On the Road Fighting for Labor — Part III
Los Angeles: Drivers show up in force
We rolled out of San Diego and up Interstate 5 along the Pacific coast caravanning in solidarity in the warmth of the morning sun. The traffic was much lighter than I recalled from my occasional unintentional forays into Orange County while working the morning rush hour after dropping my daughter off at school. Unintentional, because as a driver you must go where the rides take you. You do not have the liberty to choose where you will work like a true independent contractor. Many times, I would find myself working that morning shift on the back of a graveyard, having come home in the dawn to take a quick nap before my daughter’s mother dropped our angel off at my house on her way to work.
As a rideshare driver, I had to work when I could, and as much as I could, because the pay was so low. It wasn’t as oppressive in my early days of driving, but conditions have gotten worse as the companies have constantly changed their contracts with us without the individual negotiation usually entitled for a true independent contractor. We have to agree to these unfair adjustments in our rates — 25 pages of legal mumbo-jumbo that must be reviewed and signed off on our phones from the driver seats of our cars before we can begin our shift at work. The companies are also infamous for sneaking arbitration agreements into those contracts, whereby we sign away our rights to take the company to court for the millions owed to us in unpaid wages. Proposition 22 is just the next installment in unethical and dishonest business practices by companies who are masters in the art of deception.
The corporations have also significantly decreased the compensation for drivers over time through their various restructurings of the methodologies used to calculate driver rates. A sliding bonus scale and detailed algorithms allow the company to manipulate and maximize the effort of each driver based upon the amount of time they are generally willing to work each week. Moreover, the bonuses the companies had initially offered during my first year of driving had slowly decreased in value and had now even completely disappeared on the Lyft platform.
In the final weeks before the pandemic, I was averaging between sixty and seventy hours a week to make what can easily be misconstrued as a sustainable living wage. I was in reality sinking deeper into debt as I mortgaged the value of my personal vehicle in exchange for the opportunity to work for the rideshare corporations as a contracted worker, providing rides at far below market value — a rate set by them and not myself, the supposed independent contractor.
Meanwhile, the companies steadily hired as many drivers as they pleased, because they did not have to take responsibility for these workers, thereby fortifying their control over the transportation market and exponentially increasing the value of their company — all while drivers slowly slipped further into debt. I like to say driving rideshare is like taking a loan out on your car: only a loan that you have to work for, and one where your collateral is your vehicle — a car you usually owe the bank for due to a pre-existing loan.
Back to the caravan…I got briefly disconnected as we pulled into LA for I had to fuel up for the next leg to Bakersfield. When I pulled into the LA rally, I was welcomed by the rest of the Rideshare Drivers United (RDU) caravan that had driven up from San Diego in conjunction with hundreds more LA drivers from RDU and the Mobile Workers Alliance (MWA). There was a sea of light blue and bright green flags flying from sedans and SUVS that packed the downtown parking lot.
We heard inspiring speeches by many fellow drivers and traded tales of the trade in smaller socially distanced circles assembled around our vehicles. A resounding chorale of car horns, air horns and cheers echoed through the caverns of downtown after veteran driver Estephernie St. Juste wrapped up an emotional speech with a final impassioned plea to the rideshare corporations: “Please, you’re breaking the law. If you would just understand that if you supported us (the drivers), you would be supporting yourselves. Vote No on Proposition 22!”
St. Juste also remarked that she could not imagine the exploitation of these companies being tolerated by workers in her homeland of Haiti, an underdeveloped nation where she admitted that working conditions weren’t always ideal. I was also moved by the emotional testimony of another fellow driver who was a devoted and hard working mother, although I could only pick-up some of what she said due to my limited Spanish.
The assembled crowd of drivers was diverse and certainly evidence of the fact that the rideshare corporations’ unfair law is an assault on the underclass and minorities. Studies have shown that around ¾ of drivers are from ethnic minorities and historically underprivileged backgrounds. The companies have further exploited the vulnerabilities of these populations by threatening us with the loss of our jobs if we do not support their law.
People who live check to check and are underpaid can ill afford to go even one week without earning money. These threats seem like nothing more than just words, as it would be hard to imagine the companies vacating their most developed markets for even one week — leaving a void for already poised competitors to move in on an established marketplace.
Cars began lining up behind a Mobile Workers Alliance truck with giant video screens on all sides. We slowly rolled out into the streets of LA, uncoiling like an angry viper from our fully stacked alignment of hundreds of cars belonging to underpaid rideshare drivers and other gig delivery workers. We then slithered our way in formation through downtown, hundreds strong, next heading up the famed Highway 101 in the shadow of the Hollywood sign with our blue and green flags flapping in the wind.
The MWA truck would lead the caravan from LA up through California, rolling footage displaying past acts of resistance by rideshare drivers across our state both on the streets and in the California legislature. There we had already won our rights from our employers with the passage of AB 5. But the companies who we worked so hard for were still refusing to acknowledge us as essential employees and refused to follow the law. Instead, they chose to invest their money in deception by pouring millions of dollars into writing their own unjust and unfair law—a law that would leave us vulnerable to wages as low as $5.75/hr according a UC-Berkeley authorized study.
An hour or so later, we made our way over the Grapevine, down into the fields of Central California where we were about to embark upon a wonderful lesson on the history of labor struggle in California, and where we would soon be inspired by a personal message delivered from a legendary leader in the global struggle for human rights…
This article is a part of a series of reflections from the various stops on a rolling journey of political activism encouraging voters to support No on Proposition 22.
D. Thayer Russell is currently in the process of assembling and writing hundreds of tales and reflections from a 4-year, 250,000 mile plus journey as a rideshare driver working across the great State of California. He is a former high school teacher, baseball coach, and dedicated father to his amazing, talented, and beautiful daughter.