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Like Uber, but for Gig Worker Organizing

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Instacart seemed like a dream when Elisabeth Davis first found out about it. As a mother of four children with a husband in the Navy—which requires moving around a lot—it rarely made sense for her to get a full-time, traditional job. When the family needed more income, Instacart offered the promise of extra cash without having to commit to a regimented daily schedule. “I said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is perfect, because I can do deliveries on the weekends,’” she recalled. “I was super excited.”

For the first week, her dream seemed to have come true. She was picky about what jobs she would take, only accepting ones that paid at least $50 and could be done in about two hours. She figured that would be worth her time, after factoring in the gas and mileage on her car. She could do jobs whenever her husband was home to watch the kids. “It was so nice for me to be able to do a job that didn’t include me having to get child care,” she said. “We were able to just do so much more” with the money, from auto repairs to new shoes for the kids and day trips to restaurants. “That was a big jump for our family to have an extra $150 a week,” said Davis.

But a few weeks in, things seemed to change. The pace slowed down. The jobs being offered didn’t pay as well. When Davis’s husband decided to sign up to help make more cash, he was offered higher-paid jobs she wasn’t seeing. “It was kind of a red flag,” she said. She thought she was supposed to have priority for decent jobs because she’d already put in enough hours with the company.

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Davis decided to take a break, but in the process she lost all the hours she had banked. The pay got even worse when she returned. Rather than finding jobs that paid $60 to $70, she was being asked to do a full shopping trip—which took time to make sure to actually get what customers wanted—for as low as $9 or $10. “That’s not even enough for gas,” she noted.

“I promise you, I tried to figure out how to better work the system in my favor,” Davis said. “There’s no figuring it out. It just does not make sense.” There was an algorithm determining what jobs she would see and how much they paid—but she couldn’t unlock how it worked. “I’d rather stay home with my kids and husband than go do a $12 job,” she said.

For Davis, earnings from Instacart represented something extra to tide her family over. But for many who rely on working for the app, there’s little choice but to accept the paltry pay. According to a 2019 analysis of 1,400 samples of pay data, the Pay Up campaign found that Instacart workers earned just $7.66 an hour after accounting for mileage costs and taxes, while about half of the jobs paid less than the federal minimum wage. Only 13 percent of jobs paid at least $15 an hour plus expenses.

“That’s why a lot of us have banded together,” Davis said. “It’s a billion-dollar company … There’s literally no reason why workers should be making so little … They’re not going to move until their hand is forced.”

App workers at delivery services like Instacart and DoorDash, as well as rideshare giants Uber and Lyft, are now trying to force the hands of the tech companies they work for by joining together, getting organized, and making their demands heard. They want better pay and more control.

Their movement comes amid an important uprising among the American workforce. In the past two years, nearly a million workers took part in a major strike, the most in three decades, including walkouts by public-school teachers, autoworkers, nurses, and grocery store employees. But organizing gig workers is a daunting challenge, given that they rarely see each other and that much of labor law doesn’t even apply. In response, advocates, organizers, and academics have been rethinking how to bring them together and fight for better pay and conditions. New tactics have emerged and new laws have been put forward to rewrite the very rules of labor organizing.

Gig workers may be going up against billion-dollar corporations with few laws to buttress them, but that hasn’t kept them from speaking out and even going on strike. They’ve already notched significant victories, while promising more.

THE FIRST STEP to any organizing campaign, of course, is connecting with workers. Davis achieved this through serendipity. One day at a grocery store, she overheard two people talking about Instacart. She approached them, hoping to get tips on how to beat the algorithm, and found out that they were trying to organize Instacart workers. “That’s when I found out I wasn’t the only one getting low-paying jobs after making good money,” she said. They invited her to a rally against Postmates at its downtown Seattle office.

Davis decided to take her four-month-old baby and go to the rally. “Something told me I just needed to be there,” she said. “There’s power in numbers.” They marched with signs and T-shirts and brought peanuts to give to the company’s white-collar employees—symbolizing the pay frontline workers are making.

That protest was organized by Working Washington, a small grassroots nonprofit that launched the Pay Up campaign and has recently found itself at the center of some of the most high-profile gig economy organizing. Rachel Lauter, the organization’s executive director, saw organizing for Uber and Lyft drivers but sensed a gap for other app workers. So, she told me, “we started to fill it.” Working Washington began organizing app workers over a year ago.

