Uber and Amos: Economic Justice in the Gig Economy | Sojourners

Uber and Amos: Economic Justice in the Gig Economy

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Curbside at the Atlanta airport is a strange place to have a moral crisis, but there I was: I’d just arrived and in town and needed a ride to my final destination. As I exited through the sliding glass door near the ground transportation area, on my right was the taxi stand. In my left hand was my iPhone open to the Uber app, which told me the nearest Uber car was just four minutes away.

Taxi or Uber? It’s a question with moral implications that extend far beyond what kind of car you choose.

In a very short period of time, Uber has radically changed the way people use car services. Individuals can register with Uber and drive their own cars to transport passengers. It offers drivers a supplement to their income. As a rider, using the app is simple and fun to use — with Uber, it’s much easier to find a ride, and it’s often much cheaper than using a taxi, whose rates are regulated by local municipal standards.

Uber is incredibly popular and convenient. But there has been much debate around Uber — most recently surrounding its exit from Austin, Texas — mostly focusing on how drivers may be poorly compensated for their labor. This is seen by some as a dangerous continuation of the erosion of the labor market since the Great Recession.

My grandfather was a taxi driver. Many of my favorite childhood memories were of riding around in my grandfather’s car. His name painted on the door conferred a certain dignity, and regulated rates brought him a reasonable wage. As people rushed by me, I debated whether to honor my grandfather’s legacy or call an Uber.


Uber and other peer-to-peer services like AirBNB are part of a rapid acceleration of what many call “the gig economy,” where people cobble together a living through part-time or freelance work —“gigs.” As we well know, the days of working with the same company for one’s whole career is past. What we have been slow to recognize is that for many today, it is hard to find consistent, full-time employment at all, as more and more employers don’t want to make long-term commitments or pay full benefits to their workers.

And it’s becoming increasingly common. As Boston Globe reports,

According to a 2014 study commissioned by the Freelancers Union, 53 million Americans are independent workers, about 34 percent of the total workforce. A study from Intuit predicts that by 2020, 40 percent of US workers will fall into this category.

Younger workers trying to break into the job market are among those most affected. Writer Catherine Baab-Muguira has referred to Millenials as “Generation 1099” — meaning they get a 1099 rather than a W-2 for a regular salary.

“Millennials are obsessed with side hustles because they’re all we’ve got,” she writes.

“What happens when a generation raised with a ‘you can be whatever you want to be’ ethos meets the worst job market in years? In which many of the traditional dream careers–from working in the arts to becoming a lawyer–go from being long shots to being totally untenable, or more or less cease to exist altogether?”

While a “gig economy” in which people create their own paths has a certain romanticism to it, and does afford certain new opportunities, it leaves many workers vulnerable, insecure, and stressed. American workers are industrious and productive. But even so, many are falling farther and farther behind.

The manager in Jesus’ parable found in Luke 16 could sympathize with those making their way in today’s economy.

Like many, the manager finds himself on the verge of being laid off — in this case, squandering his rich boss’ property. He knows it’s coming, so before the HR department fills out all the requisite paperwork and he is locked out of his office and escorted from the building, he hurriedly makes amends with his boss’ clients, so that when he moves on and looks for another job they will be inclined to help him. It’s the first-century equivalent of freshening up his LinkedIn account and sending emails with copies of his CV to his networks of colleagues and friends.

For Amos, “socioeconomic reorganization without compassion is not acceptable.” Nearly 3,000 years later in today’s gig economy, the same must be true for us.

Although he is fired, and unilaterally writes down the debts of his boss’ clients, he is surprisingly praised for his shrewdness. The moral of the story seems rather ambiguous, but it seems to fit Jesus’ counsel to his disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt.10:16) — which is what people in today’s labor environment certainly need to be.

Enter Amos. Amos was a prophet who spoke passionately on issues of economic justice. He prophesied in a time, not unlike our own, when the fundamentals of the economy shifted, leading to expanding income inequality, which was leaving people behind.

Amos relentlessly and uncompromisingly addressed “a prosperity that enveloped the royal family and prominent members of society but did not trickle down to the poor,” writes Bruce E. Willoughby in The Anchor Bible Dictionary.

“It is this uneven distribution of wealth … that set the atmosphere for the social crimes that Amos so violently abhorred.”

He outlines some of those crimes in this week’s reading: trampling the needy, bringing ruin on the poor, slavery, exploitation, and unjust business practices. Amos saw that economic exploitation takes many forms. Sometimes it might even appear as a shiny new app.

For Amos, “socioeconomic reorganization without compassion is not acceptable.” Nearly 3,000 years later in today’s gig economy, the same must be true for us.

Standing curbside in Atlanta, I put the phone back in my pocket and hailed a taxi.

This time.

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