The Ride Gets Rougher: Organizing Gig Workers Through a Pandemic

Credit: We The People

A year ago on May 8, 2019, Uber and other ride-hailing app drivers demonstrated their collective power by launching a worldwide day of action to protest continuous cuts to driver pay. Uber and Lyft drivers in California now plan a follow up day of action next week, on May 11, and actions today include a national Facebook live event. Grocery and delivery service workers throughout the US organized strikes and demonstrations last week on May 1, International Workers Day. In a time of national and global lockdown due to COVID-19 we literally can’t live without these workers. All these actions have called out our economic schizophrenia regarding whether gig workers are in fact essential or disposable.

Many politicians and corporate executives, safe in their bunkers, have hailed the drivers, grocery and delivery people and warehouse workers for their bravery in showing up to work during a spreading pandemic, calling them essential to our well-being (which they are). Yet they show no qualms about continuing to profit from a business model that seeks to turn everyone into a disposable gig worker.

Some are heralding the immediate wave of actions as a new dawn for the labor movement. But people working in the gig economy, denied employment status and the benefits it confers, have actually been organizing all along. Perhaps it’s just that now their organizing is becoming visible, and winning the broader support from formal labor movements, consumers and communities that it has always deserved.

I’ve been tracking informal worker organizing around the world for some time, and make no mistake: what we are loosely calling ‘gig’ workers have always existed. They are variously called freelancers, informal workers, precarious workers, non-standard workers and they’ve always made up the majority of the world’s working people. And it’s always been nearly impossible for them to exercise collective power. But now they are facing surveillance and unprecedented capital concentration. Platforms like Uber, Doordash and Instacart have, for the first time, amassed a wealth of data and control over an enormous labor pool, not only in the US but around the world. The ways in which work is being fragmented, ‘optimized’ and algorithmically managed is definitely presenting new challenges even to already precarious workers in low wage countries. When a large share of informal labor comes under the control of a handful of corporations, is it still really ‘self-employment’?

Let’s go back to May 8 of last year. What started as a California-based action spread to Europe, Latin America, Asia and sub-saharan Africa. To be sure, the numbers of drivers participating in the actions were relatively small. But it was in its own way a ‘shot heard round the world.’ The global spread of the message through driver chat groups, Facebook pages and word of mouth highlighted the resonance of the message: gig work is work and no worker is disposable. And I noticed that after the May 8 action, the demonstrations only seemed to gain steam. I kept hearing about protests and actions from Toronto to Nairobi to Dhaka. In France drivers called a nationwide strike that shut down the company offices nationwide. In India they launched a national federation of drivers.

I spent the year interviewing women and men around the world whose jobs are affected by technology — the so-called “future of work.” My concern, especially in the developing countries where I’d lived and worked for many years, was not that robots would take people’s jobs: it was that apps would become their bosses. I’m sharing what I learned through this year of interviews in a new podcast, The Gig.

During this past year I witnessed gig workers self-organize and propel a wave of activity that included lawsuits and legal challenges, successful advocacy for new legislative protections, and ongoing grassroots organizing. And this is what we see today: workers pushed to the brink by the terrible choice of their health and lives or their jobs. An economy that wants to push workers into ever more precarious conditions. They are not suddenly realizing what’s happening. They are taking the organizing that they have carefully and painstakingly been building all along, that we have failed to observe, and recognizing that this is the moment to grab all of our attention and make us notice something they’ve been pointing out all along: they are not self-employed. They work for some of the largest companies the world has ever known, and those companies have been getting away for years with a subversion of our labor markets.

It’s time to redefine work for the 21st century, and make sure those who profit are responsible to pay and protect workers. We might have imagined that this week’s organizing, nearly impossible as it was even under normal circumstances, would be completely derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet these efforts may prove to have been incredibly important seeds for a future movement. Some of the organizers behind last year’s action are now fighting to ensure that their members, unable to work during the crisis, are able to access the unemployment compensation they need and deserve. Their efforts last year are making it possible to represent these drivers today. And it’s thanks to the continuous organizing that there is a public spotlight on governments. California took historic action this week to hold Uber and Lyft accountable for their misclassification of drivers. This would never have happened if not for the wave of activism that has continued through this year and through the pandemic.

And as one of the organizers I interviewed, Yaseen Aslam, recently reminded me, after the crisis is over we won’t go back to the way we did things before. The contact-free transactions enabled by apps mean we will see more and more apps around the world. The guidelines and protections that he and his fellow organizers win today will have an incredibly important future impact.

I’m sharing what I learned through this year of interviews in The Gig. I encourage you to listen to the stories he and other drivers and organizers have shared with all of us and see if you agree.

Expert on labor, gender equity and workplace social inclusion, labor migration and trafficking. Interested in the intersection of tech and social movements.