Uber and Lyft Drivers Rally For Right to Form Unions

John Zapata, a 53-year-old Uber driver, holds up a banner at the rally on Tuesday

Uber and Lyft drivers protested outside the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s headquarters in Queens on Sept. 27 demanding the right to unionize.

The protest was organized by the Local 1181 chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the largest labor union representing transit workers from the U.S. and Canada.

Around 30 angry drivers and ATU members had gathered, brandishing banners accusing Uber and Lyft of exploiting them. Syed Manzar, a 55-year-old driver, stood on a makeshift podium and shouted slogans through a megaphone as protesters followed suit.

“What do we want?”

“Union!”

“When do we want it?”

“Now!”

Uber and Lyft drivers are independent contractors, not employees, and hence do not have the right to form unions. This means that they cannot collectively bargain or negotiate with the company on matters like pay rates. Drivers feel that without a union, companies like Uber can act any way they want and exploit drivers for their own profit.

“This is 2016. Expenses are high, and our fares are low like it’s the 70s,” driver Jesus Garay told the crowd.

Drivers gathered at the rally said that fare cuts, like Uber’s 15% one in January, forced them to work longer to make the same amount of money. Moreover, starting in November, drivers will not be allowed to drive more than 12 hours per day or 72 hours per week, according to a new law. Drivers say that this will make paying bills even more difficult.

“The low fares are not fair given the fines that we have to pay,” said Evelyn Garcia, a 51-year-old Dominican immigrant and taxi driver who was fined for an illegal street hail, or picking up waiting passengers from the street without using the app. This April, the city council increased penalties for illegal street hails to up to $10,000.

“Sometimes you have to pay your bills, and there’s no way to do it. You have to do what you need to do,” said Garcia when asked why drivers continue to pick up passengers illegally.

Since February, the ATU has collected 14,000 signatures from drivers working for Uber, Lyft and other app-based transit companies for a petition demanding the right to unionize. The signatures were submitted to the National Labor Relations Board, the federal authority that makes decisions regarding unions.

The ATU also submitted a letter to the TLC Commissioner on behalf of the 14,000 drivers urging the TLC to hold an election for drivers to determine which union they wanted to be represented by.

“We are here to ensure that your right to organize is recognized,” City Councilman I. Daneek Miller, former President of the ATU Local 1056, told the crowd.

“We have already introduced a legislation similar to the one in Seattle,” said Councilman Miller referring to the first-of-its-kind law that Seattle passed last December allowing drivers at companies like Uber to form unions.

“The 14,000 signatures will certainly give us a good reason to move forward,” said Councilman Miller.