Why We Need a Rideshare Drivers’ Bill of Rights

By Henry De Groot, Executive Director of BIDG

Every rideshare driver has their share of complaints about driving for Uber and Lyft. Even if you’ve never been unfairly de-activated, you know about the cuts in pay, the abuse from passengers, the poor driver support, and the ways the TNCs are constantly trying to cheat drivers, like reimbursing us less than the full cost of tolls. 

And don’t get me started on the lack of mandated benefits like sick pay, parental leave, and overtime, not to mention the lack of retirement or healthcare benefits.

The good news is that there is a movement of drivers pushing Uber and Lyft to address these problems, and this movement is no longer in its infancy. Drivers around the world have already won partial victories in the fight against corporate abuse, and this year formed the International Alliance of App-based Transport Workers to unify their fights. Of course we’ve all heard of the fight in California to pass and now defend AB5, but drivers in Seattle, France, and now Massachusetts have also won small victories.

To no one’s surprise Uber and Lyft are not taking this fight lying down. They continue to break employment and labor laws despite court rulings. And in the AB5 fight, they have spent millions to beat back attempts to hold them accountable to basic employment laws.

How Did Massachusetts Workers Win in the Past?

So what is the way forward to win real change for drivers here in Massachusetts? It is worth considering how workers in the past have organized to win better wages and working conditions. 

Perhaps the most famous strike in Massachusetts is the 1912 Lawrence textile strike, also known as the Bread and Roses strike. Like TNC drivers, Lawrence textile workers were a largely immigrant workforce that the rest of the labor movement wrote off as “un-organizable.” But after the bosses cut these workers’ pay, the workers were ready to fight back. Union organizers and Socialist Party members quickly built a strike committee of 56, with 4 representatives each of the 14 main nationalities. This committee united the angry workers and launched a strike which quickly shut down every mill in the city, involving more than 20,000 workers speaking over 40 different languages. 

The 1912 Lawrence textile strike. Image from Wikipedia.

The authorities were quick to mobilize local militia to patrol the streets, arresting dozens of striking workers. There were also attempts to frame the strikers, with one local politician planting dynamite in several locations around town after receiving a large payment from one of the local mill owners. While 24 workers were sentenced to a year in prison for throwing ice at factory windows, the planter of the dynamite was fined $500 and let go without serving time. As the strike escalated, the authorities declared martial law, banned all public meetings, and called out 22 militia companies to descend on Lawrence. Harvard students were even given exemptions from their final exams to join the militias. The battle lines were clear: the workers were squaring off with the rich and powerful.

In a feat of great public relations, the workers sent their hungry children to stay with sympathetic households throughout the Northeast. As word of the conditions of the textile workers spread, as well as the police brutality against the mostly-female workforce, it created a public outcry. In the face of a congressional investigation, the bosses decided to settle the dispute, agreeing to 20 percent increases in workers pay, far more than what they had cut in the first place.

But a key part of the strike, as with many strikes of the last century, was the workers’ ability to hurt the bosses’ profits by keeping the factories shut down. By picketing at factory gates, these workers were able to keep away strikebreakers (also known as scabs), thereby keeping the factories idle. And unlike today where most industries are run by international corporations with near unlimited access to capital, in these days many factory owners owned just one factory. If their factory was kept idle, the economic pressure was severe.

Will the Same Tactics Win for Us?

In many ways our workforce is similar to the Lawrence mill workers. We can learn from their struggle by organizing drivers along the lines of language and nationality. We can act quickly to mobilize angry drivers when the TNCs cut pay or change our conditions for the worse. And we can share our stories and our struggles with politicians and the public in order to build public support for our cause.

But unlike the Lawrence textile workers, we will have a more challenging time leading a successful strike. Even though Lawrence workers had to face down police brutality and mass arrests, the strategy was basic: stand outside the factory gates and keep the boss from making profits while building public support. Individual workers could not cross the picket line without exposing themselves as traitors to the cause.

In the TNC industry, there are no factory gates. Drivers can go online from anywhere and begin working. If we launch a strike, how will we keep selfish drivers from crossing the picket line? There are some key points we could focus on, like the airport, but this would not be enough to stop Uber and Lyft from making profit. 

Additionally, unlike the Lawrence textile industry where factory workers worked more than 56 hours a week, the TNC industry is split between a small core of drivers who drive full time, and a wide array of drivers who drive part time, seasonally, or just between jobs. BIDG is committed to fighting to better the conditions of both full time and part time drivers, but we recognize that many part time drivers are not concerned with basic rights or benefits. Some, although certainly not all, of these part time drivers would be more likely to cross the picket line by working during a strike.

