The year of the gig worker uprising

'A pivotal year not only for gig workers but for workers across the tech economy'

2019 was a momentous year for gig workers. While the likes of Uber, Lyft, Instacart and DoorDash rely on these workers for their respective core services, the pay does not match how much they’re worth — which is a lot. It’s this issue that lies at the root of gig workers’ demands.

“This past year has been a pivotal year not only for gig workers but for workers across the tech economy,” Gig Workers Rising co-organizer Lauren Casey told TechCrunch. “That unto itself is a win — to see mass mobilization of workers across apps, across sectors and across positions.”

Instacart workers kicked off the year with a class-action lawsuit over wages and tips, and spoke out against Instacart’s practice of subsidizing wages with tips from customers. The suit alleged Instacart “intentionally and maliciously misappropriated gratuities in order to pay plaintiff’s wages even though Instacart maintained that 100 percent of customer tips went directly to shoppers. Based on this representation, Instacart knew customers would believe their tips were being given to shoppers in addition to wages, not to supplement wages entirely.”

Shortly after that lawsuit was filed, Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta apologized and said the company would take steps to ensure tips were counted separately. Following Instacart’s capitulation, DoorDash and Amazon eventually followed suit and stopped offsetting worker wages with tips.

While Instacart now pays workers their full wages plus 100% of tips, workers take issue with the fact that Instacart’s suggested default tip decreased from 10% to just 5%.

In October, Instacart shoppers went on strike for 72 hours across the nation. Instacart responded by getting rid of a $3 quality bonus. This month, Instacart shoppers are engaging in six days of actions in protest of the company, including filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor as well as filing a wage claim.

“We’re still just trying to get this one tiny thing: double the default tip percentage,” Instacart shopper and protest organizer Sarah (pseudonym) previously told TechCrunch. “We’ve tried endlessly to get them to raise the base guarantee pay. But we feel like, fine, at least give us the higher default tip.”

Meanwhile, DoorDash still has yet to offer back pay to workers who were subjected to the misappropriating of tips. In protest of Instacart, DoorDash and Postmates, labor group Working Washington delivered bags of peanuts their respective offices as a symbol of the pay workers receive.

“This was the year gig workers built a movement that seized control of the future of work from the tech lobbyists and venture capitalists,” Sage Wilson of Working Washington told TechCrunch.

The organizing that Sarah and Wilson have done along with fellow worker-activist Vanessa Bain has helped to bring more attention to the grievances workers have with Instacart.

“A lot of the tendency in talking about the gig economy is to talk about rideshare,” Bain said. “It’s understandable because there are so many rideshare drivers, but I also think there are other ad-hoc workers on platforms that have similar but distinctly different grievances.”

Uber and Lyft drivers go from zero to 60

In February, following the carjacking and murder of an Uber driver in Denver, many drivers became much more aware of the risks that come with the job, Lyft driver and member of Gig Workers Rising Edan Alva told TechCrunch.

“The company didn’t do much for him,” Alva said. “The complete refusal of Uber to take any responsibility for this risk increased resentment and more drivers were looking to change things.”

The following month, Alva participated in a mass meeting of Gig Workers Rising, where they came up with their priorities and determined what they were trying to achieve. They landed on fair pay for drivers, transparency, the ability to organize and form a union and benefits.

Come May, a couple of months after Lyft went public and shortly before Uber made its debut on the public market, drivers were ready to make a statement. Ahead of Uber’s initial public offering in May, drivers protested nationwide, including outside of the company’s San Francisco headquarters to demand better wages, benefits, transparent policies and a voice.

“Uber year after year keeps cutting the rate and how much money they pay to drivers year after year,”  Uber driver and Gig Workers Rising member Mostafa Maklad told TechCrunch ahead of the protest. “Right now, to make the same money I used to make when I started, you have to drive between 70 to 80 hours a week to make even a little less than how much money I used to. They put a lot of stress on us drivers to drive a lot of hours in order to make money. If you don’t, you can’t make money and it’s not going to be worth it.”

That protest garnered a ton of media attention and was ultimately a successful one in the eyes of Bain.

“I think it was most successful in really hijacking the narrative to be centered around workers,” Bain told TechCrunch. “There wasn’t a single article I read about Uber’s IPO that didn’t mention its worker grievances.”

Fast forward to August, and drivers affiliated with Gig Workers Rising and Mobile Workers Alliance organized a three-day caravan across California that ended right out front of Uber’s HQ. They were protesting Uber’s wage practices and showing their support for California’s Assembly Bill 5, a gig worker protections bill that ultimately became law.

And, when Uber’s post-IPO lockup period ended, workers targeted early Uber investors and other people who were gearing up to “profit off of rideshare exploitation,” Bain said. “That was one of the first actions to hold individuals accountable for their actions.”

Making strides in California

In September, gig workers had a major win when California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law gig worker protections bill AB-5.

