Unlike Starbucks, Apple stores and Amazon Warehouses, where unionization is in full swing, gig workers have been a more challenging group to organize. Legally, only employees can organize a union — not contractors. At least one group, however, is working toward a future that does allow gig workers to strike, protest and ostensibly make demands.
“This is the hardest organizing job,” said Gabriel Cardenas, a professional organizer with the campaign Gig Workers Rising. “It’s not impossible, but it is very difficult. The plain fact is that these workers don’t have a legal pathway to collectively bargain.”
Moreover, organizing workers on the run is harder for the obvious reason: The workers are always on the run. They’re also in an industry with instability, high turnover and a demanding work schedule. To get a sense of what gig workers are up against, Mission Local spent a recent Friday morning with one organizer working from a parking lot close to Japantown. The lot was strategically in front of the Chipotle in Anza Vista where many a gig worker was picking up an order or two.
It was the first solo field practice for Jason Munderloh, a 45-year old Lyft driver and volunteer organizer with Gig Workers Rising.
“If there were 100 of us, or even 10 of us, that would start to be a thing,” said Munderloh. He sighed wistfully. “But as of right now, we don’t have any kind of a natural, organic community consciousness.”
Unlike a traditional organizer, who might foment revolution in an employee breakroom, all Munderloh had was a parking lot. In many cases, his attempts to speak to the workers felt odd. Early on, he seemed notably awkward and approaching the workers — especially women — never got any easier.
The first worker Munderloh spoke to listened to his pitch politely but without much interest. After a few seconds, he left with his delivery. That guy, a gig worker moving to Florida to work as a truck driver, is part of a trend, which Munderloh attributes to the supply chain crisis.
“It’s temporary work for them,” he said of delivery workers, “and that makes it very hard because there’s so much turnover.” As to the soon-to-be truck driver, “He doesn’t care about it anymore or doesn’t have a material interest as much.”
Munderloh understands the constrained legal space in which he has to operate, but still holds out hope. “You do it informally. You can’t make it illegal for us to talk with each other. As much as they want to, they can’t do that.” Gig Workers Rising is demanding better wages, safer working conditions and, ultimately, the right to unionize. And they’re just getting started, or as Munderloh put it, “there’s some forward momentum.”
That momentum, however, was hard to notice. The second worker Munderloh approached seemed to be in even more of a hurry than the first. How did Munderloh know he was a gig worker? “The bag that he had, it was a pre-ordered thing. And people look at their phone a certain way before they go in,” said Munderloh, explaining the tell-tale characteristic.
“On the move,” the worker said when Munderloh began to talk. And off he was — no time to scan a QR code to join Gig Workers Rising.
“He’s probably behind on rent or something, and he really does have to focus,” said Munderloh with the understanding of someone who shares the same lifestyle.
As the most active gig worker group in Northern California, the organization — formed in 2018 — has only some 200 members. But how many are active is hard to know, since the turnover rate in the gig economy is upwards of 50 percent per year, Mudnerloh estimated from his own experience.
Nevertheless, like a Quixote after a windmill, the facts failed to daunt Munderloh. The Anza Vista parking lot, he said, was a “hotspot” for relationship-building. Moreover, the lot operated with no time limit or fees, perfect as a place to organize when trying to “bring down” a $50 billion company.
Still, algorithms wait for no one.
At last, the third worker Munderloh approached stopped to talk. Asad said he was new to DoorDash, and was one of the few to describe what is known as a difficult, stressful occupation as “safe.”
In time, Munderloh told Asad, that opinion was likely to change. “It seems cool for a while, but I’ve been doing it for eight years, and if something goes wrong, suddenly you don’t have any money … We need to change that.”
Asad listened to Munderloh’s speech, and took the QR code, but showed very little of the “righteous indignation” Munderloh hoped to inspire.
Milton, a middle-aged DoorDash driver, seemed more promising. Unlike Asad, he lit up when Munderloh said, “We all need to do this together.” Moreover, he smiled, laughed and genuinely engaged with Munderloh.
Munderloh seemed notably excited when Milton left. A passionate Portuguese speaker like Milton, Munderloh speculated, might help them make headway into an immigrant community. But he wondered if the veteran gig worker was quite right for the role.
“What we really want is a leader,” said Munderloh. “The perfect person would have a very strong moral sense and want to stick up for themselves and other people. And there are natural leaders out there.”
The prospects for pitching to women proved to be even bleaker. Often they appeared confused as to why Munderloh approached them. A flirt? A vagabond? “Organizer” did not seem to come immediately to mind.
As a woman with blonde hair put a large cardboard box into the back of her car, Munderloh approached, “I’m trying to talk to you but I don’t wanna interrupt what you are doing here.” The woman appeared taken aback, accepted the QR code and quickly left. Munderloh saw it as a lost opportunity. “I should’ve talked about family a little more,” he said.
Maria, a young Portuguese speaking woman, seemed to almost hide in the cab of her Chevrolet sedan when Munderloh approached. “We’re trying to get people together, everybody, all the drivers come together,” Munderloh said. Her occasional nods, he said later, were among the best response he’d received that day.
Still, Maria didn’t linger long before joining the San Francisco traffic in her Chevy.
“We’re just automatically in our cars anyway,” said Munderloh. “We don’t talk to each other. There’s no shop floor. There’s no natural community.”
As the clock hit 1 p.m., Munderloh was out of time. He had his own Lyft drives to make. Already this week he had failed to do many because of the back pain he ascribes to years of driving.
As for the day’s results, he seemed satisfied with the four potential contacts he saw in a morning of approaching some 10 gig workers. “If it gets to be too many I forget what the people were like that I talked to anyway,” he said.
He planned to follow up with the four within 24 hours. Two highest scorers in his notebook, Milton and Maria, were likely to follow up with him, he said.
“I’m so sure of what I’m doing,” he said with an optimism that most would find surprising after watching his difficult morning. “If somebody tries to say, there’s no point, you’re not going to have any effect, I just think they’re wrong.”
Then, he drove off. The words, “I wish my employer was this transparent” was mottled across the glass of his side window.