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U.S. Senator Mark Warner on Why We Need a New Class of Worker (Q&A)

"I went into the venture business so I could be rich enough to lose in politics."

U.S. Senator Mark Warner

Before Hillary Clinton dragged Airbnb and Uber into the national spotlight, U.S. Senator Mark Warner, D-Va., started the rallying cry. In June, he wrote a Washington Post op-ed calling for a new third class of worker — somewhere in between contractor and employee — to fit the needs of on-demand and marketplace companies. “This question is too important to leave to the courts alone,” he said in his post.

So what does he think of Clinton’s recent comments about the lack of worker protection in these new business models?

“I’m glad that a leading candidate for President is talking about this issue,” Warner told Re/code. “As the folks running really dive into the details, they’ll learn like I have just how many and how complex the challenges and the opportunities are.” Soon after speaking with us, Warner penned a Medium post defending Clinton from critics who claimed she “hates” Uber and Airbnb.

Before getting into politics, Warner was an investor at a venture firm he started — Columbia Capital — and co-founded the company that went on to become wireless service operator Nextel. Although he represents Virginia’s interests, he keeps a close eye on Silicon Valley.

We spoke with Warner about the current relationship between the tech industry and Washington, what makes Uber’s worker classification issue different from Walmart and whether a third class of worker would be a form of socialism. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Re/code: What is the likelihood a third classification of employee could be created?

Mark Warner: I think it’s very possible. This is one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy. The idea that you’ll default this to hundreds of thousands of separate litigations, that doesn’t make sense.

(Editor’s note: Several gig-economy companies such as ride-share services Uber and Lyft and cleaning companies Handy and Homejoy are battling lawsuits about how they classify their workers. There’s hundreds of millions of dollars riding on the outcome.)

What would it take for a third class of employees to be created?

Pressure from folks in this part of the economy, stories of people not being treated fairly, seeing some of the upsides of this economy.

How long will it take? One to three years? Five to 10?

One to three.

That seems really short.

I’m optimistic because I don’t think it’s an issue on a liberal conservative continuum, I think it’s more of a future-past issue.

What does a third classification of employee look like?

I don’t have a prescriptive answer today. I do think there are models, maybe public-private, maybe an hour bank. I want to sit down with entrepreneurs and figure out what works.

(Editor’s note: Public-private partnership occurs when private businesses team up with the government to complete a project or offer benefits. The government provides tax breaks or funding for the private company’s work. The Affordable Care Act is one such example, with the government subsidizing people’s purchase of private health insurance.)

Wouldn’t a third classification of employee be a form of socialism? After all, if the employer isn’t paying for the benefits, the government is the only other entity that can.

Does it have to be the government? Could it be a third private party? The hour bank idea goes back to the 1940s in the building trade union. If you were a carpenter with ten different jobs over the year, [you] didn’t have the government, but [you] had the union which would collect money from the contractor and the employer, money jointly managed by a third party.

I could imagine platforms created that might be tax advantaged that aren’t necessarily run through the government. Characterizing this as an only public model or only private is a 20th century mindset to a 21st century problem.

You’ve positioned the worker classification issue as a new one tied to the advent of the on-demand industry. But haven’t there been people working multiple part-time jobs for years, the Walmart way?

There’s different sectors that would roll their eyes at the idea that the gig economy is something new. But there has been something happening the last five or six years, with the Ubers and the Lyfts and the Task Rabbits and the Airbnbs. It’s a very different set of rules.

You also have some of this brought about by economic dislocation from the recession. Even if you’re doing economically well there is no social safety net. You’re operating on a high wire and all that will catch you is the core government assistant programs.

Why do you care about this? Few other politicians have bothered to discuss it, aside from the recent Clinton remarks and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s comments at the Code conference.

As someone who got engaged in the wireless revolution of the ’80s and then as a venture capitalist, I’ve seen the ability of technology to transform and change people’s lives.

I went into the [venture] business so if I ever went into politics I could be rich enough to lose. Policy issues that are future-past instead of left-right, I see that as the political framework I bring.

Have you raised money from the tech industry?

I’ve always had broad-based support from the tech community. I know you think everything in tech comes from Silicon Valley but in terms of sheer number of tech companies [Virginia] actually rivals the valley. Maybe not in terms of the startup side.

(Editor’s note: Senator Warner took at least $280,000 from individuals who work for or PACs representing Microsoft, Google, Comcast, Verizon, Kleiner Perkins investment firm and other tech and venture outlets from 2009 to 2014, according to OpenSecrets. However, no tech companies cracked his top twenty donors — those were mostly banks.)

How would you describe the relationship between the tech industry and Washington D.C. at this point?

Wary. The normal sense in Silicon Valley is leave us alone. I get that in terms of ‘The government doesn’t often respond, it’s still at dial-up speed.’ But recent debates around net neutrality and elsewhere show there’s a recognition that they can’t leave us alone.

[Worker classification] could be an area of collaboration instead of conflict. There’s not a lot of policy makers talking about this. If this transformation is taking place in the workplace it begs bigger questions, like how do you make capitalism work?

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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