While the ‘gig economy’ was originally pitched as a way to boost pay and flexibility for workers, it has long been criticized as a method for companies to replace full-time workers with underpaid, overworked contractors who have fewer labor protections. And it’s not just rideshare drivers and delivery workers feeling the impact—the gig model is spreading to other industries. Right now, for instance, workers at the Hudson immigration law firm say their employer is using the gig economy model to undermine their union drive and become the first law firm to operate entirely on a contractor-based employment model.
“I’ve long worried that the exploitative practices of Uber would spread to other industries, and we see exactly that happening at Hudson Legal,” professor Veena Dubal, a leading scholar of the gig economy, told the Real News. “The decision to move to using independent contractors, instead of full-time employees, should be understood as an attack on labor rights. Not only does this bring precarity into a stable workforce, it also is a not-so-subtle restructuring to avoid having to deal with organized labor and a future union.”
In this interview for the TRNN podcast, Jaisal Noor speaks with two workers currently employed by Hudson about the company’s working conditions and union-busting efforts, as well as the ongoing organizing campaign by workers. Out of fear of reprisal from Hudson, these employees spoke with TRNN under the condition of anonymity, and their names and voices have been disguised.
Jaisal Noor: This is The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. From the beginning, the gig economy was pitched as a way for workers to “Be their own boss, to disrupt traditional business models, and to have the freedom and flexibility to do the work they want, when they want, and make good money in the process.” But soon after Uber’s much hyped launch a decade ago, critics warned the gig economy was failing to deliver on its promises. And, instead of empowering workers, gig work created massive windfalls for investors and CEOs while robbing employees of workplace protections and living wages.
Now, workers at one of the nation’s largest immigration law firms say their bosses are using the gig economy to suppress their union drive. Gig workers are considered independent contractors, not employees, and often don’t have the right to organize. Workers at Hudson, a law firm specializing in employment-based immigration, say managers have also used traditional union busting tactics: Retaliating against employees who are unionizing, including firing two workers.
Veena Dubal, professor of law at the University of California Hastings, a leading scholar of the gig economy, told The Real News, “I’ve long worried that the exploitative practices of Uber would spread to other industries. And we see exactly that happening at Hudson legal. The decision to move to using independent contractors instead of full-time employees should be understood as an attack on labor rights. Not only does this bring precarity into a stable workforce, it is also a not-so-subtle restructuring to avoid having to deal with organized labor and a future union.”
Well, we’re now joined by two workers who are leading the union drive, which seeks to join the United Electrical Workers, and are speaking to us under the condition we protect their identities, because they could face retaliation for speaking to the media. We’ll call them Jane Doe and John Doe. Thank you both for joining us.
Jane Doe: Thank you for having us.
John Doe: Thank you for having us.
Jaisal Noor: So over the past year, we’ve not only seen a wave of union drives and strikes from workers who are working under unsafe working conditions under the pandemic, especially in workplaces that haven’t previously been unionized, but we’ve also seen workers quit en mass from jobs that lack decent pay and working conditions. Can you talk about what led you to seek to join a union, and why you feel the need to speak out anonymously?
Jane Doe: Sure. Well, first, we would like to make clear that we are not speaking on behalf of Hudson Legal. But, during the pandemic and even before the pandemic, it was clear that our working conditions were far from ideal. Our union efforts actually started right as the world shut down with the pandemic. And ever since our offices closed, we saw that our management tried to get us to return to the office, or they wouldn’t extend temporary work from home. They even brought in some workers to their Ann Arbor office for packaging and some filing and forms and reception. But, our understanding is that management did not make any safety precautions as clear as they should have been. And so we–
Jaisal Noor: What do you mean by that? Yeah, can you explain that?
Jane Doe: Oh yeah, sure. While initially all of our offices were shut down, but I believe that the Ann Arbor office had two weeks to kind of figure out safety protocols. And it is my understanding that the workers who were being called back into the office after those two weeks were the ones who did the majority of figuring those out, because HR and management didn’t provide clear guidelines on how social distancing would work or what would happen if there was potential exposure by one employee and how they would communicate that with the rest of the in-person office. And so it felt like during the first few months of the pandemic, there were two different worlds at Hudson: One was in-person, trying to navigate in-person work during the pandemic, and then the remote workers, which were mostly writers and attorneys and team leads and assistants, who were never given the assurance that we would be working from home throughout the duration of the pandemic. It was always at the last minute, our work from home would be extended.
