- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
Members of Rideshare Drivers United (RDU), an independent organization of rideshare drivers in California, rallied Tuesday in support of the PRO Act, an ambitious labor law reform bill that recently passed the House of Representatives and is now on its way to the Senate.
The bill would grant gig workers like RDU’s membership the right to collectively bargain, even if their employers continue to refuse to grant them employee status. In California, the issue is particularly pressing: gig economy companies spent over $200 million to pass Proposition 22, a bill they themselves wrote, to retain absolute control over their workforce. The effects are already being felt, both among gig workers and more traditional employees.
The rallies, held in downtown Los Angeles at the California State Building, at Uber headquarters in San Francisco, and in San Diego at the San Diego State Building, were called to protest Uber and Lyft, which have “stolen from the public coffers by misclassifying their drivers and shirking taxes meant to provide a safety net for workers like app-based drivers, especially during a pandemic,” as the RDU statement put it.
“Without the right to organize we will continue to be misclassified and continue to have work for less than minimum wage without protections,” Tonje Ettesvoll, a member of RDU in San Diego, who drives for Uber and Lyft, said in a statement announcing the rallies. “Having the same rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) would mean that I would have a path to improving my life by organizing a union with coworkers, just like all workers should in this country.”
Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Daniel Russell, a veteran rideshare driver and RDU leader in Los Angeles, about RDU’s organizing, driving during the pandemic, and life under Proposition 22. Russell writes about rideshare driving here, and intends to write a book on the subject.
So, tell me about the rallies RDU organized.
The rallies are in support of the PRO Act. The PRO Act is extremely important for drivers and gig workers because it paves the path for us to gain back our workers’ rights from the companies that underpay us and have gone to extensive lengths to take away our rights. They spent a lot of money to write their own law, and one of the reasons that they’re able to do that is because they can misclassify workers as independent contractors. So this is the first step to ending our misclassification as independent contractors.
You said that the companies write their own laws, and that’s a reference to Proposition 22. You’re now living under the regime of Prop 22. How has it affected you and your coworkers’ lives?
I do a lot of organizing these days so I can speak on behalf of a lot of different drivers. It has affected us in various ways. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and there are a lot of situations where drivers aren’t able to work right now — due to health, or because of their age — or who won’t work until they can receive a vaccine. A lot of the passengers right now are the people who are refusing to follow the laws. I know a driver who makes his living working at night, and he has to ask about half of his passengers to wear a mask, and some argue. He doesn’t feel very supported by the companies.
Prop 22 has increased the confusion on our classification status. Many workers have been bounced between the wrong systems in terms of unemployment because of confusion over our status. When many of us entered unemployment, we were still employees, despite the fact that the companies were refusing to follow the law. The law still stated we were employees, and so we were entitled to UI (unemployment insurance). But because these companies hadn’t claimed us, it was an arduous process for many of us to get claims. For example, I’m a single parent. I can’t work like I used to, and I went two months without a payment because of this gray area of misclassification.
Now, as far as drivers out there driving, they’re finding out exactly how we were misled with Proposition 22. We were told we were going to be guaranteed a minimum wage. But that guaranteed minimum wage is only when you have an accepted trip. With business down because of stay-at-home restrictions — as it should be — drivers are out there and they’re not making money because there are too many drivers and not enough business. These companies over-hire drivers because it costs them nothing since they aren’t employees, and then there are too many people dividing the pie and there isn’t enough to go around. So, that is going to continue.
But what we’re focused on at RDU is employee rights. That’s why the PRO Act is so important: it gives us the right to collectively bargain and unionize. It’s about more than just rideshare drivers, too. It’s about all gig workers, and ultimately, all workers, because as we’ve already seen in California since Prop 22, grocery companies have used the law to fire longstanding employees — delivery workers — and replace them with Instacart, which is cheaper. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. What’s to say that hospitals don’t decide that it’s easier to just contract with travel nurses and not have regular nursing staff?
During COVID-19, what other problems are drivers encountering on the job? I know they often have to buy their own personal protective equipment (PPE). Not being employees is really a matter of these companies shunting costs onto the drivers themselves.
That’s the nature of the business model. We carry the costs, whether it’s keeping our cars clean, keeping them safe, or keeping them running. The only drivers I know who have gotten PPE have had to pay a ridiculous amount for shipping, so it hasn’t been free even for them. It’s cheaper to go get it yourself.
