As companies like Uber and Lyft look to grow their businesses beyond ride-share, expanding into categories like food and grocery delivery, they face a persistent thorn in their sides.
For all of the growth the companies have experienced in recent years, their drivers and delivery workers have been left behind, often making less than the minimum wage and being denied access to bathrooms on the job.
The gig economy workforces of Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and others have been vocal about their displeasure with working conditions for years, but a group of drivers and delivery workers in New York City is now stepping up efforts to unionize.
On Tuesday, thousands of app-based workers took to the streets near Foley Square in a protest for better working conditions like a living wage and an end to alleged unfair deactivations. They were a part of the newly formed Justice for App Workers coalition, a group of ride-share organizations that have banded together in pursuit of the right to unionize. The coalition has plenty of support.
“As it stands, app workers like us are cut out of receiving many of the rights and protections so many workers take for granted. But we will no longer settle for less,” said Ivan Ventura, a leader with Black Car Mafia. “Uber and Lyft need to understand that we are not backing down until we have the right to form a union. We want to sit at the table and bargain for our wages, our benefits and our futures.”
Other member organizations include the NYC Rideshare Club, United Delivery Workers Association, International Alliance of Delivery Workers, Independent Drivers Guild, Long Island Uber & Lyft Network, UzBER, Utany and NYC Drivers Unite. The coalition includes an estimated 100,000 members.
Watch: Getting into the gig economy
“We are doing what Uber and Lyft never thought we could. App workers from different parts of the city, different cultures, we are all coming together for the first time,” said Dachuan Nie, leader of the International Alliance of Delivery Workers. “Today, 100,000 ride-share and delivery workers represented in the largest multiracial, multiorganizational labor rights campaign are putting Silicon Valley on notice: It’s time for justice for app workers.”
In a statement, Lyft spokesperson CJ Macklin said that the company is “committed to continuing to work with all stakeholders, including labor, to strengthen app-based work, prioritizing earnings, safety and protecting the independence and flexibility drivers want.”
As of publication time, Uber had not yet responded to Modern Shipper’s request for comment.
According to an unreleased poll conducted by the coalition of drivers and delivery workers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, more than three-quarters of respondents struggle to make monthly payments like rent or utilities. Eighty-two percent said they would fall behind on those payments within three months if they couldn’t drive or deliver.
By some estimates, the majority of gig workers in the city — tens of thousands of them — are immigrants. Often, they take on ride-share and food delivery work because of the allure of flexibility or the need for supplemental income, but they soon discover that the work is harder than it looks.
“Many people are experiencing the benefits of this part of the economy and I think they’re pretty horrified when they learn how difficult the work is,” said Ruth Milkman, a professor of legal studies at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. “The public isn’t gonna be in a position to change this. It has to come from legislation.”
So far, legislation has tipped in favor of the ride-share and food delivery companies. In 2020, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart spent more than $200 million pushing for the passage of Proposition 22 in California, which exempted those companies from classifying their drivers and delivery workers as employees rather than independent contractors. That measure has since been ruled unconstitutional by a California court, but the ruling is likely to face strong opposition.
However, there has been some progress with legislation on the East Coast, particularly in New York City, where the City Council has granted several protections in recent months, such as a minimum payment per trip and, for food delivery workers specifically, the ability to see customer tips.
Last week, Mayor Eric Adams even approved a provision that would finally grant bathroom access at the businesses where gig workers pick up orders, a right they have long pursued.
Farther up the coast, app-based workers in Massachusetts are pushing their own referendum that would effectively create a third worker classification between employee and independent contractor. The ballot measure, which cannot be voted on until November, would allow gig workers in the state to maintain work flexibility while being entitled to some of the benefits of full employment.
However, Justice for App Workers is seeking protections for all gig workers — not just those in a few progressive states.
“We are proud to be launching in NYC. But fair wages and safety, these are not just issues for New York City app workers. We want to see protections from coast to coast,” said Nabin Tamang, president of the United Delivery Workers Association. “App workers cannot wait.”
The coalition is aiming to spread its unionization movement nationwide in the hopes that it can reach the millions of independent contractors who have suddenly become one of America’s largest workforces in recent years. More than one-third of U.S. workers, or around 59 million people, have participated in the gig economy at least once, and that number is on the rise.
“2022 is the year of the app worker!” proclaimed Naomi Ogutu, president of NYC Rideshare Club, at Tuesday’s rally.