Uber and Lyft Drivers are Organizing In Atlanta


August 1st, 2019

ATLANTA - There have always been significant barriers to workers organizing collectively for their own interests. These obstacles are numerous - a challenging labor law system, aggressive and often illegal employer tactics to hinder organizing, and a general unfriendly culture towards unions. However, even in Georgia, a state with 4.6% union density - the 46th lowest rate in the country - a group of workers are organizing in an industry that seemed bulletproof. Starting in May of this year, drivers of major rideshare apps Uber and Lyft came together in Atlanta to create an organization that would be able to defend their common interests. Wildcat Project spoke with Medina, a rideshare driver in Atlanta, who affirmed, "...this is what we need to do, just like keep supporting each other. If we don’t support each other who will?"

Rideshare Drivers United Georgia, a young but ambitious organization, took upon the monumental task of uniting and organizing Uber and Lyft drivers throughout the state to better their working conditions. The organization faces many challenges, the first one being the very employment model drivers are constrained under. Uber and Lyft classify their drivers as independent contractors. In practice, this means that drivers are not covered by basic employee protections and benefits such as overtime pay and worker's compensation. But most importantly, they do not have the formal right to a union, which is a provision legally guaranteed to most other private sector workers. Rideshare drivers face a supplemental barrier to organizing due to the nature of their work, a very isolated and divided environment where drivers rarely interact with one another while they are working.

Drivers make much less income than one might imagine. According to a 2018 report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), Uber drivers receive on average $10.87/hour after deducting for fees, vehicle expenses and mandatory taxes paid by the driver. This rate is less than the lowest paid major occupation. Other issues are prominent in the world of rideshare drivers, such as safety and protection from arbitrary decisions made by the rideshare companies. As a response to these circumstances and other issues, labor activity in the rideshare economy has been growing and gaining support in the past couple years, leading to a significant upsurge in the first half of 2019.

Drivers in the city of Los Angeles first started organizing in 2017, during which they staged two strikes at the city's primary airport, LAX, as a response to a significant pay cut. As a consequence, Rideshare Drivers United was formed in 2018 by the same drivers, who concluded that a permanent organization of their own was needed to assure that their message and grievances would reach Uber and Lyft. In March of 2019, the members of this new organization called for and participated in a 25 hour strike to protest a further pay cut by Uber from 80 cents to 60 cents per mile. Although the participation in the one-day strike represented only a minority of drivers, the message gained public attention and the still infant organization, Rideshare Drivers United, came out of the event strengthened.

Two months later, the drivers in Los Angeles and throughout the country called for a national day of action on May 8th of 2019, only days before Uber's expected Initial Public Offering (IPO), its official Wall Street debut. Drivers participated in a dozen of cities throughout the United States including Atlanta, as well as in other parts of the world. This event represented an important step in organizing activity as the first coordinated action reaching beyond the limits of a given geographical region.

In Georgia, the May 8th call-to-action brought dozens of drivers out in the streets to picket in front of the Atlanta offices of Uber and Lyft. These workers used this opportunity to unify and coordinate further activities at the local level. They planned and hosted the first Georgia driver meeting a month later on the 5th of June. Close to a hundred drivers gathered at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) hall to meet each other and to elect an executive board. A new organization was born: Rideshare Drivers United Georgia.

On July 27th, the organization held their first "summer luncheon" for drivers to assemble, share work experiences and envision new ways to move forward. Wildcat Project attended the luncheon and had conversations with drivers about their time driving, their involvement with the organization and their dreams for a better future. Christopher, a full-time rideshare driver, shared his vision with Wildcat Project, "If we can get drivers together and actually get our voices heard they would actually have to do something... or we can all just shut it down." While the attendance at the luncheon was inferior to the first driver meeting event in June, it is clear that the drivers are beginning to believe in this organization’s vision for change. Medina brought this point home: "When you have dedication, everybody’s going to start coming around."

Rideshare Drivers United Georgia has identified three main demands the drivers are pushing for throughout the state: Austin Gates, chair of the organization, shared these priorities with Wildcat Project: "The three things we focus on are safety, pay, and sustainability." These drivers have expressed that many aspects of the industry need to change moving forward and they are committed to putting in the necessary work to assure that Uber and Lyft provide them with dignified work conditions and the opportunity to voice their demands.

From Los Angeles to Atlanta, the seeds of organization and solidarity have been sown in the rideshare economy. The public is starting to hear about what driving for these companies looks like, and what the pay really ends up being. Will drivers manage to unite beyond their atomized "workplace" where workers rarely see each other? The strategic use of airports as a hub for workers-drivers to meet in person might offer an answer for Atlanta drivers as it has for Los Angeles drivers. Social media also offers an avenue for drivers to hear about events they might not have encountered in person. Finally, will the general public decide to support these drivers if the struggle becomes heated, or are customers of ride-sharing apps too comfortable to invest themselves in this fight? Ven, a full-time driver at the recent luncheon, was willing to share some final thoughts with us: "What I would like to see... is rideshare drivers get a better and a fair shake."