Gig Drivers’ Unjust Working Conditions and a Path Towards Unionization

Published on Oct. 25, 2023

Popular app-based ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, have paved the way for many workers to make  income on a flexible schedule, however, their opposition to Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), has pushed drivers to be classified as independent contractors rather than employees.

Leading up to the November, 2020, general election, countless ads praised Prop 22, which excluded ride-share drivers from being classified as employees, claiming that it would mean more independence for drivers. Prop 22 became the most expensive ballot measure in California, as a whopping $220 million was spent campaigning for it.

However, these campaign claims were extremely misleading of driver “independence,” as it meant that the transportation network companies could get away with having fewer driver safety precautions, for example, no longer taking accountability or proper actions when drivers are sexually assaulted.

Unfortunately, the misleading messages aimed at drivers and voters ultimately led to Prop 22 being passed. The reality was that being labeled an “independent contractor” meant no longer being entitled to benefits like paid sick leave or unemployment insurance. According to the Washington Post, published June 2023, the decision to pass Prop 22 holds the potential to negatively affect millions of low-wage workers across the United States.

About 16 percent of Americans have earned income in the gig economy, according to a 2021 Pew research study.  In light of gig worker rights being stripped away, workers have begun banding together to put an end to gig worker exploitation. As stated in an April, 2023, Mission Local report, hundreds of Uber drivers circled Market Street headquarters on May 11, 2020, chanting and honking in protest. In addition, gig workers from 15 countries rallied at San Francisco International Airport and Uber headquarters to demand proper worker rights. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has a Facebook page for Uber and Lyft workers to share their experiences and take action toward gaining status as employees.

In addition to Prop 22 putting drivers at a higher risk of bodily harm, it has decreased freedom for drivers. Felipe Martinez, began working as a full-time Uber driver in 2017. One of the benefits he enjoyed was being able to create his own flexible schedule, in addition to the unlimited destination filter on the app. However, these benefits were taken away when Uber began claiming that drivers were taking advantage of these perks. Countless experiences similar to Felipe’s, in which drivers’ work advantages were being jeopardized, led to lawsuits against the ride-share companies.

As reported in a March, 2023, New York Times article, a lawsuit was filed claiming Prop 22 was unconstitutional. Being an independent contractor had its perks until companies began changing policies and the algorithm, making it easier to abuse drivers. The lawsuit alleged that Prop 22 unconstitutionally limits California’s power to protect the rights of ride-share workers. Instead, under Prop 22, drivers lose countless safeguards associated with being an employee.

According to a May, 2021, Los Angeles Times report, shortly after the lawsuit, Uber and Lyft decided they would threaten to remove all apps statewide. One of the concerns Uber and Lyft addressed in regard to the lawsuit was that by changing the status of drivers from independent contractors back to employees, rates for the passengers would increase. In response, Uber cut back on driver pay rates and removed the ability for drivers to cancel rides, in addition to many other benefits of the app being taken away.

Despite the apparent issues associated with denying drivers employment perks, in March 2023 the California Court of Appeals ultimately ruled to uphold Prop 22. This will allow ride share companies to continue bypassing other state laws requiring worker protections and benefits. The denial of the 2021 lower court ruling that Prop 22 is unconstitutional means ride-share workers and supporters alike must continue to campaign for proper gig worker rights.

A March, 2023, CBS News report discusses the fact that while this ruling was a major loss, it can in no way prevent drivers from banding together in a labor union to bargain for better working conditions. One ride-share worker stated after the ruling, “our right to join together and bargain collectively creates a clear path for drivers and delivery workers to hold giant gig corporations accountable.”

“But make no mistake, we still believe Prop 22 — in its entirety — is an unconstitutional attack on our basic rights,” he continued. Unionization efforts were seen shortly after the ruling.

In April, 2023, many Uber and Lyft drivers began rallying throughout airports in Florida. This was a monumental effort to unionize, to lift wages, and gain much needed worker protection. Efforts such as these bring hope to drivers. President of the Independent Drivers Guild,  Brendan Sexton, stated that these efforts have previously worked in several northern states. “It’s about banding together and fighting for what’s right,” he said.

“Drivers and workers all over the country and the Florida drivers are just the latest example of workers being fed up and taking a stand and fighting for their own working conditions, pay and benefits” Sexton went on to state.

Organizing in support of positively transforming the gig worker economy is vital to bring back worker benefits and safe working conditions. A fantastic resource for getting involved is Gig Workers Rising. Gig Workers Rising organizes meetings, listening sessions, protests, and takes effective steps towards better gig worker wages and protections. Attend a meeting, rally, or even just spread awareness to help support and protect gig workers.

by Krystal Rosales-Alejandre and Faith Roder

Action Steps

  1. Write to your senators to fight for the PRO Act. Click here

Additional Materials

  1. Read about the campaign to pass the PRO Act here.
  2. Read about the assault on Uber and Lyft drivers and riders here.