It’s required new and different tactics. Facebook is one of the best ways to reach new members; Working Washington also deploys Zoom meetings and text threads. Her group has also built a tool that helps calculate app workers’ take-home pay from each job and then prompts them to get involved. “These are digital workers, and these folks see customers more than they see fellow workers, so it has to be a different style,” Lauter said.

The first campaign was launched when one worker recounted an Instacart job where the net pay was $10.80—$10 in customer tip and just 80 cents paid by Instacart. It turned out that the company’s new payment method counted tips toward the guaranteed minimum workers were told they would make on each job, essentially allowing the company to pocket much of the gratuities. The practice triggered sustained outrage. “It was like running into the fire,” Lauter said. “Instacart drivers were really agitated.”

Working Washington launched an online petition, and workers began sharing their stories of low pay and tip pocketing on social media. The uproar was ultimately successful, pushing Instacart to announce just two weeks later that it would change its policy and always give workers tips on top of base earnings. DoorDash, which had had a similar practice, announced a few months later that it would do the same.

Building on the success of that campaign, Working Washington has now amassed a list of 12,000 app workers across the country. They are organizing behind three core demands: a minimum pay rate of $15 an hour plus expenses, ensuring that tips are not taken out of base pay but layered on top, and transparency on what jobs will pay and why. The first target is getting the city council in Seattle, where Working Washington is based, to pass legislation that would set pay standards for all independent contractors, and codify the new industry standard of paying tips on top of base pay. The city council passed a similar bill aimed just at Uber and Lyft drivers in November.

The group hopes that momentum will ripple out from Seattle. “Similar to how the Fight for $15 evolved, create the possibility and reality of something happening in strategic jurisdictions and allow it to spread elsewhere around the country so it becomes part of the national conversation,” Lauter explained. Both Fight for $15 and Working Washington have pushed for change at individual companies, alongside regulatory and legislative change that can ensure all companies are held accountable. But it’s new territory for Working Washington, which has typically focused on community organizing in its own backyard.

The early success had a lot to do with simmering anger, Lauter told me. “I feel like it’s boiling over.”

IN A TRADITIONAL workplace, reductions in pay are usually announced and documented. With app-based work, it’s governed by an opaque algorithm and is often more subtle. The day I spoke to Gil Worley, his 19-year-old dog had died that same morning. “I could say, and honestly feel in my heart, part of it was not being able to afford the medications I needed to get him the past couple of months because of the job,” he said.

Worley was a social worker for 18 years, but was laid off three years ago. He’s had a hard time finding a new job, and he lives with a chronic health condition. “The gig economy looked like it would be the perfect kind of thing,” he said. He’d seen ads for years saying that you could make $25 an hour. So he started with Uber Eats and then signed up for DoorDash as well.

“I was pretty quick to realize the money they were advertising was not the case,” Worley said. What started as decent pay of between $700 and $800 a week gradually declined to between $200 and $300. He found out from other app employees that falling wages are typical: The companies offer good pay for the first month or so, a way to get employees hooked, and then it starts to wane. “I just kept hoping it would be what they said it is, but it got worse by the day.”

After taxes, expenses, and the app companies’ cut, Worley estimates he makes much less than minimum wage. Working Washington found that, according to its recent analysis of more than 200 samples, the average DoorDash worker makes just $1.45 an hour after mileage and taxes. Nearly a third don’t even break even after those costs are taken into account, while just 11 percent are paid more than federal minimum wage. “It’s really sad. It’s embarrassing,” Worley said.

It’s also a financial burden. At one point, Worley was close to going into foreclosure. About a month ago, he fell off his scooter while making a delivery and shattered his shoulder, left arm, and elbow, putting him in the hospital for five days. “The first person I called after the accident, I didn’t call my mother and I didn’t call my partner, I called DoorDash,” he said. “Because they’ll downgrade or deactivate you for anything.” Not only was he due no workers’ compensation, but he lost income on every day he couldn’t work. Those financial strains have also created relationship strains with his partner of 30 years. “It’s caused a lot of stress at home,” he said. “We’ve never had this stress.”

