Uber Drivers and Others in the Gig Economy Take a Stand

Last September, Dallas-area drivers for UberBlack, the company’s high-end car service, received an email informing them that they would be expected to start picking up passengers on UberX, its low-cost option.

The next day, when the policy was scheduled to go into effect, dozens of drivers caravaned to Uber’s office in downtown Dallas and planted themselves outside until company officials met with them. Many had taken out loans to buy luxury vehicles that cost upward of $35,000, and worried that the modest per-mile rate for UberX passengers would barely cover gas and wear and tear, to say nothing of their car payments.

The standoff stretched across nearly three more tense days until Uber allowed them to opt out of the policy. “They thought we were just going to give up, walk away,” said Kirubel Kebede, a leader of the group. “But we said, ‘No, this is our livelihood.’”

In the rapid growth of the online gig economy, many workers have felt squeezed and at times dehumanized by a business structure that promises independence but often leaves them at the mercy of increasingly powerful companies. Some are beginning to band together in search of leverage and to secure what they see as fairer treatment from the platforms that make the work possible.

“We started realizing we’re not contractors, we’re more like employees,” said Berhane Alemayoh, one of the UberBlack drivers in Dallas. “They tell us what kind of car to drive. They kick you out if a customer accused you of not having a clean car. They started to tighten the rope. Gradually, we can’t breathe any more.”

Perhaps the most prominent effort was a measure to give ride-hailing drivers the right to unionize in Seattle, which was approved by the City Council in December.

But while many campaigns by alienated workers have shunned this more traditional labor-organizing approach, they have highlighted a basis for advancing the interests of gig economy workers collectively.

“There’s a sense of workplace identity and group consciousness despite the insistence from many of these platforms that they are simply open ‘marketplaces’ or ‘malls’ for digital labor,” said Mary L. Gray, a researcher at Microsoft Research and professor in the Media School at Indiana University who studies gig economy workers.

The efforts extend well beyond drivers for Uber and its prime competitor, Lyft. A group of couriers who find work on the platform Postmates is waging a campaign to create an “I’m done after this delivery” button because they worry that turning down jobs will affect how many future assignments they receive. (A Postmates official said turning down jobs had no effect on future work, but that the company was still sympathetic to the idea.)

The National Domestic Workers Alliance, which organizes nannies and housekeepers, recently produced what it calls the Good Work Code, which it has urged gig economy companies to adopt.

“They would be dispatched to a home that didn’t feel safe, but would be hesitant to exit themselves from that situation because it might affect their ratings,” said Palak Shah, the alliance official leading the effort, citing one of several issues that the Good Work Code is intended to address. A handful of firms, like Managed by Q, LeadGenius and CareLinx, have embraced the guidelines. . . . 

Read the full story at the New York Times. 

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