Driving the Labor Movement: Rideshare Companies, Union Bureaucrats, and The Rank And File

By Avir Waxman

As the amount of app-based work increases, rideshare drivers across the country are taking the lead in the gig worker labor movement.  From Los Angeles and San Francisco to Chicago and Washington, DC, driver organizations have stepped up to fight against their exploitation. Massachusetts has become the newest battleground in this fight, with corporations, labor unions, and rank-and-file workers each proposing their own legislation—and, unsurprisingly, only the rank-and-file bill actually looks out for the drivers.

Currently, drivers are classified as independent contractors, meaning the companies that hire them are exempt from paying benefits and payroll taxes. Drivers are also responsible for their own expenses, including insurance, car maintenance, and cleaning. With minimal pay and large expenses, many drivers work 60-80 hours a week just to get by. Nor is this some small hiccup in the industry: the rideshare business model depends on such full-time drivers.

One important piece in the drivers’ fight was AB5, a 2019 California law that reclassified many independent contractors as employees, offering them all the legal protections and benefits of employment, such as minimum wage, reimbursed expenses, and the right to unionize. However, it was quickly overturned within just a year thanks to Proposition 22, a company-promoted ballot measure. Prop 22 essentially reversed the gains of AB5, carving out an exception for rideshare drivers to remain as independent contractors, while offering minimal (and in some cases only nominal) protections in return.

These bills are more than just legal proposals: they demonstrate the class interest of the three parties involved.

With Prop 22 as a template, rideshare companies are seeking to expand their victories across the country, and Massachusetts is first up. In the current legislative session, three bills are being proposed: one supported by the tech companies, one supported by the Machinists Union, and one supported by the drivers themselves. This last bill, the Rideshare Driver Bill of Rights, was drafted by the grassroots Boston Independent Drivers Guild (BIDG); the Boston DSA recently voted to endorse BIDG’s bill.

These bills are more than just legal proposals: they demonstrate the class interests of the three parties involved, and the necessity for socialists to side definitively with a new, rank-and-file labor movement.

HD 2582: The Companies’ Bill

The legislation proposed in the House that is supported by the rideshare companies is fairly similar to Prop 22. Namely, it institutionalizes the classification of drivers as independent contractors. In order to make the solidification of exploitative practices more appealing, the bill offers nominal concessions: company-provided accident insurance along with the equivalent of 4% of a driver’s quarterly earnings deposited into a benefit fund. This means that for every dollar a driver earns, a measly four cents will go to retirement, health insurance, worker’s comp, medical leave, and parental leave—that is less than a cent to each standard benefit for every dollar earned. In comparison, in 2020, workers in the leisure and hospitality industry—who had the lowest benefit-to-wage ratio of all workers—earned about eighteen cents for every dollar in wages. But companies like Uber and Lyft somehow think that 4% is a gracious offer.

SD473: The Bureaucrats’ Bill

The bill in the Senate offers more (and more serious) protections and benefits to the driver than the company bill. It provides a method for drivers to elect a representative through which they can negotiate terms that cover topics ranging from safety standards and working conditions to payments and benefits at a minimum, but could be expanded to other areas. It also calls for a 0.5% surcharge to help cover the cost of operating the driver representative.

However, there is cause for concern. Firstly, SD473 was submitted by the Machinist union, a top-heavy union which runs the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG) in New York City. The IDG has received a lot of criticism since its creation in 2016 for leaving drivers out of the process, with reasonable suspicion that it serves as a company union.

Additionally, it does nothing to change drivers’ independent contractor status and is, by its own declaration, not relevant for anyone classified as an employee. Given that the state Attorney General, at the behest of rank-and-file drivers, is currently suing to reclassify drivers as employees, this bill could quickly become moot and leave drivers, once again, without representation.

While the bill establishes a council to conduct industry-wide bargaining, it does so at the expense of drivers. To begin with, the council does not negotiate an industry-wide contract. It merely offers recommendations to the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. This agency would then review those recommendations; if the agency decides against them, it would require third-party arbitration. Introducing a third player would take the fight out of the drivers’ hands, since the state could always step in to play mediator. Even if the agency does approve the recommendations, they have the ability to revoke approval at any time.

