Gaming the Gig Economy
Bloomberg Businessweek|April 12, 2021
A group of DoorDash workers are trying to set a minimum rate for deliveries
By Brody Ford

Dave Levy and Nikos Kanelopoulos are trying to beat the algorithm. The two DoorDash drivers— Dashers, as the company calls them—are trying to persuade their peers to turn down the lowest-paying deliveries so the automated system for matching jobs with drivers will respond by raising pay rates. “Every app-based on-demand company’s objective is to constantly shift profits from the driver back to the company,” Levy says. “Our objective is the reverse of that.”

Their main tool is #DeclineNow, a 40,000-person online forum that provides a view into a type of labor activism tailored for the gig economy. While there’s no reliable way to quantify its impact, #DeclineNow’s members say they’ve already increased pay for workers across the country, including in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, where Levy and Kanelopoulos live. But the effort raises difficult questions about the nature of collective action, and there are reasons to doubt whether using a company’s own software systems against it is a strategy that can prove effective for a sustained period of time.

DoorDash Inc. isn’t Levy and Kanelopoulos’s first algorithmic boss. The men met in 2015 while waiting for Uber passengers in their local airport lot. “That’s when the rates were good,” says Kanelopoulos, whose name is still saved as “Nick Uber” in Levy’s phone. But their income from Uber Technologies Inc. dwindled as the company’s app slashed rates, pushing their pay down to barely livable levels. Levy and Kanelopoulos worked for multiple gig economy platforms, experimenting with strategies for squeezing the most income out of them and hosting get-togethers of gig workers at the Wind Creek Casino in Bethlehem, Pa., to compare notes.

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