Worley found out about other app workers organizing on Reddit and decided to get involved. He wants to see these companies ensure minimum wage, stop penalizing people for declining to take jobs, and actually ensure that customer tips are added on top of pay. “We call it DoorTrash and Uber Cheats,” he quipped. “You’ve got this overwhelming feeling of Uber robbing you to make their billions.”

For workers like Worley, there’s little escape from the nickel-and-diming of gig employers. For instance, he just signed up for Caviar, which seems like a fresh start; but Caviar was bought by DoorDash in August. He’s contemplating joining Amazon as a driver next. “I hate that I have to do it right now, but it is where I am … I don’t feel like the gig economy is good for anybody’s economy.”

Organizing gig workers is a daunting challenge, given that they rarely see each other and that most of labor law doesn’t even apply.  

Mariah Mitchell has also had to turn to app-based work for the flexibility she needs. She’s a single mother of three kids, and hasn’t been able to find a full-time employer who can give her the schedule she needs to pick her kids up from school. “Uber kind of saved my life because I could turn my car on whenever I’m free and make some money,” she said, speaking to me as she drove. She also works for Lyft, Uber Eats, and occasionally Postmates. She too was paid good money at the start—making about $100 to $300 a day from all of the apps she worked for—but then saw it decline. The most she can make a day is now $100, what a slow day used to amount to.

“We’ve just had to go without,” Mitchell said. She’s had to cut back on buying clothes for her children and has to watch where she drives to save on gas. “I make a lot of Top Ramen,” she said. Christmas hit her hard and she’s now trying to dig out of that hole. She receives food stamps and is applying for help with her electric bill. “I’m really struggling to pay rent and pay Wi-Fi,” she said. Without internet, her children can’t do their homework. Her eldest, who is 17, has to help her watch the other two children a lot because she can’t afford child care.

But despite the hardships of being a gig worker, Mitchell still needs the money, even if it’s dropped so low. “I got to keep going,” she said. “I don’t have any other good options at this point.”

Not long ago, Mitchell filled out an online survey and got connected to organizers planning a rally against Postmates. She showed up. She wants more control over her own work, which she is supposed to experience if she is truly an independent contractor. She wants to know where she’s being sent before she accepts a job. She wants to control how much pay she’s willing to work for. “Let me decide how much I’m going to make and where I’m going to go and how much time it’s going to take me,” she said.

THE LOW PAY and lack of input have motivated a lot of app drivers to stand up to their employers. A 2018 study found that more than half of Uber and Lyft drivers earn less than their states’ minimum wages, and median pay after expenses and taxes is just $8.55 an hour. Eight percent of drivers even lose money driving for these firms, when costs are taken into account. Another study found that about a third of what passengers pay for their rides goes to Uber, not drivers.

Felipe Martinez, owner of an antiques business, signed up to be an Uber driver in Boston four years ago “because I needed, obviously like everybody else, extra money,” he said. Two years ago, he closed his store and started driving full time. It allowed him to spend more time at home with his two young children.

Since he was driving at odd hours, he started making a lot of rides to Logan Airport. It was there that he began talking to other app drivers as they dropped off or waited for new passengers. They compared notes. Drivers weren’t getting the kinds of rides they used to get, and the pay for each ride was also going down.

“When you have a bunch of people who are always talking with each other, you notice things,” Martinez said. But the drivers had no insight into what was happening or why, though they harbored suspicions. “I can tell you without knowing what it was, it was the algorithm,” Martinez said. “The algorithm started to change.”

Martinez had never done any organizing. “I never was involved in politics. I don’t know what the labor movement is,” he said. But he felt “enough’s enough.” He helped convene a meeting of drivers to talk about the pay issue. “We thought five people would show,” he recalled. “Almost 100 people showed up.” So many, in fact, that they got kicked out of the hotel Starbucks they’d picked to meet in. Then he helped stage a protest outside of an Uber office in late 2018. “Then we started getting more people, and then more,” he said. He connected with other organizers in different parts of the country.

“I started to get really revolutionized,” Martinez said. “I feel like I’ve been revolutionized to stick up for myself. I’ve never felt like this in my life.” He added, “If you just open your mouth and say something, then something’s going to happen. Doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you do.”

