Dubal, Veena. "Essentially Dispossessed." South Atlantic Quarterly 121, no. 2 (2022): 285-296.
9 Pages Posted: 13 May 2022 Last revised: 12 Jul 2022
Date Written: April 21, 2022
As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged human bodies and economies across the world, millions of app-deployed drivers in the United States— primarily immigrants and subordinated racial minorities—faced a dangerous and perplexing paradox created by law. This paradox—their simultaneous treatment as independent contractors, excluded from economic security, and their newly anointed legal status as “essential workers”— rhetorically celebrated their labor while disproportionately exposing them not just to poverty, but to disease and death. How did this become possible? How are we to make sense of this legal contradiction and the antagonistic terms of the law in the lives of workers during this moment of extreme crisis? And how did these workers, laboring without economic rights in the wealthiest nation in the world, respond to the resultant forms of structural violence in their lives?
This essay tries to make sense of the legal and lived condition of being essentially dispossessed during this moment. I argue that this cruel contradiction became possible not through the machinations of a callous state or the thick-skinned indifference of government officials but rather, in significant part, through a mystification generated by the fragmented nature of work law. Together with obscuring narratives of innovation and techno-modernism, seven years of uneven, arbitrary legal outcomes made the central legal question (are they employees or independent contractors?) appear unresolvable. This mystification regularized the dispossession of millions of low- income immigrant and racial minority workers, even amid the proliferation of a deadly disease to which they were acutely vulnerable by occupation.1 Activist-drivers, in turn, confronted their relegation to being essentially dis- possessed by using their situated knowledges (Haraway 1988) about their jobs, work law, and emerging bureaucratic processes to demand economic security through legalized direct actions. Rideshare Drivers United (RDU)—a group of self-organizing Uber and Lyft drivers whom I studied—devised means to collectively deluge the state with individual appeals for unemployment insurance, forcing attention to their paradox. Remarkably, these ride-hail workers leveraged the disappointing arbitrary outcomes of their legal claims and the resultant forms of persistent structural violence in their lives to grow solidaristic struggle.
Keywords: dispossession, gig work, unemployment insurance, law and political economy, occupational health
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