Uber and Lyft Drivers Ramp Up Organizing Efforts, But Question Big Unions' Motives

Al Aloudi has organized some 4,000 Uber and Lyft drivers in the Bay Area. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

According to statistics from Uber and Lyft, there could be up to 2 million drivers nationwide. Some of these workers have started organizing for higher wages, benefits and enforcement of Assembly Bill 5, which would make them employees in California.

Big unions like the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union have gotten involved, especially through supporting the launch of a San Jose nonprofit called Gig Workers Rising. While drivers embraced the attention of these big unions at first, recent news has made some drivers, like Al Aloudi, suspicious of their motives.

Aloudi has become a kind of godfather for Bay Area drivers. He’s been working for Uber and Lyft since 2013. Quickly after he got on the road, he started organizing drivers.

Aloudi's organizing work began at a Yemeni community center — he said a lot of Bay Area drivers are Yemeni, like him. At the center, he saw that his fellow drivers needed help, so he started getting their numbers and setting up groups on WhatsApp or Facebook for drivers to talk through their problems.

These groups were filling in for what Aloudi said the companies weren’t doing. Sometimes it was something simple — like a driver got a flat tire or had a dead battery. Other times he and others in the group would help drivers with something serious — like when they got kicked off the app or when they were assaulted by a passenger.

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Then in 2014, a price war erupted between Uber and Lyft, which were using their stockpiles of venture capital to fight for market share. Driver earnings began to plummet.

Aloudi and a few other drivers he was close with decided they should try to organize protests. They started getting fellow drivers to come out and publicly speak against what Uber and Lyft were doing to its workers.

Aloudi says drivers like him can only get Lyft and Uber to give them a good deal if they have a strong community. Now, after seven years in the business, he has a really strong community.

“My power is knowing people,” Aloudi said. “I don’t know people just from the profile on Facebook. I know people in real life.” And he knows a lot of people. Aloudi whips out his phone and shows me his contacts. He’s got the names, numbers and emails of over 4,000 local drivers.

Aloudi said because of his organizing, he was contacted by Gig Workers Rising. The group promised to help drivers like him get what they want and to have their voices heard, he said. Aloudi trusted them, so he handed over the list of drivers he’d spent years building.

Organizing gig workers is difficult because companies still classify them as contractors, which has been used to bar them from joining a typical union. Companies like Uber and Lyft have fought hard and in various ways to keep their workers from being employees, and therefore allowed the right to unionize. This leaves drivers with far less options than workers have in other industries.

When drivers in New York City were clamoring for some kind of organization to represent them, Uber stepped in to help set up an organization called The Independent Drivers Guild. The guild receives money directly from Uber, and then funnels some of that money back to its union affiliate.

This kind of arrangement does not sit well with Aloudi and some of his fellow drivers in San Francisco. He doubts that the guild could really fight and represent drivers if it is taking money from Uber. Aloudi wants something different.

At first, Aloudi said, he thought Gig Workers Rising could help. He and his fellow drivers especially wanted them to help change the lack of benefits, the falling wages and the power Uber and Lyft have to deactivate drivers.

Over the last few months, Aloudi felt like he was listened to less and less at meetings. On top of that, he’s heard a few things that alarmed him about the big unions like Teamsters and SEIU, which are involved with Gig Workers Rising.

For one thing, there were reports last fall that the Teamsters and SEIU were talking with Uber and Lyft about watering down California’s landmark gig worker law, AB 5. Word spread that instead of designating drivers as employees, the unions would make a deal that would keep them contractors.

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Then there are the emails from a recent investigation into the Teamsters by its Independent Investigation Officer. The emails are between members of Teamsters leadership, and they suggest that the union thought it could use Uber and Lyft drivers to make money. The emails reference the idea of setting up something like the Independent Drivers Guild in New York City, which remember, gets money directly from Uber and kicks that back to its union affiliate.

This was the last straw for Aloudi. He said he doesn’t want to be involved with a big union that’s going to make backroom deals or that sees him and his fellow drivers as a potential source of income. He wishes he never gave up the contact information of all the drivers in the community he helped organize.

In a statement, Gig Workers Rising said it was never part of any deals to weaken California’s gig worker law, and while the group launched with support of Teamsters and SEIU, it is a separate entity. The statement added that the organization is concentrating right now on fighting the measure to destroy AB 5 that gig companies are trying to get on the ballot for the fall.

Even so, Aloudi said he is done with Gig Workers Rising and the big unions. Aloudi is now organizing with a different group, Rideshare Drivers United. He said he likes that it was started and is run by workers, not big unions.

“Nobody is going to fight our fight,” he said. “We’re going to have to fight our fight, but with the right people.”

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Aloudi will work with anyone who can get drivers what they want, which is simple, he said: they want to work, they want decent wages and employee protections like worker’s compensation.