Rideshare drivers across California are striking on July 21 to demand an end to exploitative pay and working conditions, and to call on Democrats to pass the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. If passed, the PRO Act would provide sweeping labor protections and stricter safeguards against worker misclassification, which many employers (especially in the gig industry) exploit to strip employees of their basic labor rights and workplace protections.
“App-based workers are fed up with exploitation from big tech companies. Misclassification is like concrete, keeping us underground. The PRO Act is the jackhammer that will break that concrete apart, allowing app-based workers to organize,” said Eve Aruguete, an Oakland-based driver and an organizer with Rideshare Drivers United (RDU), in a press release.
Drivers and groups like RDU, which helped organize the strike, blame California’s Proposition 22 for deteriorating compensation and working conditions. Voters approved Prop 22 in 2020 after tech companies like Lyft and Uber spent an unprecedented $220 million on a “Vote Yes” campaign, making it the most expensive ballot measure in California history. In their pitch to voters, the tech giants of Silicon Valley argued that consumer prices would rise and drivers would lose “flexibility” if corporations were forced to classify gig workers as employees (as opposed to independent contractors, who are entitled to fewer workplace protections).
As it turns out, Prop 22 passed and gig companies raised user prices anyway; at the same time, drivers say their wages have dropped to unsustainable levels.
“I’m starving to death,” said Ahmad Ibrahim Moss of San Francisco. He says Prop 22 has essentially made it impossible to make a living driving for Lyft. “You’re literally working for nothing, it’s absolutely exploitative, and they know it.”
Moss had previously rented a car from Lyft in exchange for driving 90 passengers a week. After Prop 22 passed, his pay dropped precipitously and he was charged as much as $2,000 a month for the car rental, in addition to a 17-cent-per-mile fee when a passenger is in the car, and a 35-cent-per-mile fee when a passenger is not in the car. “They know that most people who rent cars don’t have their own, so these severely marginalized populations, people who are vulnerable to begin with—these are the ones who are most exploited,” Moss said.
Drivers and advocates say they aren’t surprised that Prop 22 has had the opposite impact to what the industry claimed in the lead-up to the ballot vote.
“What Prop 22 was really all about was locking workers into a second-class status, where they make less than minimum wage, and where they don’t have access to benefits,” said Brian Dolber, an organizer with RDU and associate professor at California State University San Marcos, in an interview with The Real News. Rideshare apps have also taken away tools that drivers used to maximize their pay, and drivers say they need federal legislation to counter those effects. “The PRO Act is the best way for us to regain our right to collective bargaining so that we can form a union,” Dolber said.
Drivers’ compensation rates for trips to and from Los Angeles Airport (LAX) have dropped by more than half since Prop 22’s passage, from 65 cents to just 32 cents per mile. “I’m surprised anybody is there at all. It won’t even cover your gas, forget your time. And on top of that it’s an insult,” said Esterphanie St. Juste, who drives with both Uber and Lyft at LAX.
Tech companies are seeking to pass similar legislation in other states, and have already spent over $1 million opposing the PRO Act, The Intercept recently reported.
The pandemic amplified the economic precarity facing delivery and rideshare workers, the vast majority of whom work full time often without access to healthcare, living wages, and labor protections. A 2018 MIT study found that, after expenses, Uber drivers typically make between $8.55 and $10 an hour. In San Francisco, 45% of workers did not have the savings to cover a $400 emergency expense, 1 in 5 lacked healthcare, 1 in 4 would likely work if sick, and 15% relied on public benefits to make ends meet, a May 2020 study by the UC Santa Cruz Institute for Social Transformation found.
A top priority for organized labor, the PRO Act has already passed the House but faces an uphill path in the Senate. Last week, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders announced that spending-related provisions for the PRO Act were included in the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill, which can be passed by a simple majority through a process of reconciliation, because it affects the budget.
“The provisions most important to drivers, unfortunately, did not make its way into the reconciliation bill at this point,” said Dolber, referring to the “ABC test,” designed to curtail worker misclassification and allow workers like rideshare drivers, who are deemed independent contractors under Prop 22, to collectively bargain.
As long as Democratic senators like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who has publicly backed the PRO Act, continue to also back the filibuster, it will require 60 votes to pass the Senate, a likely impossible hurdle in the face of Republican obstructionism.
“It’s hypocritical for somebody to say they are for the PRO Act and not reforming the filibuster. You can’t have it both ways, you can’t say I’m for union rights, and then refuse to do anything about it,” said Courtney Scott, an organizer with RDU.
“Unless the politicians go along with the people, the people will vote out the politicians. Let them act as anti-union as they want, we’ll find other candidates to replace them,” said Moss.
“Drivers need the PRO Act because it allows us to form a union and organization that looks out on our behalf and ensures our safety and fair pay,” said Daniel Russel, a driver in the Los Angeles area. “We need to be able to have a say,” added St. Juste. “There’s nobody that represents us independent of Lyft and Uber.”
The Senate will hold a hearing on the PRO Act on Thursday, July 22, at 10AM.