Florida Uber and Lyft drivers launch an effort to organize for better pay, better app policies
By McKenna Schueler on Mon, May 1, 2023 at 9:28 am
Local rideshare drivers are organizing with a group that’s come under scrutiny in the past by some labor activists and organizers.
Uber and Lyft drivers rallied outside airports in Orlando, Tampa, and Miami on friday to launch a campaign for fairer pay distribution and the right to negotiate for things such as better app policies and job protections.
Coming on the heels of the killing of an Uber Eats driver in Pasco County, the organizing campaign of the Independent Drivers Guild is months in the making, according to Uber driver Adalberto Perez, an organizer for the new Florida chapter of the Guild.
Nearly 100 rideshare drivers, mostly people of color, rallied at Airport Lakes Park as part of a planned work stoppage to formally announce their demands for Uber and Lyft. The two most popular rideshare companies, drivers say, hold onto a bulk of what they charge passengers, forcing drivers to work multiple jobs or to work long hours to make ends meet for themselves and their families.
“We work hard for our money,” said Arifa Tirmizi, an Uber driver of seven years, who first began organizing with the Guild up in New York. “We’re immigrants,” she added, “We’re from the United States — wherever you’re from. But as humans we have rights. We work very hard to support our families, and now we’re here to make our noise.”
The Independent Drivers Guild, formed in 2016, is an affiliate of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Union.
It’s not a labor union in the traditional sense, in part because Uber and Lyft classifies its drivers as “independent contractors” and not employees, which affects the rights they’re afforded as workers under federal law.
The Guild, an organization that’s come under scrutiny by some labor organizers, was born out of a partnership between the Machinists and Uber itself. The group describes itself as worker-led, and advocates for and represents more than 250,000 app-based drivers across New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois, New York, and now Florida as well.
According to the organization’s website, the Guild’s primary aim is “to fight for the right to collectively bargain,” in addition to securing a living wage for Uber and Lyft drivers and fighting “unfair” deactivation, in which a driver is barred from picking up new rides on the rideshare app.
Under the companies’ current guidelines, Uber and Lyft drivers can be deactivated for a number of reasons, including allegations of fraud or harassment, discriminating against passengers, or failing a background check.
The problem is, spontaneous deactivation creates a precarious situation for drivers who rely on the income they generate through their rides. In Florida, a rising number of working Floridians are struggling to meet basic needs already.
Drivers are able to request a review or file an appeal if they feel the activation was unwarranted, but some told Orlando Weekly that, in practice, it’s not so simple.
Tirmizi, a mother of seven who drives full-time, said one of the challenges with Uber, for instance, is that labor for the support line is outsourced. You call the number you’re given as a driver, and end up reaching someone in a different country who reads you a generic script, promising that the company will accelerate your case — with no guarantee when or if you’ll soon be able to return to work.
And while it is often described as “gig” work, this isn’t just a “gig” for many drivers these days. Many treat it as a full-time job.
Perez, one of the earliest organizers of the new Florida chapter, told Orlando Weekly he drives for Uber six days a week, often 10 to 12 hours per day.
Adalberto Perez, an Uber driver in Orlando, who’s organizing with other local rideshare drivers for better pay and app policies. Back in 2021, he said, money was good. He’s driven full-time for Uber for three years. But in recent years, he’s seen his earnings drop — while Uber is charging passengers more, at the same time they’re squeezing driver pay.
One of the Florida chapter’s demands of Uber and Lyft is for better pay distribution. They want the drivers to earn 70% to 80% of what the apps are charging riders. Then, Uber and Lyft can see the rest.
As it is, “it’s unfair,” said Perez. Not only for the drivers but for riders, who have to deal with the higher fares — especially when prices surge. Plus, riders often don’t understand that drivers aren’t seeing that extra surge fare they’re forking over to make it from point A to point B.
Just a few dozen drivers, clad in red “Independent Driver’s Guild” shirts, rallied on Friday. But Perez said he communicates with a WhatsApp group of over 1,000 Uber and Lyft drivers in the Orlando area alone.
Pulling out his phone, he scrolled through a list of names for Orlando Weekly, his face glowing with pride as he demonstrated just how many drivers they’ve connected with in the Central Florida area alone who are interested in organizing for greater fairness in their work.
