users (Ortiz-Ospina 2019). True to monopoly capitalism's form, a handful of firms based in the United States and China—Meta (which owns Facebook, WhatsApp, FB Messenger, and Instagram); Alphabet/Google (which owns YouTube); ByteDance (which owns TikTok); and Tencent (which owns WeChat) control the most widely used platforms, with more than 1 billion users each. These platforms serve as transnational networks as individuals produce value via mobile technologies while navigating their everyday lives.
The result is neither a homogeneous global culture nor a democratic transnational public sphere but what Prodnik (2012) and others call a “social factory.” This notion extends Smythe's thesis to explain how capitalist production has morphed into the broader social realm. While global communications networks link together sites of production in new, instantaneous ways, social relationships that once emerged within the defined spaces of production under industrial capitalism transform.
Gig platforms further extend these logics. Like social media, rideshare is dominated by a handful of companies around the world, led by the US-based Uber, operating in 85 countries. About 3.5 million drivers work on the platform (Lawrence 2022), dwarfing Walmart's workforce, widely regarded to be the largest private employer on the planet. The behemoth has smaller, regional rivals throughout the world: Lyft in the United States; Bolt and FREE Now in Europe; Ola in India, Australia, and New Zealand; and Via and Gett in Israel, Russia, and the United Kingdom. Following Uber's failed attempt to compete in China, Didi Global cornered the rideshare market there, but Uber owns a significant stake in the company.
These companies use extracted data to shape the labor process and force workers into competition with each other. Algorithmic management fundamentally alters the temporality of work, extending precarity on a moment-to-moment basis (Woodcock and Graham 2020, 38); it also creates a “just-in-place” labor force, ensuring that drivers are always exactly where they need to be to provide services, with a tendency toward sociospatial atomization (Wells, Attoh, and Cullen 2021). This economic activity serves to colonize urban space for low-wage service jobs as well as for knowledge workers (Stevens and Shearmur 2020: 156). As such, cities become defined increasingly by alienation and isolation (Attoh et al. 2019).
Rather than embracing the techno-utopian vision advanced by platforms, RDU leaders see their antisocial tendencies. Daniel, a driver organizer, says,
Technology at its core has changed . . . our ability to connect as people, it has done such a drastic effect on us, that I can't possibly see the salvation in that. . . . Our parents grew up in a generation where it was important to think about others before yourself, and it was rude to think about yourself before others. That doesn't exist anymore, and . . . part of that is social media. . . . We now have the egotistic idea that you are supposed to look out for yourself, because [if] you don't no one else is going to, and that has been spread . . . through the way we use technology and the ways [it's] become ingrained, the way we get satisfaction in our hand.
Holding up his phone, Daniel added, “This isn't a phone, it's a wallet.”3
But as the mass organizing of prior generations emerged out of industrial settings that brought workers together and fostered “cultures of solidarity” (Fantasia 1989), Nicole, a driver-organizer in Los Angeles who was later elected the group's statewide president, told the New York Times in an interview regarding the role of Pardo's app in RDU's organizing, “That is our workplace. It's how we talk to each other” (Scheiber and Conger 2019). Thus, like brick-and-mortar factories, digital modes of production also contain within them contradictions that allow workers to build relationships that might be put toward political use.
In this context, driver-organizers understand platforms as a necessary, but not sufficient, component in the organizing process. One driver-organizer, Tammie Jean, said in an interview I conducted, “We are not all living in a small community village where everybody knows everybody and can walk next door and get a cup of sugar and have a little conversation. [App-based driving] is worldwide. You need that infrastructure which is an app and computers to hold that information and people that maintain that and stuff.”4 Esterphanie had been part of several efforts to challenge Uber and Lyft that were organized through the UberPeople message boards. But she notes that it wasn't until LAX established an official rideshare lot for drivers to wait for fares that sustained relationships could be built. “LAX produced the environment where we were able to meet, connect, and share notes, you know, like what your trip was like, what's your experience?” said Esterphanie. In building these relationships, drivers came to understand that the companies were taking greater percentages of the fares. “That was a real water cooler moment.”
The Facebook advertising campaign helped bring together an organizing committee of 12 drivers who met weekly at a Los Angeles union office (Dolber 2019). Ongoing discussion on a WhatsApp group established in January 2019 augmented the in-person relationships that developed there. RDU chose WhatsApp because it was used among many immigrant drivers, as a preferred platform internationally for messaging, and for its functional ease in communicating among large groups. Further, two leaders among Mandarin-speaking drivers served on the committee while keeping in touch with hundreds of others through the Chinese app WeChat. Some driver-organizers who were active on Twitter used that platform to connect to labor movement allies, journalists, and politicians, helping increase RDU's visibility and generate broader support.
