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Then and Now

The Teamsters Of The 21st Century: How Uber, Lyft, And Facebook Drivers Are Organizing

The famous labor union is steaming into the gig economy in a big way. Today they're helping organize a walkout by Uber drivers.

[Photo: Flickr user Jeffrey Smith]

When you think of the Teamsters, you might still think Jimmy Hoffa. But you should also now think Uber, Lyft, and even Facebook.

That's because the Teamsters are taking a bold step into the new sharing economy by organizing Uber and Lyft drivers in Los Angeles and San Diego and attempting to represent drivers for Facebook and Cisco employee shuttles. Drivers for ridesharing services are classified as independent contractors whose incomes vary wildly depending on the hours they work; however, many drivers allege they are working more hours for less money as ridesharing services become more popular and that services like Uber intentionally keep drivers off the road at peak periods in order to ensure surge pricing. Drivers for Bay Area employee shuttles, meanwhile, are largely full-time employees with benefits at private transportation companies which have contracts with Silicon Valley's tech companies.

There are, of course, some complications. And this might be the biggest one of them: At the same time that they’re organizing the independent contractors who drive for Uber, Lyft, and others in southern California, the Teamsters are working with taxi unions in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to restrict Uber’s presence in the nation’s capital. It’s a very 21st-century story of old-guard organizations adjusting to a changing economy, and how the subcontractors and full-time independent contractors that make up an increasing part of the workforce scramble for leverage.

We're seeing the gig economy becoming an important part of the workforce, and labor unions are responding. The drivers who shuttle Facebook and Google employees up and down Route 101 in Internet-enabled buses aren't Google employees; they instead work for transportation companies that bid on lucrative tech company contracts. Uber and Lyft drivers are hailed through a proprietary app that takes a cut of their profits, but are legally considered independent contractors, even if their customers think of them as "Uber drivers."

Welcome to unionization in the digital economy.

Drivers, Start Your Organizing

This past August, a Teamsters chapter in the Los Angeles suburbs launched the California App-Based Drivers Association (CADA), which represents drivers for Uber, Sidecar, Lyft, and a host of lesser known services. The organization is affiliated with hundreds of drivers in southern California, maintains close ties to Teamsters Local 986, and promotes their efforts on internal-facing message boards for Uber drivers such as Uberpeople.

In a telephone interview, CADA declined to give membership numbers but noted that they are affiliated with Teamsters Local 986 and also receiving logistical assistance from Seattle's Teamsters Local 117, which has worked with Uber drivers in the past.

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Today, October 22, CADA and the Teamsters are calling for a "Global Day of Protest" (PDF) which appears to be a quasi-strike aimed directly at Uber, with a protest planned for the company’s Los Angeles headquarters. A flyer distributed to Uber drivers says the protest aims to show drivers are "more than just the ‘dude in the front seat,’" which they allege was how CEO Travis Kalanick previously described them. Similar protests are reportedly planned outside Uber offices in other major cities.

Employees appear to have mixed feelings about the protest. Drivers in Los Angeles have been penalized for speaking out about working conditions before (Uber recently fired a driver for retweeting an article that mentioned how Uber drivers were recently robbed at gunpoint in LA and then reversed the firing following negative publicity), so this writer did not ask drivers he used while taking Uber for work about their feelings directly. Gauging from the responses on Uberpeople, a popular social network for Uber and Lyft drivers, there are ambivalent feelings about CADA and the idea of protesting outside of Uber's offices.

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In an open letter to Uber management sent also to Fast Company, Joseph DeWolf Sandoval, an UberX driver and CADA's cofounder, included a list of complaints his fellow drivers and himself have about Uber specifically, and what are characterized as unfair practices by ride-sharing services in general.

DeWolf alleges Uber is against negotiating with drivers as a group, that Uber and Lyft's price war has decreased fares dramatically (which, while beneficial for customers, reduces the amount drivers bring home), that Uber has increased their commissions on drivers at the same time fares were being reduced, that Uber's rating systems for drivers functions as a "Sword of Damocles" which leaves them unable to respond to sexual harassment, insults, and dangerous or illegal behavior, and—most damningly—that UberX, UberBlack, UberPlus, and UberSUV services don't include any tip for the drivers.

"On numerous occasions riders have vociferously insisted that the tip must be included, and that it is in their invoice, only to check their invoice and see that the fare is a calculation of the time, plus the mileage, plus the base fare, plus any tolls or surge charges," DeWolf wrote.

"The more drunk the customer, the more animated the discussion gets about tips, and they harder the crash is when the customer realizes that Uber has been misleading them from the get go."

The open letter also alleges that drivers are subject to an unfair and arbitrary deactivation and firing process that does not allow drivers to appeal or find out why they have been "permanently deactivated." It is important to note that many Uber drivers personally purchase or lease vehicles up to Uber's specifications solely for the purpose of driving, and are on the hook for payments even if they have lost their job.

Threads on Uberpeople indicate that Uber drivers in Santa Monica, California, are planning a three-hour walkout on Wednesday (believed to be from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET) in solidarity with the protest. During the walkout, participating Uber drivers will turn their app off for three hours. The Uber Drivers Network in New York and the Ubers Drivers Network in San Francisco are reportedly participating as well.