John Doe: And I want to add, there was also a third world, because as far as we know, the company’s owners went to Taiwan, which had a drastically different pandemic response than the US. So, far fewer people have died from COVID in Taiwan than even just Pennsylvania, where just one of our offices is. And so, the owners were hiding out in a much safer place at the same time that they were trying to force us back into the office.
Jane Doe: Oh, and I should also add, they also, management, came up with the work from home benefits program, which was for writers. And this program, this benefit, would give you indefinite work from home, as long as you took on one additional project every week. And so that would ensure that you wouldn’t have to return to the office when the offices reopened. So—
John Doe: Yeah. And that’s like a 40% workload increase.
Jane Doe: Yes.
John Doe: Because normally we do five projects every two weeks, so.
Jaisal Noor: So they’re trying to leverage work from home to extract more labor from you.
Jane Doe: Exactly.
Jaisal Noor: So, going back to my question. So, what made you want to fight to make this a better workplace? We’ve seen a lot of workers just walk off the job and quit under duress, essentially, from employers.
John Doe: So, this could be a really good job. Legal services jobs are often very good. Other members of our union have worked in legal services, and even in immigration law, and spoken very highly of their experiences. And this is a job where we very much do get to help our communities and help the country. A lot of the clients who retain our firm are oncologists, cardiologists, neurosurgeons, engineers. These are people who come to the US and make contributions that are very positive for those around us. So that’s not something that I personally think is worth giving up, but I also don’t think it’s a situation where we should be… In order to help people want to live in the country and contribute to it, we should be having these insane productivity and low wages, stuff like that.
Jaisal Noor: And can you talk about why you’re speaking out anonymously?
Jane Doe: Yes. We are speaking out anonymously out of precautions for retaliation, because throughout our experience organizing, members of our union have been retaliated against in various ways, including being fired. Others have had their ADA accommodations stripped away from them.
Jaisal Noor: Wait a second, could you explain their disability accommodations stripped away from them?
Jane Doe: Yeah. Their management found out that they were union supporters and they were… Management has gotten into the practice of looking at everyone’s workloads and seeing what kind of messages they send, or what their deadlines are, or how they prepare their documents. So then, they pull the writer and their team lead into these little group Gchats that have the two owners, a couple members of HR, and then this mysterious talent acquisition specialist who we believe is kind of behind the automation of project assigning and the Talentopia end of the company. And just essentially look at the person’s workloads and saying this isn’t acceptable and so we’re taking this away despite the fact that they’re saying, oh, well I talked to so and so, or this person up the company chain, and they said that my accommodation was fine. But that wasn’t necessarily believed right away. And so for the time being, for that moment in time, they had their accommodations removed.
John Doe: And I’m aware of at least two instances in which this has happened, where it’s been in direct proximity to the person engaging in union activity. So they do something that’s overtly pro-union, and one or two hours later the CEO is messing with their accommodations that have been in place for six months, a year, two years, however long they’ve worked here, essentially.
Jaisal Noor: And there’s also two workers that were fired. Can you talk about what happened to them? And then also I understand the workers have responded in solidarity with those workers that were fired.
John Doe: Yeah. So, arbitrary firings have been a problem at the company for quite a while. This is a 200 person company. Maybe more, we’re not entirely sure, but it’s weird for a company of this size to have the CEO directly involved in day to day affairs of the lowest level employees. But a couple months ago, I think in August, one of our coworkers, Sarah Bell, was fired for literally no reason. I’m not sure if Jane remembers the stated reason, but it was not a fireable offense or even a disciplinary offense, really. And she was let go on the spot with no explanation offered.
One of the managers who’s traditionally played a role of kind of talking Claire Chen, who’s the CEO, down from her less rational decisions, intervened and said Sarah is a really good employee, we can’t really afford to lose her, especially while we’re short staffed, and he was also fired on the spot. So, a couple days later we held a walkout in solidarity with Sarah and Ted. We walked off the job for two hours, and we are still demanding that Sarah and Ted be reinstated if they want to be. We have not heard anything back from management, but their firings were clearly not just unjust, but we believe that, at least in Sarah’s case, illegal. Ted was not protected by worker protections, but Sarah definitely was, and we believe that this firing would not have happened if she had not been a union supporter.