AB-5 is designed to help to ensure gig economy workers are entitled to minimum wage, workers’ compensation and other benefits by requiring employers to apply the ABC test. The bill, first introduced in December 2018, aims to codify the ruling established in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v Superior Court of Los Angeles. In that case, the court applied the ABC test and decided Dynamex wrongfully classified its workers as independent contractors.

According to the ABC test, in order for a hiring entity to legally classify a worker as an independent contractor, it must prove the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity, performs work outside the scope of the entity’s business and is regularly engaged in work of some independently established trade or other similar business.

This legislation will make it harder for gig economy companies to classify their workers as 1099 independent contractors when it goes into effect in January.

“I think that was a huge turning point for gig workers and probably really the first time anybody in a regulatory or government role has really stepped up for workers,” Bain said. “I think that set an example to what is possible when it comes to regulating the gig economy and putting workers before corporations.”

ab 5 uber lyft

The victory came after gig workers made their voices heard through protests and other direct actions.

“I would venture to say that gig workers organizing and demanding to not only be part of the conversation, but to see the passage of the bill was instrumental in the larger conversation and debate sparked in the state and the country,” Casey said.

Already, San Diego City Attorney Marta W. Elliott has filed a lawsuit against Instacart, alleging the company misclassified shoppers and independent contractors. Though, AB-5 does not become law until the beginning of next year. Meanwhile, there are also other states that are looking to pass legislation that is similar to AB-5, including Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

2020 vision 

Companies that rely on gig workers did not want AB-5 to pass. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart are all backing a 2020 California initiative that aims to ensure drivers and couriers remain independent contractors.

“This ballot measure protects worker flexibility, improves the quality of on-demand work by establishing historic new earnings and benefit guarantees and protects public safety and consumer choice,” according to the ballot initiative’s site.

Called the Protect App-Based Drivers & Services Act — which Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have each put at least $30 million into — looks to implement an earnings guarantee of at least 120% of minimum wage while on the job. It would also guarantee 30 cents per mile for expenses, a healthcare stipend, occupational accident insurance for on-the-job injuries, protection against discrimination and sexual harassment and automobile accident and liability insurance. But many workers oppose this ballot initiative, saying Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart are simply trying to avoid accountability.

“AB 5 is not about Lyft and Uber,” Alva said. “It’s a very important piece of legislation but all it is is a definition of who is a contractor and who is an employee. The problem is that Lyft and Uber are still refusing to accept that definition — I suspect because they have nothing to lose. Every day they operate this way means they earn more money. So, they will have to be sued, which I assume will happen on Jan. 1, 2020.”

That means it’s an uphill battle from here, Alva said, given the amount of money Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart have put into the ballot initiative. While Uber and Lyft can send out their sides of the story via push notifications, Alva and the folks at Gig Workers Rising have to go driver by driver, worker by worker.

“That puts us at a disadvantage but we are ready to do what we need to do,” Alva said. “Drivers are often ending up confused because of this misinformation Uber and Lyft send through the app. So I find myself going to drivers and explaining how there is nothing in any labor law that prevents us from being flexible.”

Bain agrees that the ballot measure creates new challenges, which means she and other gig worker-activists will need to spend much of their energy combatting it. She has no doubt that workers will succeed, but realizes it will take a lot of work and a lot of people power.

“This year is going to be a very turbulent and intense one,” Bain said. “I think in a lot of really good and a lot of really bad ways. I think it’s going to be a square off between workers and corporations, and seeing who really holds the power and who is really the best at persuading public opinion.”

Moving forward into the new year, there will surely be more organizing but Casey hopes there will be more murmurs of cross-class solidarity.

“How incredible would it be to see more headquarter workers stand in solidarity and support gig workers who are organizing,” she said.

There was a bit of that this year, when the Tech Workers Coalition joined forces with Gig Workers Rising in protest of Instacart. But there’s room for a lot more of that.

Additionally, Bain hopes a labor organization or some other company will step up and actually pay workers like herself, Alva and Sarah to organize.

“Most people can’t afford to organize at the capacity a few of us have taken on,” Bain, who said she spends at least 40 hours a week organizing, said. “The cycle of poverty that we’re all trapped in doesn’t allow for a lot of people to do the organizing in the same way a lot of people would like to do it. I am hopeful and optimistic that someone who is much better funded than gig workers will step up and create some more formalized campaigns where workers who have done this work can be the same folks out that are out there continuing to do the work but for compensation.”

No matter what happens in the coming year, it’s clear that workers are refusing to stay silent, are more than willing to advocate for themselves and have growing support from the public.

“I think the strongest thing we did this year was prove to the workers that the general public cares about us,” Sarah told TechCrunch. “People thought we were dumbasses and lazy and I think people respect us more and recognize the gig economy is bad. I think our power has grown and that’s a good thing. I think gig workers as a whole are more unified now. I feel like the gig economy is really crashing now.”

Casey agrees that the narrative of what the gig economy is has shifted. Now, we’re at a place where, she said, “people are understanding the inherent greed and manipulation of gig companies, and that their business models rely upon exploiting a vulnerable workforce.”