Multiple attempts to reach Uber by press time were unsuccessful, but Uber drivers report the company is planning countermeasures such as offering incentives for drivers on October 22.

But while the Teamsters are organizing Uber drivers in California, they’re lobbying against them in Washington, D.C.

The Washington Connection

In the nation’s capital, the Teamsters operate the Washington, D.C. Taxi Operators Association (WTOA), a trade group dedicated to fighting "unfair regulations and lack of respect." And Uber is at the very top of the list of issues WTOA is tackling, along with representation, and slow re-compensation from credit card reader vendors.

According to the WTOA, Uber "service is unregulated or, if there are regulations, they are minimal compared with taxi drivers. They play by different rules and it is hurting the taxi drivers' livelihoods." Last Friday, October 17, Teamsters-affiliated cabbies held a protest outside Union Station against a D.C. City Council bill which would lighten regulation for Uber and Sidecar.

"The bill would create a two-tiered system and continue to give the private-sedan services (such as UberX and Sidecar) a huge competitive edge," Teamsters promotional materials said. "Drivers are urging changes to the bill so that it would create a level playing field between the private-sedan services and taxis. The illegally operating private-sedan services are stealing the taxi drivers' work and many drivers are struggling to make ends meet."

The Teamster-affiliated trade group in Washington is almost a mirror image of their Uber- and Lyft-driving affiliate in Los Angeles. Only instead of fighting for the interests of ride sharing-service drivers, they’re representing drivers of medallion cabs. Both group’s tactics—protests and collection of dues from drivers—remain largely the same.

Meanwhile, back in California, another group of drivers are organizing. Only instead of working for ridesharing services, they’re driving the private buses that have become a shorthand for the massive tech-ification of the Bay Area’s economy.

The Facebook Drivers

In early October, Mark Zuckerberg received a letter that was different from the emails and meeting memos that usually circulate around Menlo Park. Rome Aloise, the head of Teamsters Local 853, sent an official letter to Facebook that the drivers who shuttle the company’s employees to and from work were organizing. Forty employees of Loop Transportation, the charter operator which has rights to the lucrative Facebook contract, went public with their request to seek representation from the Teamsters.

"While your employees earn extraordinary wages and are able to live and enjoy life in some of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the Bay Area, these drivers can’t afford to support a family, send their children to school, or, least of all, afford to even dream of buying a house anywhere near where they work," Aloise wrote.

He added that "It is reminiscent of a time when noblemen were driven around in their coaches by their servants. Frankly, little has changed; except the noblemen are your employees, and the servants are the bus drivers who carry them back and forth each day."

In a telephone conversation with Fast Company, Aloise said, "Dot com companies have billions of dollars and don't want to share it."

Facebook isn't the only big tech company where drivers are organizing and seeking representation from the Teamsters. After drivers at Loop organized, Cisco drivers reportedly contacted the Teamsters as well. An undisclosed number of drivers for Bauer's Intelligent Transportation, Cisco's contractor, are seeking representation as of press time. The Teamsters also claim that one of the drivers who was trying to get representation for Bauer employees was fired after signing a letter.

Speaking off the record, a source close to the organizing effort claimed that drivers at Loop first tried to organize in early 2014, and were given a $0.75 per hour raise a few days later. By the summer, the source said, drivers saw they were scheduled for fewer hours or that routes were cancelled, and they decided to organize again.

The drivers are seeking new contracts—and an end to "split-shifts." The typical Loop Transportation driver starts work early in the morning and wraps up at approximately 11 a.m., with another shift shuttling Facebook employees back to San Francisco or the East Bay beginning a few hours later. Thanks to the high cost of living in the Bay Area, the drivers largely cannot afford to live within commute range of Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park. Instead of having the option to work a second job or spend time with their loved ones in-between shifts, drivers instead are limited to hanging out in Facebook’s cafeteria or finding a place to grab a nap.

According to the New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse, Loop Transportation says most of their drivers earn between $18 to $20 an hour, along with health and dental benefits. Loop keeps one set of drivers for Facebook, who work split-shifts of both morning and evening commutes.

Drivers for Loop Transportation and similar contractors are likely candidates for unionization in the near future. The rapid growth of the Bay Area’s high-tech sector, the tendency of many companies to settle in suburban office parks, and the propensity by many tech employees to live in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley have led to the growth of a shadow public transit system with Wi-Fi enabled buses and express shots down 101 from the Mission District to distant suburbs.

And the Teamsters know it. Unlike most public transit employees, drivers for contractors like Loop aren’t unionized. Aloise added in a New York Times interview that they hope to organize drivers for Apple, Google, and other companies in the future. The plan, it seems, is for drivers at tech companies to unionize in a domino effect—after one company’s drivers unionize, another will follow.

Aloise says that the union did not receive a response from Loop or Facebook. The Teamsters have filed a petition for election with the National Labor Relations Board. This is the next step in the process that eventually leads to labor unions such as the Teamsters formally representing employees.