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The Fight Against the Corrupt Rideshare ‘Union’ Bills Is Just Getting Started

Grassroots organizing won the day in New York, but Uber and Lyft aren't finished.


A New York State Senate bill that would keep drivers from companies like Uber and Lyft classified as independent contractors in exchange for being nominally recognized as part of a union officially died a belated death on Tuesday. Diane Savino, the Democrat pushing the bill, told Bloomberg that she wouldn’t introduce the bill this year after all.

It’s a big victory for groups like Los Deliveristas Unidos and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which has been organizing rideshare drivers for years. It also closes the door on a fairly humiliating episode for the biggest labor groups in the state, who participated in closed-door negotiations over the bill and who apparently—and bewilderingly—thought a measure to effectively create company unions for a workforce of tens of thousands of people would just fly, just two years after essentially the same exact thing caused a bunch of intra-labor turmoil in California. But this is far from the last we’re going to see of these bills, or Uber, Lyft, and other companies’ attempts to undermine worker protections.

The bill, a draft of which leaked last month to Bloomberg, The City, and Labor Notes, was reportedly supported by both the tech companies and the AFL-CIO, which helped marshal support from the Transport Workers Union, as TWU’s president told Bloomberg. It would have created a “sectoral bargaining” apparatus for drivers, but there were a ton of problems beyond that which were outlined by Labor Notes and an open letter authored by dozens of labor academics opposing the legislation.

The bill would have enshrined the classification of rideshare drivers as independent contractors rather than gig workers. This means they likely wouldn’t be subject to minimum wage laws, which is especially important in New York City: in 2018, the Taxi and Limousine Commission voted to give rideshare drivers $15 an hour before expenses. The bill would eliminate that, the NYTWA argued.

Last week a man named Michael, a homeless delivery app driver, posted a video to TikTok providing a look at what happens when the apps are allowed to skirt minimum wage laws. “I just spent an hour driving around for a $1.19 tip,” he said. “I mean, would it hurt y’all to tip us, throw us $5? I got a $1.19 tip and $2 from the app. What is that? That’s not even enough to cover gas. How am I supposed to survive like that?”

Aside from all of the problems that come with keeping drivers classified as independent contractors rather than employees, the bill would have banned strikes and picketing during bargaining, which takes away workers’ most important piece of leverage as a matter of state law. Making it clear to workers how the union could benefit them appeared to be barely a consideration if at all, as representation could be chosen with just 10 percent support; if there were multiple unions, the state labor commissioner would choose, according to Labor Notes. The unions would be directly funded by the company through a $.10 surcharge on every ride rather than via worker dues, making it nearly indistinguishable from a company union. As the labor academics’ open letter said:

In summary, the proposed bill would roll back hard-earned gains by app-based drivers and other workers and establish a dangerous precedent for the rest of the country. Moreover, it would undermine the national campaign to reform federal labor law through Protect the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), which has been passed by the United States House of Representatives and pending in the Senate.

The agreement fell apart after details of the bill leaked to the media. New York Sen. Jessica Ramos, the chair of the Senate Labor Committee and one of several progressive Democrats who toppled incumbents in the 2018 primary, spoke out in opposition to the bill. SEIU 32BJ, which has more than 175,000 members, also came out in opposition to the bill, and then TWU also dropped its public support for the bill, with TWU president John Samuelsen telling The City he’d defer to the workers. “If they don’t want this particular bill, we will support them and work with them to craft a bill [that] satisfies the workers,” Samuelsen said last month after the bill was leaked.

Hanging over all of this is Proposition 22. After companies like Uber and Lyft failed to stop the passage of the anti-employee misclassification bill AB5 in California, those same companies spent enormously last year in support of Prop 22 to exempt themselves from the law, going so far as to try to scare users of their apps into voting for it. It worked; the measure passed by nearly 20 points.


What’s Mark Warner’s Deal?

The saga in California and the many court battles these companies have fought is proof that the apps are not just going to concede that their drivers are actually their workers, because their entire business model operates on misclassifying its workers. The next iteration of the bill will almost certainly have some of the more egregious provisions removed, but Uber and its allies are never going to agree to anything that fundamentally alters that business model.

Unfortunately, it appears that—in New York at least—the rideshare companies have the state AFL-CIO on their side. You could be forgiven for thinking that no self-respecting labor federation would be so eager to cut such a shady deal with these companies, but the unions apparently made a calculated decision that, rather than try to organize tens of thousands of new workers against the rideshare industry’s destructive practices, their best hope was to give in and see what scraps they can come away with. Given the immediate and overwhelmingly negative response to this bill, that decision was extremely wrong, but whether or not they learn from their mistake is anyone’s guess.

But even though going up against moneyed interests like Uber and Lyft, not to mention union leadership, is the much harder path, labor and community groups in New York proved (again) that it can be done, and has to be done if there’s any hope of improving conditions for rideshare and delivery workers in a substantial way or growing the labor movement to include the people tech companies would like you to forget they exploit.

Savino is going to keep trying in New York, she told Bloomberg:

Savino said she’s determined to pass a bill when the legislature returns next year and is eager to address concerns from groups such as Los Deliveristas, who she and representatives of DoorDash Inc. and Uber have recently met with. Savino, who chairs the state senate’s Internet and Technology committee, said she plans to take the lead on drafting the next version of her bill, rather than deferring as much to union and company leaders to write it.

The process this time around was “sabotaged” when last month’s draft was leaked “by people who wanted to make sure we didn’t get anywhere,” but productive talks have been going on as recently as this past weekend, she said.

The NYTWA celebrated its win Tuesday but was clear-eyed about where things were going next.

“Of course, the companies and their shills will be back at it next session with new billion dollar tricks up their sleeves to try to roll back the rights app drivers have won,” NYTWA executive director Bhairavi Desai said in a statement. “But make no mistake: Unless the companies recognize they can’t roll back rights or deny drivers the economic floor granted to all other workers, there is no conversation to be had in any room with these unscrupulous bosses, just much more organizing to be done on the streets.”