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App-based drivers revive push for union rights

Labor advocates and app-based drivers rally outside the State House to demand the right to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions. (Sam Drysdale/SHNS)
Labor advocates and app-based drivers rally outside the State House to demand the right to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions. (Sam Drysdale/SHNS)

App-based drivers rallied around the State House in downtown Boston on Wednesday afternoon to call for collective bargaining rights.

After an election cycle where ride-hailing and food delivery drivers' rights were originally planned to be on the ballot, drivers for apps such as Uber, Lyft, Doordash and Instacart joined with labor advocate allies to attempt to reinvigorate calls for a union ahead of the new legislative session set to start in two weeks.

"Rideshare drivers and delivery drivers need a union, they need a voice in the workplace. Tens of thousands of app-based workers in this state live on the brink of poverty because of the exploitation of Uber and Lyft and other app-based platforms like them," said Mike Vartabedian, assistant directing business representative of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers' Massachusetts Union District 15.

Drivers for Uber and Lyft say the percentage of the cost of the trip that ride companies collect from each ride has doubled, or even tripled, in the last few years, taking profits away from drivers.

"I remember when I started driving five or six years ago, they used to take 20%, now without even bringing it to our attention, we look at the trip and suddenly they took 40% or even sometimes 60%," said driver Ehab Hilali.

Meanwhile, Hilali said, the cost of living has gone up and gas prices — which drivers bear, along with the costs to buy their car, pay insurance and do routine maintenance — have skyrocketed in the past year.

Another point driving calls for a union is that the app-based companies can terminate a driver's account at any time without cause, advocates said.

Bolivar Soto, a driver who worked for both Uber and Lyft for over five years, was abruptly terminated from Uber two months ago and from Lyft yesterday, he said on Wednesday. He had a 4.95 out of 5 star rating, he said, and earned top "platinum" and "diamond" classifications from the companies.

Soto got into a car accident two months ago and is currently in the midst of court proceedings to identify who was at fault. He says he doesn't think he caused the accident.

"I don't find it right that they would take me off the app if I haven't been found guilty," Soto said. "They're not treating us with respect."

Another driver who spoke at Wednesday's rally said he suffered a concussion when he was in a car accident in September and is still unable to drive.

"After the accident, I haven't heard from Lyft at all, I have not been able to work. I have had zero income for the last three months," he said through a translator. The driver used the name Alan and did not give a last name.

Though the question of drivers' employment classification has been an ongoing issue in Massachusetts. A planned ballot question would have codified the workers classification as "independent contractors" this year and there's ongoing litigation from the attorney general's office to make drivers "employees." Advocates on Wednesday said the question of a union is separate from conversations around gig workers' status.

Representatives of labor group 32BJ SEIU, who joined with the Independent Drivers Guild and the Chinese Progressive Association outside the State House, said legislation they plan to file next session will focus on getting drivers "the full rights of a union to be able to engage with Uber and Lyft" and Vartabedian said it will not address the employment status question.

"Employment status is being fought out by the attorney general," Vartabedian said. "But drivers need help right now. So our legislation allows them to unionize regardless of whether they continue as employees or independent contractors."

Attorney General Maura Healey, who will be governor by the time the advocates file their unionization petition, sued Uber and Lyft in 2020, alleging the companies misclassify workers to boost profits.

The nearly 200,000 drivers in Massachusetts, the majority of which the companies say work part-time hours, do not have access to a guaranteed minimum wage, guaranteed paid sick leave, workers' compensation or traditional unemployment insurance that they would gain if they were deemed to be employees, Healey said.

By improperly categorizing their fleets, she argued, Uber and Lyft are able to pocket "hundreds of millions" of dollars every year that they should be paying in benefits and into state systems.

"The bottom line is that Uber and Lyft have gotten a free ride for far too long," Healey said at the time she filed the suit. "For years, these companies have systematically denied their drivers basic workplace protections and benefits and profited greatly from it."

As Healey takes up the role of governor, it will be up to Attorney General-elect Andrea Campbell to continue the ongoing litigation, while Healey can play a role in any legislative efforts.

The question of employee status came up in the form of a ballot question this year — backed and funded by rideshare and food delivery companies — that would have established in state law that drivers working for such platforms are independent contractors, while also establishing some benefits like paid family and medical leave and accrued sick time.

The ballot question was derailed by the Supreme Judicial Court in June when it ruled the proposed ballot question contained "at least two substantively distinct policy decisions" putting the proposal at odds with constitutional requirements for initiative petitions.

Whether they are employees or independent contractors, drivers said Wednesday that they want improved pay, working conditions and benefits.

"They are taking advantage of drivers, people who are immigrants and speak English as a second language. But I know my rights, and I'm going to stand up for my rights," Hilali said.

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