“We move the city,” one rideshare driver declared, with a crowd of drivers standing behind him in solidarity. “We move the passengers, and we are spending our money on gas, car, insurance — and we are also getting old,” he said, earning some laughter.
Many of the drivers gave speeches in Spanish, but the cohort was diverse: a group of Brazilian, Colombian, Venezuelan, Chilean, Dominican, Haitian, and U.S.-born drivers, asking to be afforded a living wage for honest work.
Originally from Chile, Pradenas has lived in Florida for 30 years, but beyond the Guild, “There’s no one in Orlando for us,” he said. No labor organization has been able to advocate for them as workers — and the reason why is complicated.
While labor unions in the Orlando area are alive and winning gains for workers, gig companies like Uber and Lyft have long resisted classifying their drivers as employees, pushing to ensure their drivers remain classified as “independent contractors.”
This holds serious weight.
Unlike employees, independent contractors are not legally entitled to things such as hourly minimum wages, workers’ compensation, health insurance benefits, or the right to collectively bargain.
The Independent Drivers Guild describes itself as the nation’s largest rideshare driver advocacy group.
But some labor activists have another term for it: a “company union.”
As the New York Times has reported, the group was born out of an agreement between Uber and the Machinists Union back in 2016, which gave drivers the opportunity to meet with Uber officials to enter into an open dialogue and advocate for improvements in company policies.
“Forming this Guild is crucial for thousands of drivers who need a stronger voice, and gives organized labor an opportunity to shape the new economy,” IDG founder James Conigliaro, Jr., said in a statement at the time.
But the group has also been scrutinized for receiving an undisclosed sum of money from Uber, in exchange for forfeiting the right to challenge drivers’ status as independent contractors.
Federal law prohibits employers from financially contributing to labor organizations that represent their employees, but this doesn’t apply to labor organizations like the Guild that represent independent contractors.
In California, for instance, gig companies like Uber spent more than $200 million pushing for a controversial 2020 ballot initiative known as Proposition 22. It allowed app-based companies like Uber and Lyft to classify their labor as contractors, in order to exempt them from a 2019 California law that set a new standard for determining whether workers there should legally be considered employees.
The National Labor Relations Board and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, per the Miami New Times, have supported the classification of Uber and Lyft drivers as independent contractors.
Gig companies like Uber have also spent over $1 million lobbying Congress to influence support for the Protect the Right to Organize Act, a sweeping federal labor proposal that would, among other things, enact stricter safeguards against worker misclassification.
“If a significant number of Drivers were to become unionized and collective bargaining agreement terms were to deviate significantly from our business model, our business, financial condition, operating results and cash flows could be materially adversely affected,” Uber wrote in a 2021 financial filing in explanation of their position on driver reclassification.
The Independent Drivers Guild, for its part, ostensibly supports the PRO Act but does not necessarily support the reclassification of drivers as employees. “Every worker deserves protection, regardless of how they’re classified,” IDG organizing director Aziz Bah told Orlando Weekly.
Workers who make Uber and Lyft billions, he added, deserve the same protections as employees.
The PRO Act, reintroduced earlier this year, was announced the same day that an anti-union bill in Florida, targeting most public sector unions, was filed by state legislators. That Florida bill just passed last week.
While controversial among some of those who work in the labor movement, the IDG has nonetheless claimed victories for drivers since its formation. The group advocated in favor of a tipping option from Uber and for a higher minimum wage for app-based drivers in New York City. They’ve staged rallies and protests in cities where they have a presence, like Chicago.
It’s also just one of a number of labor organizations that have emerged to advocate for the rights of rideshare drivers, alongside groups like Gig Workers Rising, Los Deliveristos Unidos, Rideshare Drivers United, and the International Alliance of App-Based Transport Workers, a coalition of groups (including the RDU and GWR) that has launched its own international campaign to stop unfair deactivations.
IDG is the only organization Orlando Weekly is aware of that has a direct partnership with Uber. But it’s also the only known labor organization actively organizing Uber and Lyft drivers in Florida.
“If you’re an independent contractor, you’re not alone,” said Tirmizi, who’s been with IDG nearly since she first started driving for Uber in 2016. “We’re making our hard-earned cash — money — and it’s not for somebody just to come and take it away from us. We work very hard and IDG is here to support us.”