When gig workers, defying a state proposition, launched a union in front of Uber’s headquarters earlier this month, the historic move lacked one element: Gig workers.
While the two advocacy groups potentially represent as many as 30,000 workers, only 40 or so gig workers attended, and some of those had to be flown in from Los Angeles.
This poor turnout is just one glimpse of the struggles advocacy groups have in organizing gig workers. The very nature of gig work presents obstacles, as workers are always on the move, which keeps them too busy to organize. More importantly, even those who agree with the union’s aim are often more interested in practical, everyday help, and the groups aren’t able to provide it.
Eric Zhang, who administers a WeChat group of nearly 500 Chinese-speaking Uber and Lyft drivers in the Bay Area, reacted with notable rancor when I mentioned one of the most influential advocacy groups: “You don’t have to promote them. These organizations aren’t down-to-earth; they can’t do shit.”
Rather than changing laws, drivers are more concerned with issues that affect their everyday livelihood. “Some of our drivers were deactivated [by the platforms] for no reason and they couldn’t do anything about it,” Zhang said.
Other concerns: constantly shifting rules inside the apps, insurance coverage and bugs on the apps. Workers need help with other issues as well: Rising gas prices, paying rent, being rejected by landlords because they are gig workers.
Marick Masters, a Wayne State University professor who studies labor relations, described the gap between the needs of the drivers and the union’s aims. “Well, we’re going to try and get you collective bargaining rights” he said, voicing the union’s pitch. And the gig workers are going to reply, “How’s that helping me pay my rent this month?”
Masters pointed out that advocacy groups already have a big hurdle in reaching gig workers: A moving worksite, unlike other industries, such as Amazon Labor Union or Starbucks Workers United, where the workers are employed at one site.
Willy Solis, a lead organizer of Gig Workers Collective, said the critique is fair, but his outfit is unable to do much to remedy the problem. “We’re so limited in our capacity and what we’re able to do,” he said.
Despite sending regular text messages to 20,000 grocery delivery workers on its list, Solis said, the group has only two full-time employees. “The leaders of the group are basically putting in their own money to do the work or volunteering their time to make sure that things get done,” he said. And with such limited resources, and no appeals process in place from gig-work apps, the groups currently have limited means of directly confronting the companies on many issues.
Los Angeles-based Rideshare Drivers United has been focused on documenting the issues with gig work. Recently, the group published a report showing that Proposition 22 depresses wages and deepens inequities for California workers.
Fixing that is their focus. “How do you get rights as a driver?” asked Nicole Moore, the group’s president. “Well, collective bargaining is the only way to do it, right? And then you have to have a union.”
But like Gig Workers Collective, Rideshare Drivers United has few bodies to do outreach or any kind of union work. “We have one or two paid organizers who are drivers who staff the work,” its website warns. “So if we are a little slow to respond, or miss a typo here and there, just know it was a volunteer that may have missed their call, and we apologize.”
Still, this has hurt them in attracting supporters. Membership numbers offer one parameter of interest. Gig Workers Rising, the most active group in Northern California, has some 200 members, according to one volunteer organizer. But the role and status of those members remains unclear. The group hasn’t replied to Mission Local’s request for an interview yet.
Masters, the labor relations professor, suggested that to attract members, and earn their loyalty, the advocacy groups should focus more on giving workers what they want while also making progress towards their larger legal goals. “So earn more money, and work simultaneously toward the goal, giving them bargaining rights, which is the ultimate solution,” he said.
It’s unclear whether a lack of practical help would make a big difference, or if many gig workers simply want to remain as contractors. Joseph, a Lyft driver, said, “The biggest attraction to driving Lyft is being self-employed, and really working when I want to work and logging off when I want to log off. I like to be flexible for my daughter’s schedule. For me personally, I never thought of being considered or classified as an employee. I don’t want that.”
William B. Gould IV, a law professor at Stanford University, said the companies have done a good job of persuading drivers that Prop. 22 is good for them. “The companies have convinced the drivers that their business model is the only way that the driver is going to have flexibility. Well, that’s nonsense.”
And a deterrent to any real change, he said.
“We’re kind of coming around a circle here,” he said. “I think that, basically, until we get out of this independent contractor framework, we’re not going to be able to treat these workers as employees.”