Jaisal Noor: Jane, you mentioned Talentopia. A lot of people aren’t going to be familiar with what Talentopia is. So, talk about what it is, and in the context of your employer shifting to this gig economy and what impact that has when you’re doing the kind of work you’re doing, critical legal services for immigrants seeking to immigrate here.
Jane Doe: Yeah, sure. First, you should understand, what is Hudson Legal? So, Hudson Legal is kind of the top company of all of this web of companies. And so, Hudson Legal, to the best of my understanding, contracts out North American Immigration Law Group, which also is known as Chen and Associates, or wegreened.com. And so that’s more of the attorney side of, oh, here are some attorneys that can help you with your I-140 and I-129 petitions for immigration. And then, their other company is called HIPR or HIPR PacSoft Technologies, and so that is for staffing and HR. And so that is kind of responsible for the rest of the employees, like the writers and team leads, TLAs, packaging, I-485, reception, et cetera.
And so the union is saying, well, we’re all employees of Hudson Legal, but then they push back saying, oh, well we only have a certain number of Hudson Legal employees. And so we had to file additional petition for elections under HIPR, and then the co-employment of HIPR and Hudson. So there are just a lot of these different companies all working together to get people’s immigration cases to USCIS. But then recently, we noticed that Talentopia has been yet another layer to this complex web. And it is the best of my understanding that Talentopia is there to provide their clients with the top 2% of talent for writing and the technology sector. And so what we believe is that, or what we’ve seen, is that instead of hiring more Hudson and HIPR employees, management seems to be relying more and more on Talentopia hires. Which, as independent contractors, they can’t legally be trained on these legal documents.
And as editors in the company, they have limited access of lists of who are Talentopia employees, and how many projects they’re able to take. Or, these independent contractors sometimes just don’t turn in projects, which leads to clients not having their promised documents ready when the firm says they are. And so, we’ve noticed that management seems to be relying more and more on these independent contractors to turn out the work in order to save money from full-time employee benefits and pay structures, but also as a way to cut off the union from new membership. Because the company overall has had, historically, a very high turnover rate in essentially all positions.
Jaisal Noor: And so what impact does this have on the clients?
John Doe: So the clients’ documents are now of worse quality and take longer to produce, purely as a result of the contractor situation. By bringing in the scabs through Talentopia, Hudson has destroyed its ability to produce quality documents, by trying to set up training systems that skirt the law and provide training without technically providing training. What happens to the clients’ documents now is that they’re farmed out to whoever will take the work for the lowest amount of money. Inevitably, somebody who puts in the least effort possible, because they’re paid a flat rate regardless of how long it takes them to complete their work. So they have no incentive to proofread, try for quality, stuff like that.
And then the delays happen because, since management is trying to rely wholly on scab labor, which isn’t particularly reliable in the first place. These aren’t people who are necessarily committing to a long-term position at the company and are coming and going very quickly in a lot of instances. This leads to delays because there’s not enough full time workers to handle it and they can’t necessarily scab out the work. The company has essentially just started lying to its clients about why their cases are being delayed. The real reason is that the company refuses to hire workers because those workers would join the union. And what they’re telling clients is any number of baloney things that have nothing to do with the actual situation.
Jaisal Noor: And so, you’re in a kind of unique position, because you’re trying to organize a union while you’re not physically with your coworkers. So, talk about the additional challenges and hurdles that that creates. And, has that been the hardest part of this union drive so far?
Jane Doe: Well, I think virtually organizing does have its challenges, but I think our first attempt at organizing was significantly helped by the fact that the majority of employees, at one point in time, worked in person with each other. So you have the Ann Arbor office, the Pittsburgh office, the Chicago office, and then the now-closed Durham and Houston and Pasadena offices. And so, at first it was more by office location trying to gauge how employees were feeling, especially about working from home and all the uncertainty that the pandemic happened. And then it’s my understanding that the different offices were, at first, coordinating different work from home petitions to extend the work from home deadlines. And so, that was just kind of the early work of organizing and building a network of employees, of seeing what they liked about working at Hudson, especially since most of us could work remotely. But then also their concerns, which was a lot of non-transparency and low wages.