Workers communicated over these platforms to organize the strike in just two weeks following Uber's announced rate cut. Earned media attention, in turn, helped build RDU's network as more drivers learned about the organization, joined, and scheduled calls with volunteer organizers. News articles from local, national, and international outlets be circulated on RDU's Facebook page, on Twitter, and through other platforms. By May, the organization's ranks swelled to over four thousand. One driver who was recruited at this time, Alvaro, had been making videos and developing a large Facebook group to communicate with drivers and begin organizing. But it was the in-person meetings that made RDU different and more inspiring. “I went there and I went in and loved it because everybody were drivers there. I really loved that,” said Alvaro.5
The March 25 strike drew national and global attention to RDU. Pardo began helping driver organizations build their own groups using the Solidarity app, making Los Angeles a central node in a network of emerging driver organizations, paving the way for the global strike on May 8. The Solidarity app and social media platforms helped build RDU as a state-wide organization that has now grown to twenty thousand drivers with chapters in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. Further, RDU is a founding affiliate of the International Alliance of App-Based Transport Workers (IAATW), which held its first conference in January 2020 in Oxford, UK.
By building international linkages, drivers globalize resistance to transnational platforms. Tina, a driver-organizer in the San Diego area, was one of several RDU members to attend the Oxford conference. As she explained, the meeting allowed drivers from across the world to share their stories, which vary based on national context, and engage in “empathetic listening.” “The hope is to build this coalition to unite isolated drivers, no matter what country they're in or language they speak, to have driver-to-driver education,” explained Tina. “As that grows, our power to make demands becomes more of a reality.”6
Structuration, Ideology, and the State
The state has long played a central role in structuring worker identity, privileging of the standard employment relationship that had been solidified in the twentieth-century global North (Woodcock and Graham 2020, 12). Smythe's audience commodity thesis implicitly calls the standard employment relationship into question, highlighting forms of production that occur at its margins. Rather than seeing media audiences as labor, the Keynesian state framed policies aimed at protecting them in terms of the public interest or consumer rights. Still, these protections were walked back during the neoliberal era throughout the world and particularly in the United States (McChesney 2008). Social media's emergence during the post-9/11 war on terror and Web 2.0 boosterism fueling new rounds of investment helped ensure that few regulations would inhibit data extraction under surveillance capitalism (Crain 2021: 133, 140–44).
While data production remains illegible as labor to state institutions, techno-utopianism enables gig platforms to misclassify app-based service workers as independent contractors. App-based companies invoke the promises of the “Californian ideology,” arguing that digital technology affords their workforce flexibility so they might “be their own boss,” while circumventing minimum wage laws and other protections, including the right to bargain collectively for improved pay and conditions. Thus, app-based drivers are structured through law and through ideology into entrepreneurial subjects rather than workers.
Tyler, a driver-organizer, believes this ideology has power particularly in the United States because it resonates with larger cultural values. “Americans do not like to feel like there's somebody above them telling them what to do and being able to start your car anytime you want. Go out there and you're making money, and even though it's an illusion, this idea that . . . how much money you're going to make today is off of your own grit and smarts,” he said.7 But rather than seeing the technology as a liberating force, Tyler understands it as a form of worker control. “[That's] all kind of not real because . . . you have an algorithm above you that's controlling all of those things. The illusion is really, really striking to something that I think is core to a lot of people.”
For some drivers, the experience of driving exposes this illusion. Alvaro, who had been a booster for Lyft before seeing the company's flaws, explained,
Back in the days I would call myself my own boss, because I was making enough money to buy my own medical, to pay for all my expenses, everything, because it was profitable. . . . And I was like, I don't want to work for nobody else. I saved my money, I would open up my own business . . . so I don't have to listen to no one. . . . But . . . right now . . . Uber is sixty cents per mile, and Lyft I think it's eighty cents per mile. At these prices we're not our own boss. We're not because there's no—we don't even, we're not even making minimum wage. This is the bad part. You know?8
Thus, the commodification process spurred more and more drivers to act collectively as workers, rather than as independent contractors, culminating in the spring 2019 strikes. As RDU's network grew across the state, the country, and the globe, app-based drivers earned the attention of lawmakers. Just two days following the March 25 strike, I accompanied a group of RDU driver-organizers to the California state capital in Sacramento, where aides to Governor Newsom and state legislators agreed to meet with us. Through these meetings, RDU became committed to supporting AB5. While many drivers eschewed the notion of being an employee, they saw that correcting misclassification was a path toward having a voice on the job.
