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New York Gig Workers Turn to Grassroots Employment Strategies

Aug. 3, 2021, 9:08 AM

New York gig workers, caught between labor laws that don’t apply to them and a perceived lack of help from politicians, courts, and major players including Lyft Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc., have seized the grassroots organizing initiative to raise their pay and improve working conditions.

The drivers, who lack the protections afforded full-time employees under federal and state statutes including minimum wage and overtime guarantees, unemployment insurance, and the ability to unionize, have long been the center of lawsuits and legislation over their employment status. Their plans, primarily advanced by a collective filling a union’s role and a separate driver-owned and operated cooperative, put workers first and could change the way gig drivers collaborate and advocate far beyond New York.

Los Deliveristas Unidos, which formed in reaction to the pandemic, is a quasi-union said to be made up of thousands of food delivery drivers who have staged rallies and lobbied the New York City council for greater rights and protections. After the group highlighted couriers’ fundamental need for bathroom access, DoorDash announced it was working with nearly 200 restaurants across the city to provide just that.

The Drivers Cooperative is the worker-owned rideshare response to the corporate Uber and Lyft. It’s banking on worker democracy and consumer support to take on the tech giants. Since it launched in late May, it has recruited more than 3,000 drivers and takes a smaller commission on ride fees than its competitors, said co-founder Erik Forman. That means drivers can earn a living wage, he said.

Their grassroots push comes as the U.S. Senate grapples with the PRO Act, legislation that would make it easier for gig workers to unionize. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021 passed the U.S. House in March, but has stalled in the evenly divided upper chamber.

“The city wouldn’t have made it through the pandemic without delivery drivers,” said Ligia Guallpa, the executive director of the Workers Justice Project, which organizes with LDU. “They recognize that they’ve been forgotten, but that made them fearless. They’re not waiting for someone else to make the changes; they’re doing it themselves.”

Launchpad: New York

New York State, and NYC in particular, were the center of a bargaining strategy to organize workers in the sector without giving them full employment status. That legislative effort burned out in part because of collectives such as LDU that fought against the deal hashed out behind closed doors by unions and Uber, although the bill could resurface in the next session.

The Drivers Cooperative partnered with campaigns to bring voters to the polls during the June NYC elections. Their app has been downloaded nearly 30,000 times, according to market intelligence company Sensor Tower, and Forman said it’s logged more than 3,000 trips. A $1 million crowdfunding effort has amassed nearly $650,000 since it launched.

The groups’ approaches could be a blueprint for efforts around the country, said Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of Cornell University’s Worker Institute. Their efforts are similar to pushes in Massachusetts, California, and Colorado attempting to draw attention to worker misclassification. Those stand in contrast to attempts to push ballot initiatives and legislation by the gig companies themselves, such as the $225 million campaign in California that led to Proposition 22, which classified gig workers as contractors rather than employees.

Grassroots organizing may be well positioned to have major impacts amid ballooning ride-share costs and increased awareness of the status of gig workers, even beyond historically worker-friendly New York City, Campos-Medina said.

“Young consumers are interested in what the social impact of their decisions is,” she said. “They want to know: ‘What does it mean to just use Uber or just use Amazon?’ This whole sector will demand Uber and Lyft change, instead of continuing to denigrate drivers.”

A Union That Isn’t

The inability to unionize and forge collective bargaining agreements under federal law is a defining element of gig workers’ independent contractor status.

“But that might not stop them” from attempting to do so, wrote University at Buffalo sociology professor and labor scholar Erin Hatton. “The bigger issue is one of logistics: They are technically self-employed, so who’s the boss?”

The need for greater protections is urgent, Guallpa said. More than 25 workers were killed delivering food over the last year.

“The work the drivers do is different, in its own economic framework” compared with employee unions, she said. Collective organizers are deliberately but slowly escalating their tactics from advocacy and networking to marches and protests, and although strikes may be on the table eventually, the collective wants to build membership first to ensure success.

When plans for the state Senate bill that would have introduced sectoral—or industry-wide, as opposed to business-specific—bargaining came to light, pressure from LDU led the Transport Workers Union, originally a major proponent of the legislation, to reverse course.

“We reached out to unions and elected officials and said that Los Deliveristas Unidos is the largest app-based delivery workers collective that’s been trying to set standards, and this sectoral bargaining bill doesn’t represent the interests of workers,” Guallpa said. The legislation would have hindered a slate of worker-backed bills before the city council addressing concerns including bathroom access, maximum travel distance for deliveries, and bringing payments in line with the city’s $15 minimum wage, she said.

Rising Rival

The initiative is backed by the Independent Drivers Guild, a nonprofit workers center that counts more than 250,000 drivers among its membership across New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Illinois, according to its executive director, Brendan Sexton. The guild was behind successful efforts to introduce a tipping option to the Uber app and a minimum wage for ride-share drivers in New York City, and it advocated for stronger appeal processes when drivers are kicked off the apps for bad ratings, Sexton said.

The organization was founded by the Machinists Union in 2016, and while it represents 80,000 for-hire vehicle drivers in NYC according to its website, LDU has chosen to forge its own path.

Companies are taking note of the workers’ efforts.

DoorDash hopes to work with policymakers on ways to better support New York City delivery workers, spokesman Campbell Matthews wrote in an email to Bloomberg Law.

“DoorDash is constantly working to support Dashers and improve working conditions for all delivery workers, which is why last year we announced an industry-leading series of initiatives focused on strengthening safety, expanding restroom access, and protecting earnings,” Matthews wrote. “These include providing free and discounted road safety equipment, identifying restrooms in hundreds of restaurants that Dashers can use when picking up an order, and providing Dashers with resources to reduce their expenses.”

Uber and Lyft didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment.

Co-Ops Take the Wheel

Collectives aren’t the only form of organizing drivers are pursuing. Each driver at The Drivers Cooperative owns one share of the app-based ride-share company and therefore a say in its direction and operations.

The co-op will expand slowly at first, Forman said, but he wants to go beyond New York City. He envisioned a confederation structure or a reverse-franchise model, where individual city co-ops make decisions for the parent company that coordinates them.

“While we’re focusing on NYC, we’ve had drivers who called from Pennsylvania or elsewhere expressing interest in us expanding to their states,” said Michael Ugwu, a co-op member who has driven for Uber for years. “I would love for it to grow.”

The road won’t be easy, though: similar attempts to start more driver-centric ride-share apps in the city have failed. Juno, a ride-share startup that also gave drivers shares in the company, went bankrupt in early 2020.

And it might prove difficult to bring together workers who traditionally seek this type of job for its autonomy, the University at Buffalo’s Hatton said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dan Papscun in Washington at dpapscun@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com

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