And so as each of the main offices became more and more organized, management was also hiring more remote workers. So now we have remote workers in Utah, Arizona, Connecticut, I think even Virginia. So just all throughout the country. And so that just required some sly communications over work channels. So, I’ll let my colleague continue because there’s more to this, of course.
John Doe: I mean, as far as organizing online goes, it’s kind of a crapshoot because you have to message… I mean, we did initially try messaging people over social media and stuff. No one’s particularly interested in that because most people don’t know who you are. Eventually, we settled on going through the company’s internal system and kind of just hoping and praying that people would be responsive to kind of a vague message about, I really want to talk to you, I just can’t tell you what.
Part of the challenge with organizing online is that, or in an online workplace, I guess, is that you’re under very heavy surveillance all the time. So, the company monitors every page we go to on its internal website, every message we send over Gchat or email. Lately, there’s been a handful of people who have been having, what appears to be, they’re having their emails delayed by the CEO so he can personally read them before they reach their destination. And they’ve blocked out external communications. So we did initially have an email, [email protected], that we would use to send messages to everyone at the company. That was blocked. Now we’re no longer allowed to send any incoming emails from an external server.
So these are all barriers. We were able to overcome them, honestly, partly through luck and also partly through tenacity, and just remaining in contact with people, and just not really giving up on getting their phone number. If they don’t want to talk to me, maybe they’ll talk to Jane. If they don’t want to talk to Jane, maybe they’ll talk to a third person. So, that’s a lot of it.
Jane Doe: Yeah. Yeah. And also this Hudson Legal team’s email, initially back in April 2021, sent a petition for a better workplace and improved working conditions, essentially. So there was no mention of union or anything, but we got at least half the company to sign on initially. And so, we had follow-up direct actions to kind of build support. And in some of these petitions we asked for permanent work from home, and a couple days later management was able to give us indefinite work from home. And so we clinged to that as a victory.
And so that’s what we told people, look what happened when we came together, we got indefinite work from home. And then in June of this year, management decided to cover 70% of our employee health insurance premiums instead of 50 where it was before, because better health insurance was in that April petition, so we also claimed that as a victory. And so we were able to show the company through Hudson Legal teams and these petitions that we were able to get these small gains. Another one was we got Black Friday as a paid day off. Initially it was just an unpaid day off for the entire company. So we were able to show, look, when we come together, we’re able to make these gains. And so that eventually involved dropping the U word. And so, through virtual organizing, it’s a lot easier to approach people saying, add your name to this petition with a little Google Form. And that’s when we asked for their personal contact information, and then to show people what we were able to win. And so by the time we dropped the U word and we had union cards, we had, I would say, a pretty good base of enthusiastic support.
Jaisal Noor: Great. And so I understand now you are just waiting for the NLRB to schedule your election. And I think it seems like you’re feeling pretty good about that. What can people do if they want to support you and your efforts to make this work you do more fair and more just?
John Doe: Well, so you can follow us on Twitter. We’re @HWUnited, that’s H-W-U-N-I-T-E-D. We’ll be announcing call-in campaigns and things like that. If you’re an academic, definitely warn your colleagues about retaining WeGreen or North American Immigration Law, which are kind of the companies that are the most outward facing, name-wise. If you’re a tenured professor, you probably have grad students who are looking or postdocs who are looking to retain our company for their visa. If you’re a graduate student or a postdoc, you probably have people in your peer group who are looking to retain us. Warn them. If they retain us, your case has a high chance of not being done properly or being done by a trained paralegal or lawyer. I think that’s all I got.
Jaisal Noor: All right. Well, John Doe and Jane Doe, you’re risking a lot by speaking out, but we really appreciate you sharing this story and sharing how you were able to overcome these challenges, and doing what seems like a really Herculean job of organizing a workplace to fight for better working conditions, doing important work. So thank you both for joining us.
Jane Doe: Thank you for having us.
John Doe: Yeah, thank you so much for having us.
Jaisal Noor: And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.