Furthermore, Massachusetts is just one part of Uber and Lyft’s business model. Even if we did succeed in shutting down rideshare in Massachusetts, the companies could continue to refuse to meet our demands, using their other markets to stay afloat. We would be in for a very long battle. This is not to say that a strike is impossible to organize, but we had best think of other strategies to get what we want.

A century ago, labor leaders dismissed Lawrence workers as unorganizable, and many labor leaders today feel the same way about Uber and Lyft. I strongly disagree… drivers ARE ready to fight for raises, rights, and respect. But we need a strategy that takes the structure of the TNC industry into account.

The Road to Victory: Legislative Action

Strikes are not the only way workers have won victories against the bosses. In the past, workers have also used local, state, and national governments to pass laws that protect workers, like minimum wage, overtime, and paid sick leave laws.

Our best route to winning better conditions for drivers is by passing laws through the Massachusetts legislature which benefit drivers. Previous Massachusetts laws regulating TNCs have been to the benefit of the companies, Massport, and the taxi drivers. It is time we won laws that benefit the rideshare drivers who run this industry.

In fact, drivers in Seattle organized with Teamsters Local 117 have already shown how this can be done. Drivers were able to push the Seattle city council to pass legislation mandating a $16/hr minimum wage for drivers plus expenses, granting them the right to unionize, and more.

A study in Seattle found that drivers were making less than $10/hr after expenses and vehicle depreciation, so drivers will be seeing an average wage increase of $6/hr starting in January of 2021.

In November of 2019 the Seattle city council passed a 57 cent tax on TNC rides. The tax is estimated to raise $25 million a year; over 6 years the tax is projected to fund $52 million for affordable housing development, $56 million for investments in public transit, and $16 million to fund a driver deactivation center. The driver deactivation center will be run by a driver group, likely Teamsters Local 117, and will help drivers when they are deactivated. Additionally, if Teamsters Local 117 wins this contract, they will have an anticipated annual revenue of $3 million which they can use to do far more than simply help deactivated drivers.

Improving on the Seattle TNC Tax

While we do not think that the Seattle 57 cent tax is a perfect model, it is a model to work on and improve. The $16 million allocated to the driver resolution center is only about 13 percent of the total revenue generated by the tax, or 7.4 cents per trip; drivers deserve substantially more from a tax generated by their long hours and hard work. Drivers are already not getting our fair share from the TNCs, and we certainly do not intend to get shorted by the government as well. 

In fact, in 2016 Massachusetts did pass a 20 cent tax on TNCs, but in the absence of a drivers’ movement, the tax was used to fund public projects like roads and bridges with no direct benefit to drivers. But it is important to point out that the Seattle plan was introduced from the top down by the Seattle mayor in order to fund public transit from TNC rides, not to help drivers. 

Photo by Mark McLaughlin on Unsplash

In fact, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker proposed a $1 tax on rides back in January. Baker proposes using 70 percent of the funds raised towards transportation, and 30 percent for local cities and towns. The governor wants to tax rideshare, but proposes no direct benefit to the drivers from the millions of dollars this tax will raise.

In the labor movement there is a saying: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” It is up to us in Massachusetts to oppose Baker’s plan, and to push for our own tax plan that maximizes the funds going to drivers.

That being said, we must be supportive of taxing the TNCs to benefit larger social needs like public transit and affordable housing, not just to benefit our own interests. Even if we do not rent or take public transit, our family members, friends, and community members do. Funding for new affordable housing will help to increase the housing stock, pushing down the cost of rent for all renters, not just those in publicly funded units. And it is undeniable that the TNCs have hurt public transit, which is much better for the environment than taking Uber and Lyft. The key is that if we are the ones putting forward the legislation, we can design this tax in a way which benefits the wider working class as well as TNC drivers.

A $2 tax increase on airport rides and a $1 tax increase on all other rides would generate far more than Seattle’s 57 cent tax. Based on MassPort’s 2019 figures for Logan, a $2 tax on airport rides could generate $14 million a year by itself. 

We do not need to limit ourselves to only funding a driver resolution center, although such a center would likely be a big step forward both for drivers immediate working conditions and for the strength of our movement. We could also push to have the revenue raised benefit drivers in other ways; we could use tax money to fund grants for drivers to switch to green vehicles, a fund where drivers could be partially reimbursed for healthcare costs, a scholarship fund for drivers, and even a drivers’ credit union which could offer car loans at below-market rates. The possibilities are limited only by our creativity and our ability to build political pressure.

