Uber and Lyft drivers demand their rights as employees
Marilyn Bechtel/PW

SAN FRANCISCO – Market Street, this city’s main thoroughfare, resounded with auto horns and chants Aug. 27, as a stream of cars bearing Uber and Lyft markers cruised slowly past Uber’s headquarters, and drivers gathered with labor and community supporters to crowd around the ride-share giant’s front door.

Driving the cars, and voicing the chants, were hundreds of members and supporters of the Mobile Workers Alliance and Gig Workers Rising, traveling in a three-day caravan from Los Angeles to California’s capital city, Sacramento, in support of Assembly Bill 5, “Worker Status: Employees and Independent Contractors.” The bill would set the legal standard in California to determine whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee.

Along the way, the caravan visited other communities including Delano, headquarters of historic struggles for farmworker rights led by United Farmworkers leader Cesar Chavez. The drivers modeled their journey on the historic pilgrimage Chavez led from Delano to Sacramento in 1966.

AB 5, introduced by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, passed the Assembly with an overwhelming majority at the end of May. It is now before the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee, and if passed by the full Senate and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, it will become effective Jan. 1.

The bill codifies into law the state Supreme Court’s decision last year in “Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles,” that set out three requirements employers must meet in order to classify workers as “independent contractors.” Under its terms, employers must show that such workers are free from employer control, that their work is outside the regular scope of the business that is hiring them, and that they are independently established in that trade.

The Uber and Lyft drivers, currently classified by their employers as independent contractors, point out that the ride-share companies control their work, and that their function – driving – is indeed vital to the companies’ overall functioning.

The drivers shared gripping stories of the daily difficulties they face, and why they are demanding to be reclassified as employees covered by minimum wage and overtime requirements, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, paid sick days and family leave.

“People matter!” one told the crowd. “People are not machines, nor should they be chained to an app. People deserve to be treated with dignity by their employer.” Citing the need for “basic protections” such as fair pay, retirement and health care, he added, “When I get incapacitating back pains from driving long hours, I should be able to recover, rather than keep working through weeks of agonizing pain.”

Drivers also pointed to recent changes the ride-sharing companies have made that have slashed the amount drivers are paid. Some said the pay cuts were forcing them to sleep in their vehicles.

One Bay Area Uber driver said he usually works 12-hour days, sometimes totaling 80 hours a week. “Before,” he said, “I would make around $10,000 a month. Now, I might make $6,000. Still, I have to pay $1,000 a month for gas, I still have to pay my insurance, my car note, any kind of maintenance on my car – so that $6,000 starts depleting real fast.” To top it all off, he said, Uber also wants drivers to provide their passengers with amenities like water, candy, and chargers.

The crowd erupted in applause as Democratic Party presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg told them, “I’m here because where I come from, ‘gig’ is another word for job. If you’re working a gig, that makes you a worker and you ought to be protected as a worker! That means you deserve a minimum wage, protections from workplace and sexual harassment, overtime pay – and yes, that means you deserve a union!”

In expressing support for AB 5, Buttigieg is joined by five other leading contenders for the Democratic Party nomination: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, California Senator Kamala Harris, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, and former Texas Congressmember Beto O’Rourke.

As they reached Sacramento Aug. 28, caravan participants were greeted by legislative leaders including the bill’s author, Assemblymember Gonzalez, who told them that misclassification harms not just workers, but also employers who do follow the law, and taxpayers who must pick up the tab for health care and other basic needs when employers aren’t doing their fair share.

Marilyn Bechtel/PW

“We’re simply asking these billion-dollar corporations to do what we expect the mom-and-pop pizza parlor down the street to do: pay their workers fairly and give them the right to organize,” she said.

If the bill continues its successful journey through the legislature, and Governor Gavin Newsom signs it into law, Gonzalez said, “On Jan. 1 of next year, people’s lives will change!”

Observers have noted that Newsom has yet to make public his views about AB 5, though he has indicated that he is involved in discussions on worker classification. Assuming state Senate passage, he would face a mid-September deadline to sign the legislation.

Woven throughout the discussion on AB 5 is its relevance far beyond the growing realm of ride-share driving. Other discussions of the measure have drawn participation by elder- and child-care workers, house cleaners, and providers of various services.

Many of the truck drivers who move goods to and from the nation’s ports have struggled for decades to be recognized as employees instead of being made to bear the entire burden of leasing and maintaining trucks that meet environmental and safety standards.

A new report released Aug. 22 by the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, “Truck Driver Misclassification: Climate, Labor, and Environmental Justice Impacts,” highlights the huge environmental damage that can result when misclassified drivers lack the resources to maintain vehicles that can operate in ways that are safe for the environment, and identifies AB 5 as a potentially significant contributor to maintaining environmental health.

The California Labor Federation, which has supported the legislation since its inception, says AB 5 will close loopholes that let gig companies classify workers as independent contractors so they can impose pay scales rather than collectively bargain them and avoid providing basic workers’ rights or compensating work-related expenses.


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.