Alvaro says he has been able to help drivers reconceptualize their identity as workers and build support for AB5 to end misclassification through his thirteen-thousand-member Facebook group. “I would say like 90% of them were pro-AB5 because I spent so much time educating drivers.” Alvaro went to Sacramento repeatedly. “I went there four times,” said Alvaro. “All those [assembly] people, you know, that they make AB5 possible, I knock on their . . . doors and I would talk to them in person and I would tell them how important was for them to pass AB5. They passed AB5.”9 While app-based companies responded by spending $250 million for an exemption to the law through Proposition 22, RDU demonstrated that collective action through platform organizing provides an avenue for workers to restructure surveillance capitalism.
Since the passage of Proposition 22, RDU has used its digital infrastructure to use the state to push back on the law. While it was overturned by an Alameda County court, the platforms have appealed. As drivers await a decision from the California Supreme Court, RDU has offered support to drivers in other states, such as Massachusetts, where the platform companies have sought to pass similar legislation. They also used platform organizing to file over $1 billion in wage claims with the California labor board and won rulings with the state Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which typically only covers classified employees. In July 2021, RDU coordinated another nationwide strike in support of the PRO Act, federal legislation that would have granted misclassified workers collective bargaining rights. Perhaps most significant, RDU members filed an antitrust suit alleging price fixing against Uber and Lyft in June 2022, thus calling the monopoly structure of surveillance capitalism into question. All of this has taken place in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where platforms have become indispensable to maintaining relationships among drivers and organizations.
Driver organizations in other national contexts have taken this a step further, making data collection itself a political fight. The App-Based Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU) in the United Kingdom, for example, won the rights to their data in the Amsterdam District Court under the European Union's General Data Protection Regulations. While European regulations and institutions give workers more leeway in these areas, RDU's efforts suggest the possibility for workers elsewhere to advocate for systems that limit surveillance capitalism's reach.
The gig economy has drawn on modes of commodification that originated on social media platforms and applied them to the low-wage service sector. Rather than seeing platforms as inherently liberatory and democratizing forces, app-based workers—whose unglamorous work lives are mediated through their devices—implicitly understand surveillance capitalism's dialectical nature as struggle and resistance happen in digital contexts. While social media has been central to movements for the last decade, reflected in their hashtagged names, such as #Occupy, #BlackLivesMatter, and #MeToo, interventions among app-based workers are distinct, because their experience through digital technology is more clearly one of exploitation, even as the commodification of data remains abstracted.
At the intersection of a larger techlash and a wave of worker organizing in the United States, RDU demonstrates that app-based workers can collectively disrupt surveillance capitalism's commodification process through platform organizing. Although these disruptions do not completely shut down production, they can help build alliances of workers across disparate geographic locations and garner the attention to the state. In the process, app-based workers come to reject the individualized, entrepreneurial subjectivities encouraged by surveillance capitalist platforms and come to see themselves not just as workers but as political actors within a global economic system. While different national contexts offer varying points of intervention, app-based workers have the possibility to assert their identity as workers and garner acknowledgment as such from the state.
While some major unions around the world have worked to strike deals with platform companies, locking workers into second-tier classifications (Dolber 2022), RDU and other similar groups of self-organized app-based workers show how platform organizing can empower workers under surveillance capitalism who fall outside of the standard labor relationship. By centering their own struggles and personal relationships as central to their political fights, rather than the digital tools they use, app-based workers challenge the techno-utopianism that justifies the system of surveillance capitalism. Thus, platform organizing among app-based workers may be essential to building democratic worker movements and to democratizing the global political economy in the twenty-first century.
The author thanks Rideshare Drivers United and all members who participated in interviews, Mark Dunn for assistance with all interviews, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
Esterphanie, interview by author and Mark Dunn, Los Angeles, California, via Zoom, January 21, 2021.
Ben, interview by author and Mark Dunn, Los Angeles, California, via Zoom, January 14, 2021.
Daniel, interview by author and Mark Dunn, Ontario, California, via Zoom, January 18, 2021.
Tammie Jean, interview by author and Mark Dunn, Rancho Mirage, California, via Zoom, January 11, 2021.
Alvaro, interview by author and Mark Dunn, Los Angeles, California, via Zoom, January 13, 2021.
Tina, interview by Mark Dunn, Ithaca, New York, via Zoom, April 27, 2021.
Tyler, interview by author and Mark Dunn, Los Angeles, via Zoom, January 14, 2021.
Alvaro, interview by author and Mark Dunn.
Alvaro, interview by author and Mark Dunn.