That something took the form of a nationwide driver strike on May 8 last year, led by Rideshare Drivers United in Los Angeles. Drivers were already agitated about their pay rates declining, and then the company started planning for a $120 billion public offering on the stock market. Drivers in nine U.S. cities and London decided to go on strike ahead of the IPO, to protest low pay and what they say are unfair account deactivations.

“The only way to hurt them is to strike,” noted Tyler Sandness, an organizer with RDU. “The only way to hurt them is affecting that bottom line.”

RDU had only been around for a handful of months at the time. But when it came to getting drivers ready to strike, “Uber kind of did the job for us,” Sandness said. “Workers have just been exploited by these companies for years, and everyone was really pissed off.” He was the logistics coordinator for a strike staged in Los Angeles on March 25 and then for the nationwide strike on May 8.

Stan de la Cruz started working for app companies like Uber and Lyft in Washington, D.C., in 2015, and initially he could easily make $1,500 a week working 40 hours. Then he experienced the familiar trajectory: Payment fell, and bonuses and surge pricing dried up.

The money from driving was not only his main source of income, but it also had to cover any car expenses that came up. Uber and Lyft don’t pay for those. “I’m in debt, and a lot of my friends are in debt,” he noted. After he put so many miles on his car, the transmission and other parts needed replacing, but he didn’t have any money saved up for the repairs. “When you only have one vehicle and you’re only doing Uber or Lyft, anything that happens to that vehicle you have to fix it right away because that’s your main income,” he noted. “If I wanted to keep paying my rent and not end up in the street, I had to fix it.” So he put about $5,000 in repairs on his credit card. “I’m still paying,” he said.

De la Cruz was part of a network of drivers who kept in touch, and they started talking about organizing. “We had to,” he said. “We started seeing what changes were happening and how quick they were happening.” He helped form Drive United in Washington, D.C., in 2017, and he was part of the organizing team for May’s strike in his city. “It’s the way to get some power,” he noted. “If there is no way of organizing together, then nothing is going to change.”

A 2018 study found that more than half of Uber and Lyft drivers earn less than their states’ minimum wages.

Martinez also went on strike in May. “It was awesome,” he said. No one went in or out of the Uber hub he occupied with 50 other drivers that day. “We shut it down,” he said. “It was a great feeling.”

The strike was a big turning point for the project to organize app drivers. “Last year, the movement for driver dignity and for fair wages in the gig economy absolutely came into its own,” said Henry DeGroot, an organizer with the Boston Independent Drivers Guild. There were loosely organized driver groups before it, but it was afterward, he said, that “they’ve really gotten active and had a lot more energy.”

“By doing this, we have moved a mountain,” Martinez said. “It was only a quarter of an inch, it was only a centimeter. But we moved it.”

GIG WORKERS demanding better pay and treatment from the apps they work for face an even more daunting challenge than those in offices or on factory floors. The app companies don’t classify rideshare drivers or delivery workers as employees, which renders them unprotected by laws that allow for unionizing and collective bargaining.

Lyft drivers and Instacart shoppers aren’t the first American workers to fight for better working conditions while also fighting for the very right to protest. Farmworkers and domestic workers were deliberately carved out of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, excluding them from union rights. Yet farmworkers used historic boycotts and walkouts to earn their rights, work site by work site, crop by crop. Domestic and home care workers have since fought for state-level bills of rights to enshrine better pay and benefits while pushing to be included in labor laws.

Another way to solve the problem is to change gig workers’ employment relationship with the apps. If they’re classified as employees of DoorDash and Uber, then they can form a union and force those companies to sit at the table to negotiate pay and benefits. Then there are bolder visions, like the “Clean Slate for Worker Power” platform released by Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program in January, which calls not just for classifying more gig workers as full employees but also allowing many non-employees to collectively bargain.

Organizing in this space may be critical to a healthier labor movement. Fighting misclassification in the gig economy shines a light on this problem across industries. And app-style jobs have become a safety valve for workers who are downsized or suffering from low pay elsewhere. If app workers raise standards, it raises the floor for other low-wage employers. If they don’t want to lose all their workers to Uber and DoorDash, they’ll simply have to increase pay and benefits.

Securing the right to unionize requires gig workers to adopt new organizing strategies. As with Instacart and DoorDash workers, drivers connect over social media. They gather in airport parking lots waiting for passengers. The parking lot of LAX is “honestly where RDU was born,” Sandness said. “It was the closest to an office water cooler as a driver is ever going to get.”

