On the Clock is Motherboard’s reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.
On Wednesday, app-based workers are organizing a nationwide strike along with rallies in 11 cities to demand fairer pay, better working conditions, a union, and the right to collectively organize.
In Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Austin, Boston, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Baltimore, drivers will be demonstrating to raise support for the realization of a basic suite of labor rights, including the right to organize and collectively bargain.
“App-based workers are fed up with exploitation from big tech companies. Misclassification is like concrete, keeping us underground. The PRO Act is the jackhammer that will break that concrete apart, allowing app-based workers to organize,” said Eve Aruguete, an Oakland driver and organizer for Rideshare Drivers United, the driver advocacy group behind the protests, in a press release.
The protest is partly aimed at Proposition 22, which was a ballot measure written by gig companies to exempt them from California labor laws that would’ve forced them to properly classify app-based workers as employees. After spending $224 million on a campaign that deployed deceptive tactics, the companies have unsuccessfully tried to roll out clones nationwide.
It’s also meant to promote the PRO Act, also known as the Protect the Right to Organize Act, which is currently stalled in the Senate thanks to moderate Democrats. If passed, it would be the most significant piece of pro-labor legislation in decades. The law would make it easier for more workers to collectively bargain, organize unions, put stronger limits on what managers could do to undermine these processes, levy stricter fines and penalties for violations, and bolster the power of existing unions. For workers in the so-called gig economy, that means an easier time ending the misclassification scheme that underpins this whole business model.
Even before Prop 22’s victory in California, pay and working conditions were abysmal. A pre-pandemic survey of app-based workers by researchers at UC Santa Cruz found that 71 percent of respondents were working at least 30 hours a week, 50 percent of whom worked 40 hours or more, and 30 percent working at least 50 hours. Half of the respondents said it was their sole source of income, which could be as low as $360 a week for ride-hail drivers and $224 a week for delivery couriers.
Since Prop 22, the situation has only gotten worse. Only a few weeks after the law written by gig companies took effect in January, California drivers were reporting steep pay cuts and worsening working conditions. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic forced an even more dire choice on drivers: risk infection or risk starvation?
Over the past year, app-based gig work has seen a price hike thanks to a “labor shortage” that has emerged despite an influx of cash bonuses to incentivize drivers. Drivers recently told Motherboard in interviews that this is due to a combination of factors including demanding work schedules, low pay, and ride-hail companies’ inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UC Santa Cruz study also included a recent survey that took place in April of this year, which reinforced the fact that workers were suffering even more thanks to the pandemic. 37 percent of respondents reported that they had lost 100 percent of their income, with another 19 percent losing more than 75 percent of it.
In response to all this, Uber has expanded its PR efforts and raised prices instead of increasing driver pay. For example, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi recently created a Twitter thread where he moonlighted as an UberEats driver for a few hours, and another thread where he attempted to dispute a Washington Post report detailing how drivers have not seen wages increase even as fares have skyrocketed.
Uber did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.
Lyft responded only to suggest Motherboard reach out to the Protect App-Based Drivers & Services group, a Political Action Committee it funded along with Uber, DoorDash, Instacart, and Postmates (recently acquired by Uber) to pass Prop 22.
“In addition to saving hundreds of thousands of earning opportunities, more than six months after the implementation of Proposition 22 in California, the overwhelming majority of app-based rideshare and delivery drivers say Prop 22 is benefiting them personally,” said the group in a press release.
In California, the rallies kick off at 1 PM Pacific Time, at Los Angeles International Airport, Uber’s San Francisco headquarters, and Lyft’s Driver Center in San Diego. In Austin, Boston, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Baltimore, the actions will vary from driver caravans to pickets or rallies at Uber Greenlight Hubs, Lyft Driver Centers, and other locations.