Unlike in Seattle, we will not be able to pass this legislation through the Boston city council. When the Massachusetts legislature regulated the TNCs in 2016, the lawmakers prohibited municipal governments from passing additional legislation. Only the state legislature and Massport can pass additional regulations on Uber and Lyft, such as a new tax. This is unfortunate because it is likely that Boston’s city council would be more friendly to pro-driver regulations.

Undeniably, a tax which solely benefited TNC workers would be justified; after all, we are the ones who make Uber and Lyft run! But from the perspective of political strategy, raising revenue for wider issues will be crucial to passing any tax on TNC rides. There may be some legislators who would support a bill that was totally focused on benefiting drivers, but unfortunately they are few and far between. We need to pair benefits for drivers with revenue for projects that are both popular with voters AND that can be used to build coalitions with various activist groups, such as affordable housing, public transit, education, greening the rideshare industry, and more. With a legislative vision that benefits BOTH drivers and Massachusetts residents, we will be able to mobilize enough support to pressure lawmakers and push our program through the state house.

Photo by Jorge Ramírez on Unsplash

We should expect that Uber and Lyft push back against any tax on the TNCs. They will say that such a tax is bad for riders because it will increase the price of the ride, and bad for drivers because it will mean less work. It is true that if the money from a tax on TNCs simply vanished into thin air, it would be worse for riders and drivers. But our tax money will not vanish into thin air! We will invest the money raised into improving conditions for drivers, improving the organizing power of drivers, and delivering public goods to the residents of Massachusetts. The only ones who will be worse off are Uber and Lyft’s executives and shareholders.

A Rideshare Drivers Bill of Rights

If we are to pass legislation benefiting drivers in the legislative session starting in January of 2021, we are likely to have just one shot. This means that we should gather all of our legislative priorities and push them in one bill: A Rideshare Drivers Bill of Rights. Here are some ideas of what we would include:

  • A state pathway to unionization – the same as our current campaign “Fix and Pass s2778”
  • A tax on TNC rides with revenue going to:
    • A drivers resolution center, grants for green vehicles, a driver healthcare fund, a driver scholarship fund, and a drivers’ credit union.
    • Affordable housing, public transit, education, and more.
  • A minimum wage of $20/hr plus expenses.
  • A mandate on the TNCs to follow basic employment laws including overtime, paid sick leave, and paid parental leave.
  • A limit on the number of new drivers.
  • Better regulations for drop off and pick up zones to keep drivers and passengers safe. 

Building Support for Our Legislation

Taking on Uber and Lyft, even indirectly through the legislature, will be a tremendous fight. We should not only expect Uber and Lyft to spend millions lobbying Massachusetts politicians against our legislation, but also expect the TNCs to recruit other members of the big-business community to aid their fight. Our fight will be an example to other workers, and the bosses know this. They will do everything in their power to keep us down!

We will not be able to beat the bosses without a widespread and vigorous campaign. Our first step is to continue to organize rank and file drivers to follow, support, and participate in BIDG activities. We will need to raise money through voluntary dues and grants in order to open our first office and hire organizers. We should learn from the Lawrence workers by organizing drivers based on their nationality and language; BIDG should host special meetings in Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and the other main languages of the drivers.

Following this logic, we can reach out to non-driver leaders of these various communities. We must immediately begin meeting with key religious leaders, for example local leaders of mosques and Catholic clergy who run services in Spanish and Portugeuse. We can also reach out to groups like the Chinese Progressive Association. We must educate these leaders about the issues facing drivers and our plan to help both drivers and the wider community. These leaders can help us connect with drivers in their communities who may never have heard of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild.

As soon as possible, we must also reach out to activist groups who we intend to include in our coalition. While we can share our own ideas, it is important that we listen to these groups and involve them in the planning process so that they feel genuine ownership over the legislative plan. We must meet with relevant unions and groups working in the fields of public transit, affordable housing, urban planning, and environmental justice. And we must identify and meet with our strongest allies at the Massachusetts state house.

From there, we can meet with local and state politicians from communities with large numbers of drivers, such as Lynn, Revere, Dorchester, and Framingham. We can get them to endorse our program and educate their constituents about its benefits.

In order to organize and coordinate this coalition, it may be beneficial to launch a wider group, which could be called “Coalition For An Equitable Rideshare Industry.” This group can host its own meetings of community partners to bring together our different interests and to plan our campaign. Organizations will be able to affiliate to the coalition, lending at least symbolic support if not material support. Of course BIDG will play a leading role, but we must bring all partners together as equals in order to build real commitment from allied groups to the campaign.

This fight will not be easy. But the alternative is to sit back as Uber and Lyft continue to cut our pay and treat us like machines. We can debate over the details of this or that proposal, but any rideshare driver who desires fair pay and respect on the job must not remain silent. Now is the time to stand up and fight!

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