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Uber and Lyft Drivers Gain Labor Clout, With Help From an App

Uber and Lyft Drivers Gain Labor Clout, With Help From an App


Uber and Lyft Drivers Gain Labor Clout, With Help From an App

When California lawmakers passed a worker-protection bill essentially requiring Uber and Lyft to treat drivers as employees, it was thanks in part to a little-known group called Rideshare Drivers United.Uber and Lyft had hoped for a deal with organized labor exempting them from the measure, and the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union explored such an agreement. But Rideshare Drivers United, which represents more than 5,000 drivers in Southern California, fought the idea, speaking out for members who viewed it as a betrayal.“From the beginning, they’ve been the voice of ride-share drivers not just in California but nationwide,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the bill’s author, said of Rideshare Drivers United. “Any union that wants to be the voice of ride-share drivers has to be inclusive of that group and others.”Rideshare Drivers United is not a household name within the labor movement, or even a legally recognized union, and it represents only a fraction of drivers in California. But its growing clout challenges the notion that highly dispersed workers are nearly impossible to organize absent a deal with their employer or the state, which can come with strings attached.While frustrated drivers have often formed loose associations using Facebook or even home-brewed technology, Rideshare Drivers United appears to have outpaced its predecessors by deploying an app that enables organizers to contact drivers as seamlessly as if they shared a water cooler.The way to “organize a work force that doesn’t come to an office,” said Debra Cleaver, an organizer and the founder of a digital voter-registration service,, is “to make it easy for people to be engaged.”The drivers’ group is now moving to use its technology in a further challenge to the ride-hailing companies’ grip on the labor relationship. And its efforts could serve as a model in other industries, like fast food or domestic work.Rideshare Drivers United began to take its current form in 2017, when Ivan Pardo, a software developer, and Nicole Moore, a part-time Lyft driver and former union organizer, joined a predecessor group a few months apart.Mr. Pardo and Ms. Moore created a committee whose mission was to talk to drivers about their problems on the job. But while traditional organizers can approach workers in a break room or a company parking lot, Rideshare Drivers United needed a different way to connect. That’s where Mr. Pardo’s skills came in.Uber and Lyft drivers typically find the group’s website through Facebook and are prompted to provide information like their location and, later, their availability for a 10- to 15-minute call. Mr. Pardo’s software then queues up a list of new members who will be available when an organizer has time to make calls, significantly increasing their chances of connecting.After the call, the organizer places the new member into one of four categories — from “disengaged” (sharing some of the group’s frustrations but unlikely to take action) to “potential core” (a prospective leader). The organizer who conducts the call becomes the new member’s dedicated contact, fielding future texts and calls.“That is our workplace,” Ms. Moore said. “It’s how we talk to each other.”The information gathered helps with communications. For example, in planning a trip to Sacramento to push for the labor bill, the group placed unsolicited calls only to drivers from the top two categories of engagement, figuring that such calls to others would have been wasted effort.Ms. Moore and Mr. Pardo tested their approach in January after learning of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s intention to press the ride-hailing companies and unions to negotiate a compromise on the labor bill. Dozens of people turned out in front of a Los Angeles building that housed the governor’s office. Two months later, the group held a protest in which hundreds of people gathered outside an Uber driver-support hub near Los Angeles to complain of low pay.“After that, we had driver groups that were nascent all over the country reaching out to us,” Mr. Pardo said.Rideshare Drivers United also helped put together a global strike by Uber drivers in May, two days before Uber’s initial public offering, over pay and a lack of worker protections.On a Wednesday in late August, two Rideshare Drivers United organizers, Luis Vasquez and Tyler Sandness, sat at desks in the basement of a union building making calls to fellow drivers using Mr. Pardo’s software. Mr. Vasquez, who primarily spoke to Spanish-speaking drivers, estimated that one of every three calls yielded pledges to become actively involved.“Especially in the Latino community, people are getting sick of it,” Mr. Vasquez said of the drivers’ wages and working conditions. “They’re like: ‘No, we’ve got to do something. We’re tired of this. We’re not making money no more and have to pay all the expenses.’”A study last year by the liberal Economic Policy Institute found that Uber drivers made under $11 an hour on average nationally after vehicle expenses and the extra taxes paid by the self-employed were deducted.In addition to a geographically diffuse work force, high turnover among drivers makes organizing a challenge. But the needs of gig workers, arising from their lack of benefits and protections, can also be a unifying force, experts said.“The gig work force is really powerful,” said Eve Epstein, a labor lawyer who is building an app called SoleVenture to help gig workers band together when buying insurance plans. “We want to harness that power.”The Rideshare Drivers United technology can also survey drivers about their priorities. On the California labor bill, which Mr. Newsom signed into law on Wednesday, this helped the group determine that members favored the protections that come with being an employee.Mr. Pardo hopes to license the software to labor groups and nonprofits to support his work for Rideshare Drivers United, which has so far received only small contributions from other labor groups and collects dues from its organizing committee.After the legislative campaign, the group is putting its tools to use in another campaign: helping drivers gain leverage in any future legal fight with Lyft.In late August, Lyft updated the terms of service for riders and drivers, which include a mandatory-arbitration clause. “This was a long-planned update to the terms to account for new things like bikes and scooters,” a Lyft spokesman said.The arbitration clause, a longstanding feature of Lyft’s and Uber’s terms, bars drivers from joining class-action cases against the companies for, say, denying them employee status and the protections that go with it, like a minimum wage, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.The law in California appears to entitle drivers to those protections, but court challenges are likely. While Lyft has not commented on how it will respond to the new law, Uber has declared that it will not adjust its policies.The update in the terms of service offers drivers a fresh 30-day window to opt out of some or all of the arbitration clause, however, and Mr. Pardo and his colleagues are determined to take advantage. Over the next week, they will send the Lyft drivers in their group a link enabling them to opt out of the agreement by filling out a form and signing their names using their finger or a mouse. They will also distribute the link through social media.“This is a way that drivers can exercise their rights in a court of law,” Mr. Pardo said. “Lyft is counting on arbitration agreements to keep drivers from getting what belongs to them.”

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