On top of that, I have very little faith in this company to deal with riders who are not wearing masks. For example, underage riders aren’t supposed to exist, but I dealt with teenage riders my entire time driving, kids who were taking Uber and Lyft to school every day. I would report them but their accounts still worked. So I doubt they’re going to cancel accounts for refusing to wear masks, except for the extreme cases where it ends in an assault, like what happened the other day here in California.
There was some sort of altercation recently?
The driver had asked them to wear a mask and they didn’t want to, and it escalated into an assault — drunken passengers, it happens all the time. I was assaulted while driving once, but I didn’t make a formal report or anything. Stuff happens out there, and because we’re independent contractors, we have no formal organization to support us. And the company doesn’t support us. This is why the PRO Act is so important. It’s a dangerous job, it’s not just about pay.
So you mentioned that you’ve been doing a lot of organizing, and that you aren’t currently driving because you need to be home with your daughter.
Yes, I’m organizing because it needs to be done, but I’m new to labor organizing. I’m a teacher by trade, but I left the classroom because it gave me more time with my daughter, and I will fully admit that as an educator for twenty years, I was not an active union member. I was not opposed to unions, but I was very dedicated to my students and every time they asked people to work on LAUSD stuff, I wouldn’t volunteer.
When I eventually go back to the classroom, that will absolutely change. I’ve learned a lot about how educators organized some of the unions that have won tremendous strides not only for teachers, but for students too. One of the great things about teachers’ unions is they’re more about the common good, not just the worker good. That’s what I feel this movement is about too. Obviously our lives, as drivers, are at stake, but it’s also about the entire economy.
The PRO Act is important because it exemplifies a movement back in the direction of worker power. It’s been the exact opposite for twenty-five years in Washington, with corporations getting more and more financial power, and more and more lobbying power, and workers’ rights have been taken away. We’re on the bottom.
What is your organizing like? Organizing is always hard, but organizing rideshare workers might be another level.
Well, it’s very grassroots, and volunteer-based for the most part. We don’t have a water cooler, we don’t have a common meeting place. There’s no place you can pass out flyers to the workforce. You could go to an airport line but that’s only a small percentage of drivers, because a lot of drivers don’t even like to mess with airports, especially full-time drivers.
So there’s no place to gather. The only way is through phone calls and texts — and we have some amazing tech that has been developed by some of our members that allows us to do this work. That technology is incredible. But it’s very grassroots, very hard, and very time-consuming because there is no place to get the message out and unify.
I ask because some people say it’s too difficult to organize gig workers.
It is very difficult. But it has to be done, and it isn’t impossible. When we can, we need to bring as much attention to it as possible. We’ve gotten support from other parts of the labor movement but we need more. And again, what they’re doing to us right now is going to trickle down to all occupations. All of labor needs to realize that if they haven’t already.
It’s also worth saying that most of us are both gig-delivery people and rideshare drivers, so this applies to delivery people too. A lot of rideshare drivers have had to move to delivery because there’s not enough business on the rideshare side. If you’re on Uber, you’re qualified for UberEats as a rideshare driver, so you just switch it on. It just takes a five-minute training.
What is your vision for these jobs in the future, and how does the PRO Act fit into that?
The future is what the PRO Act could give us: the ability to collectively bargain. We want to sit down as an organization and represent drivers. That is going to be a very difficult thing, because how do you do card checks with a group that is constantly changing and hard to get a hold of. But it’s essential.
And it’s so hard to find time to organize when we’re working so much to get by. This is a bare minimum wage job. When I was driving full time, I was working sixty- to seventy-hour weeks to make it. I wanted to get involved in organizing sooner but I didn’t have time, as a single parent and a full-time driver. So we are doing what we can with the bare minimum resources, but allowing us to properly organize would allow us to increase our resources.
We’re doing a lot for drivers right now, but dues are completely voluntary. If we can get a formal union, members can self-fund our organizing. Private corporations are spending $200 million on elections to write their own laws. The only people that fought that law were unions. Well-established unions are losing members because of Proposition 22, so this is a huge crossroads for the working man in America, in every industry.
Has the organizing changed, or gotten easier, since Prop 22 passed?
It’s never easy. There are always people who fall through the cracks because we don’t have enough people reaching out to membership. Plus, the workforce is constantly changing, with people joining the workforce and others leaving. So, there’s no way it gets easier until we have the resources we need. You’re constantly chasing your tail, because of the growing and changing nature of the workforce. But it’s possible. My experience tells me that much.