Dozens of app workers who drive and deliver for companies like Uber, Lyft, GrubHub and Doordash rallied in Foley Square Tuesday afternoon, demanding a living wage, access to bathrooms on the job and the right to form a union.
The newly-formed coalition called Justice For App Workers, includes an estimated 100,000 drivers and delivery workers in the metro area. They are part of a growing sector of the “gig economy” throughout the U.S. who have been agitating for better working conditions and recognition as traditional employees with benefits.
“No one is there for us,” said single mom Tina Raveneau, who drives for Uber and Lyft and is an organizer with the Independent Drivers Guild. “They say what we do is gig work. In New York City, this is not a gig. This is full-time work.”
Among the groups represented Tuesday were UzBER, a 4,000-person WhatsApp group for Uzbek and Russian app drivers; Black Car Mafia, a driver group with several hundred members; and the Independent Drivers Guild, which boasts tens of thousands more.
At the top of their list of complaints was how apps arbitrarily kicked drivers off their platforms. Driver Imran Sayed said he was deactivated for hours from Uber three years ago after a customer complained when he wouldn’t let the passenger out in a bus lane — hours in which he lost out on a significant chunk of potential income.
“There is no standing in a bus lane and I don’t want a ticket,” he recalled. His access to Uber was suspended for four hours after the passenger complained. Sayed said he emailed the company more than fifty times trying to get back on the app to no avail.
“They don’t see nothing. They only see the customer’s complaint — that’s it,” he said. “If they feel that we are a partner, they have to listen to us, but they [do] not listen to us.”
Uber didn’t return a request for comment on Sayed’s case or on the workers efforts to form a union. CJ Macklin, a spokesperson for Lyft, said the company was, “committed to continuing to work with all stakeholders, including labor, to strengthen app-based work, prioritizing earnings, safety and protecting the independence and flexibility drivers want.”
App workers face a rocky road ahead. Since Uber and Lyft drivers are classified as independent contractors, not as employees, they don’t have a legal right to form a union under federal law.
A change in state law would allow the workers to unionize, but last year, legislative efforts on that front collapsed after scrutiny from labor advocates who argued it would have undermined workers' rights, The City reported. Spokespeople for State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie didn’t immediately return requests for comment.
Any effort to revive the legislation this session will undoubtedly face well-funded pushback from tech companies.
“They don't want to do it,” said Ruth Milkman, Labor Studies professor at CUNY’s Graduate Center. “They spent millions of dollars fighting it in California and probably the same would happen here.”
Milkman was referring to the battle that played out in 2020 between the California legislature and ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft. The state legislature changed the law so drivers were reclassified as employees rather than independent contractors, which would have enabled them to unionize.
But the companies mounted a $200 million campaign to have the measure overturned through a ballot referendum. Proposition 22, as it was called, effectively quashed the state law, when 58 percent of voters sided with ride-sharing companies.
Within New York, however, app workers have won some hard fought victories. New laws passed by New York City’s Council last fall will set a minimum pay threshold for delivery workers; require that apps disclose what customers tip and require restaurants to allow delivery workers to use their bathrooms. Milkman said while changes to labor law are unlikely on a national scale, there is momentum in New York that could tip the scales in favor of drivers and delivery workers.
“Many people are experiencing the benefits of this part of the economy and I think they're pretty horrified when they learn how difficult the work is,” Milkman said. “The public isn't gonna be in a position to change this. It has to come from legislation.”
Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the membership of the Black Car Mafia.