'Poverty is not flexibility': Gig workers strike over labor practices

Gig workers in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities staged a protest and strike to demand the passage of the PRO Act, as well as better wages.

Rideshare drivers and supporters rally at an Uber office in San Francisco

Rideshare drivers and supporters rally at an Uber office in San Francisco.

Photo: Megan Rose Dickey

Gig workers across the country staged a protest and strike today in response to Uber, Lyft and other companies' labor practices. At the rally in San Francisco, drivers spoke about the issues with California's Proposition 22 and urged the passage of the PRO Act.

"I came here to fight to be able to unionize," Ibrahim Diallo, a rideshare driver in the San Francisco Bay Area, told Protocol. "It's unbelievable that we are not allowed to form a union."

In San Francisco, Diallo and at least 50 other drivers and supporters led a caravan to one of Uber's offices in the city. Statewide, about 1,000 workers committed to going on strike, according to Rideshare Drivers United.

Erica Mighetto, a San Francisco Bay Area-based rideshare driver and organizer with RDU, told Protocol she wanted to "expose Prop. 22 for the lie and the fraud that it is."

Proposition 22 went into law earlier this year in California after Instacart, Uber, Lyft and other gig-economy companies spent $224 million convincing voters to pass the initiative. Prop. 22 was a direct response to the passage of AB 5, the California law that strictly limits when companies can hire workers as contractors. During the campaign, gig-economy companies said Prop. 22 would give app-based workers a variety of benefits while maintaining the flexibility of being an independent contractor.

"That is absolutely untrue," Mighetto said of maintaining flexibility. "Drivers at SFO are now making 36 cents per mile. Poverty is not flexibility."

Mighetto also said up to 80% of driver fares are going directly to Uber and Lyft. When Mighetto began driving four years ago, Lyft only took a 20% cut, she said.

"That number has doubled three, four times now," she said.

A recent Mission Local analysis supports some of Mighetto's claims. In 10 rides with Uber and 10 rides with Lyft, drivers made an average of 52% of customer fares, according to the report.

Uber, however, disputes that claim. In Q1 2021, Uber reported its mobility take rate was 21.5%. That is the "average percentage of the total amount riders paid that went to Uber," the company's head of work communications, Matt Wing, explained over email.

"I would also note that individual trips don't show how much Uber drivers are really earning because they don't include incentives and don't accurately reflect the total earnings drivers get," Wing wrote.

The median earnings per hour for drivers are $25.28 in San Francisco and $26.85 in Los Angeles, according to Uber. However, those earnings do not take into account expenses such as insurance and gas.

Lyft did not explicitly comment on Mighetto's claims, but referred Protocol to a blog post of how Lyft calculates pay. The blog post, however, does not detail the company's take rate.

Truck with sign that says "gig workers on strike." Rideshare drivers and supporters caravaned to the rally at Uber's Mission Bay office in San Francisco.Megan Rose Dickey

Beyond the wages, Mighetto said Uber's deactivation policies are another example of a lack of flexibility.

"Some drivers are just arbitrarily deactivated, for even such a menial claim that they're not wearing a mask," Mighetto said. "And these are untrue and false claims that they're losing their jobs over."

Mighetto added that many voters and drivers were under the impression that workers would receive health insurance plans under Prop. 22. The measure does state that workers are eligible for healthcare subsidies to be applied toward Covered California insurance plans. However, the advertisements during the Prop. 22 campaign did not include all of the pertinent details.

Workers have protested Prop. 22's health care benefits policies before. In May, We Drive Progress and other organizations demanded that gig-economy companies automatically provide health insurance stipends to all workers who meet the minimum time requirements. Under Prop. 22, companies can require gig workers to apply for these benefits.

Rideshare Drivers United is also advocating for the passage of the PRO Act, which is currently in Congress.

"We think the PRO Act is the only way to sort of chip away at the injustice that's being propagated by Proposition 22," Mighetto said.

The PRO Act would alter the definition of "employee" in order to broaden the number of people who are covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the rights of employees and encourages participation in collective bargaining.

If the PRO Act becomes law, the NLRA would use the test outlined in AB 5 to determine whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor. That test looks at whether the person is free from the employer's control, does work that is outside the scope of the company's normal business operations, and conducts similar work independently and outside the context of the employer. That test would likely result in the classification of gig workers as employees, Rey Fuentes, a Skadden Fellow at the Partnership for Working Families, previously told Protocol.

"The PRO Act essentially reverses that and says that none of these workers should be presumed employees but we should determine whether or not they are independent contractors or employers by using the ABC test," Fuentes said in April. "And that ABC test would likely result in their designation as an employee."

Car with sign that says "Fuck Uber" Rideshare drivers and supporters caravaned to the rally at Uber's Mission Bay office in San Francisco.Megan Rose Dickey

Uber declined to comment specifically on the protest and strike, but Lyft suggested I reach out to Geoff Vetter with the Protect App-Based Drivers and Services Coalition, the Uber- and Lyft-backed organization that promoted Prop. 22. Vetter provided me with a handful of comments from rideshare drivers in favor of remaining independent contractors. Here's one:

"There's no doubt that Prop. 22 benefited me and other drivers," Jim Pyatt, a rideshare driver, said in a statement. "I was already happy being a rideshare driver before Prop. 22, but the 120 minimum earnings guarantee, access to health care and compensation for mileage all translates into higher earnings. That's something to be thankful for this year."

As Uber and Lyft eye Prop. 22-like legislation in other states, Dr. Veena Dubal, a professor of law at University of California Hastings, told Protocol she feels scared of the working conditions for drivers, as well as the amount of money that companies are willing to spend to advance their own agenda.

"I'm very concerned about not just this industry and the workers in this industry, but also all of the other industries that we know that Uber's CEO has articulated he wants to enter and disrupt," she said. "And that we've heard venture capitalists, since Prop. 22 passed, say they want to put money into disrupting such that everyone becomes a gig worker in the service economy."

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