Drivers also have an app, developed by the organizers in Los Angeles, with a database of all of the members. Users can then use it to target lists of drivers—by, say, city—to ask them to turn out for a protest or call their legislators in favor of a bill. It makes sense for this group of workers in particular: They’re already used to interfacing with an app that gives them directions.

“We call it a hybrid organizing model,” Sandness said. “Technology is facilitating traditional organizing.”

But the issues at the heart of the movement aren’t new. “There’s nothing new about workers working long hours and [making] poverty wages,” DeGroot said. “It’s really just a new shell on an old form.”

The drivers have coalesced around two main demands: better pay, and an end to arbitrary account deactivations over what they say are often unsubstantiated customer complaints. “A driver being deactivated is the equivalent to a driver being fired,” Sandness pointed out. Eventually, they want the right to form a union, while seeking the immediate demands. More immediately, some gig workers, fearing exposure as they deliver food and passengers amid the coronavirus outbreak, have demanded they be offered paid sick leave, and app companies are discussing the creation of a compensation fund.

They’re deploying a number of tactics to get there. There was, of course, the fight over Assembly Bill 5 in California, which codified and expanded the state’s definition of an employee such that many independent contractors, including app workers, are now considered to be directly employed by the tech companies.

Postmates workers held a strike where they stopped taking jobs until they went into the equivalent of surge pricing, increasing their own pay through denying their labor.

Drivers credit the strike with pushing AB-5 over the finish line. Before the walkout, the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, told drivers that there wasn’t a good chance of passage, according to activists. “There wasn’t appetite in Sacramento to take up such progressive Uber labor legislation until it was demonstrated that there was massive unrest in the gig economy,” Sandness said. “The reason all of these issues had come to a head is drivers don’t really have any legal protections when it comes to their rights.” AB-5 was signed into law in September.

After lobbying in favor of the bill, RDU drivers are now launching a campaign to enforce it. In late January, drivers rallied in front of the state’s labor commissioner and filled out complaints of unfair wage practices against Uber en masse, claiming they are owed unpaid minimum wage, overtime, and expenses as employees. In late February, a county judge ruled Instacart misclassified workers under AB-5, a first under the new law. App workers will also be fighting the campaign bankrolled by Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash to put a measure on California’s November ballot that would overturn AB-5.

Sandness and RDU hope that California’s actions on behalf of gig workers will spread across the country. Lawmakers in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois are considering their own legislation similar to California’s AB-5.

But the movement is currently in a power-building phase. “There [are] more opportunities than there is capacity,” DeGroot noted. Lawmakers want to meet with them. They’ve gotten invitations to speak at events. There are potential lawsuits that could be filed. “But the real thing that we need to focus on is the driver-to-driver organizing,” he said. “The challenge is really to … make sure that we’re doing the groundwork that needs to happen in order for us to have the power to … follow through. To not just meet with lawmakers and have a good conversation, but to build legislation, build support for a bill, get it through the finish line, and make a difference.”

It’s hard work. The drivers who are dedicated to organizing and lobbying are sacrificing pay to do it. “If they’re not out working, they’re not making money,” Martinez noted. “It’s hard when you’re trying to do your own life. We don’t get paid, it’s all volunteer.”

Just as Uber and Lyft drivers went on strike last May, so too have other app-based workers. Postmates workers held a strike where they stopped taking jobs until they went into the equivalent of surge pricing, increasing their own pay through denying their labor. More may come. “There’s some real potential for digital strikes,” Lauter said.

Davis might attend such a protest; she’s still involved, even though she’s mostly stopped working for Instacart. Her husband is deployed now with the Navy, but she does what she can to help the organizing campaigns from home. “Life is overwhelming, but I told myself I would still plug in however I could,” she said.

She attends meetings over Skype where people share tips for how to do outreach to more Instacart workers. She still approaches people who might be doing shopping trips for the service in grocery stores—the tell is that they’re staring at their phones as they shop. She strikes up a conversation about how the pay has been getting worse and worse, inviting them to join the Facebook group and group text. Next she’ll be moving from talking to fellow workers to calling state lawmakers.

“It’s just going to take some time for the right people to hear us and the right people to make changes,” Davis said. “Change is inevitable as long as we keep chipping away and making noise.”

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