The establishment of this industry council would remove the solidity and surety of a contract won through labor power and replace it with a milquetoast recommendation process dependent on the auspices of the state.

Lastly, there is the consideration of the representative process. The bill only allows qualifying organizations to be considered in an election—and one of the considerations for qualification is “experience in assisting stakeholders in reaching agreements with Transportation Network Companies” (that is, with rideshare companies). Only the Machinists have this experience, which means the scales are weighed heavily in their (exclusive) favor. Additionally, it is distinctly possible that the company would get to choose their own opposition. Since the bill does not limit the relationship between company and driver representative, companies could create yellow unions or, through voluntary recognition, influence drivers away from a more radical and militant organization.

All of this must be viewed in the light of the existing nebulous relationship that the Machinists have with Uber. A union, funded by the opposition through a non-public contract, has put forward a bill which: encourages the maintenance of an exploitative labor relation, reduces the power of labor in negotiations, incentivizes companies to choose their opposition, and promotes itself as the most likely candidate to act as that opposition.

Rideshare Drivers Bill of Rights: The Workers’ Bill

In 2014, after substantial decreases in pay, Boston rideshare drivers began to organize. This culminated in 2018 with the formal foundation of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild (no relation to the Machinist’s IDG). In February, BIDG filed SD2359, the Rideshare Drivers Bill of Rights (RDBR). Unlike the Machinist position, this bill is not the machinations of a bureaucratic organization, but was grown out of the experiences of the rank-and-file drivers themselves.

The RDBR ensures that any negotiated terms cover the same basic conditions as the Machinist bill (without the 0.5% surcharge). However, the bill goes much beyond those minimal requirements by establishing a procedure for an inflation-adjusted minimum wage calculation (borrowed from a Seattle law). This guarantees a minimum before negotiations even begin, and ensures that drivers will not have to worry about losing pay due to negotiations.

Whereas the Machinist bill would be defunct if the labor relation changed, the RDBR would take effect regardless of classification. Additionally, the bill extends certain rights given to employees, namely anti-discrimination protections and parental/medical leave, without actually reclassifying drivers.

When it comes to concerns of company unions or controlled opposition, the RDBR explicitly eliminates any such possibility. The bill bars the companies from financing or even “becoming involved with” any group that purports to speak/advocate for drivers. Additionally, considerations to be recognized as a driver representative include having “a governing structure that promotes workers’ decision-making power” (a stronger position than the Machinists’ took, i.e. simply allowing for “participation”), and that the organization is not “an employer, nor employer-financed, nor an employment agency of…drivers.”

One of the additional strengths that the RDBR has is the creation of a Driver Resolution Center. The role of the center would be to help represent drivers in deactivation cases (for which the bill also creates an arbitration procedure to  ensure drivers have a guaranteed path to challenge firing, rather than the largely non-existent good will of the company to listen). However, such an organization would also be dedicated to outreach and education, essentially functioning as a workers’ center.

Joining the Struggle

We are watching, in real time, the fight over the transformation of the national economy play out on a local scale. It should be no surprise that this is happening at the same time as an upsurge in class activity (both politically and in labor). Socialists in general, and the DSA in particular, have the opportunity to position themselves at the front of a burgeoning national movement, one that is poised to be at the leading edge of the labor struggle. 

Aside from organizing against SD437 and HD2585, DSA members should join the burgeoning driver’s movement. The drivers’ movement is young and largely inexperienced; many drivers want immediate action, and many more have already grown disheartened from previous losses such as the passage of Prop 22. We would need to actively help organize drivers and develop leaders, aid them in establishing connections with other sectors of the class, and ensure that they have a strong, self-sustaining organization under the democratic leadership of the drivers themselves. Now that BDSA has endorsed the RDBR, we can use it as an opportunity to strengthen our connection with rank-and-file drivers.

A movement against gig work is growing. We can—we must—help drive it forward.

Avir Waxman is a Boston DSA member and an Advisor on the BIDG Board of Directors.

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