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The gig economy’s deepest problem isn’t about tech at all

The executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance sees a crisis of poverty and despair among app drivers.

The gig economy’s deepest problem isn’t about tech at all
[Photo: Antonio DiCaterina/Unsplash]

The giants of the gig economy, from Lyft and Uber to Grubhub and Instacart, like to claim that they’re technology companies—and they’re certainly valued like tech unicorns.

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But according to Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents 21,000 professional drivers who drive everything from yellow cabs to town cars to Uber and Lyft vehicles, the biggest issues with the gig economy are not fundamentally about technology.

“Tech has been used as an excuse,” she said during a panel at the AI Now Symposium at New York University last week. “It’s the business model, not the technology. It’s the business model that we’re organizing against.”

That business model involves low pay for drivers in an effort to keep rides cheap for customers. Price is the biggest mechanism for rideshare companies to compete with each other, which has resulted in a race to the bottom, with drivers getting shafted as a result. Unlike salaried employees, drivers are also responsible for buying their own gas and taking care of their vehicle—all without any benefits and sky-high payroll taxes.

At the symposium, Desai—who has been on the front lines of organizing some of the biggest protests against Uber and Lyft in the last year—spoke passionately about poverty among app drivers.

“Last year, in six months, we had 26 street actions. During that time, our goal was not to get the attention of the mayor but the attention of drivers,” she said. “To say, ‘Don’t succumb to despair.'”

The levels of poverty among drivers today are among the most extreme she’s ever witnessed—in part because drivers are on what she calls the “front lines of this economic shift” toward contract work.

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This shift extends all the way back to the 1970s, when the taxi industry changed drivers from commissioned employees to independent contractors. Desai founded the New York Taxi Workers Alliance in 1998 and built solidarity among drivers for years. She described how the alliance won its biggest living-wage campaign yet in 2012: Drivers were going to see an annual increase of $10,000 to $20,000 in their income, along with a health and benefits fund. “We really believed that in the next few years, we were going to reach our goal of collective bargaining and full unionization,” she said. “Then came Uber and Lyft and Wall Street wealth, and everything changed.”

By 2016, a poverty crisis had spread through the entire workforce of 100,000 professional drivers in New York.

“We’re talking about massive bankruptcies, foreclosures, evictions,” Desai said. “We’ve had Uber and Lyft members . . . end up in homeless shelters for six months at a time, to drivers talking about food scarcity, to people living in their cars and sleeping at the airports overnight. We saw such high levels of depression and despair, and eventually we started to see the suicides.” Since 2018, there have been nine suicides in New York among drivers for ride-sharing and cab companies.

“On every flyer and e-blast, we had a box with the suicide prevention hotline number,” she said. “I could never have imagined in 23 years of organizing that we would have had to put down a suicide prevention hotline number on a flyer where you’re also talking about policies and rallies. That’s the heart of our struggle against the gig economy. It’s so much poverty and despair.”

White-collar tech workers, including those at gig economy giants, have been brought into this fight as well.

“I’ve seen Uber engineers come out and support Uber drivers on our May 9th Uber strike [which Desai organized] on the streets of San Francisco in front of Uber headquarters, really putting their own jobs in jeopardy,” said Veena Dubal, an associate law professor at University of California Hastings who researches the gig economy and who spoke on the same panel at the AI Now Symposium.

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This kind of solidarity didn’t happen before, when taxi workers initially became gig workers.

“Ten years ago, when we were organizing the taxi industry, we were never going to get someone from Lehman Brothers to come out and stand in front of City Hall with us and protest,” Dubal said. But it’s different now. Her research has shown that the contractor-based business model cuts across many tech companies that have so-called “shadow” workforces, making this close to home for tech workers who see stratification within their own companies.

There is some hope. Dubal points to the recently passed California law that was designed to reclassify drivers as employees. Desai points out that Uber and Lyft spend more on lobbying than Amazon, Walmart, and Microsoft combined—and the companies have pledged to fight for an exemption to the bill.

But despite the challenges, it’s a landmark victory, and proof that organizing can make real change.

“We recognize our fight is with the bosses, not with fellow workers,” Desai said. “Unless we band together we’re not going to win this fight.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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