Drivers for the ride-hailing service Uber turned out in the streets of Queens on Tuesday morning, demanding their right to unionize outside the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission in Long Island City.
"We demand living wage fares, no pool fares, protection from exploitation, union representation," read one big green sign held up by one Uber driver, a middle-aged black man with a tan jacket and blue pork pie hat.
The ride-share workers — categorized as "independent contractors" rather than employees by tech companies like Uber and Lyft — had joined up with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, which represents city bus drivers. Copies of over 14,000 signed union cards sat in a fat bundle on the table in the center of the demonstration, 10,000 cards thicker since May.
"We're asking the Commission to order Uber and Lyft and those other companies to negotiate with us, and we believe under their charter, they have the ability to do so," said local President Michael Cordeillo.
Uber, however, told VICE News that the 14,000 cards held no authority, since the ATU was not organizing against an employer, but a regulatory agency, that is, the Taxi Commission. Since Uber doesn't categorize its drivers as employees, organizers admit they're having trouble finding the best way to get drivers recognized.
"It's uncharted territory," said Chris Townsend, field director at the ATU.
It was an old-fashioned rally. The ride-share workers, joined by bus drivers, marched in front of the Taxi Commission barking out chants from a bullhorn. Cop cars flanked either side of the street as people who worked inside the Commission building slowed down to check out the protest.
A few passing Uber and Lyft drivers liked what they heard and waded into the demonstration to sign union cards.
"I support this," said Jaydip Ray, 36, a skinny guy with a blue hoodie, moments after walking away from joining up, as another young man took his place. "We need benefits. Without benefits, we don't have any future."
Ray is happy to be a career Uber-driver, he said, so long as he gets some protections. "I want to stay with this, if it's good and I'm making money with benefits and a future."
Two or three years ago, you could make an actual living as a driver. That was after taxes, and even after you paid for the gas, tolls, car maintenance, and insurance, expenses that add up to thousands of dollars each month. (Part of the tech companies' model is passing these costs to workers.)
But in January, Uber slashed its fares and rates, and now drivers are scrambling to chase their old daily income. Base fare in New York went from $3 to $2.55; the per-mile rate from $2.15 to $1.75; and the per-minute rate from 40 cents to 35 cents.
"Before they lowered the rates, I used to make $400 or more than that a day," said John Zapata, 53. "Now I have to work harder than that — now sometimes there's a fare for as little as $3.00."
Zapata signed up with the union three or four months back. "A full work week, without wasting or losing a day, is 60 to 70 hours," he said. "As drivers, we spend so many hours working in order to make a living when the wages are so low — the lower the wages, the harder we have to work."
"They dropped the fares so much that we have to work 15, 16, 17 hours a day to make some money," said Pedro Acosta, 49. "I work around 15 hours every day, so I put in maybe 90 hours a week."
An official statement from Uber on the protest read: "Uber NYC strives to offer drivers the best and most flexible earning opportunity. There is more competition for drivers in New York than ever before across every part of the commercial car industry. Making Uber the top choice for drivers is more important than ever which is why we are working closely with drivers to listen to their feedback on how we can improve the app."
An Uber spokesman needled Tuesday's turnout, adding that the crowd was padded with bus drivers who stopped by to cheer it on. It's certainly true that the rally fell short of the hundreds that came out to protest when Uber slashed their fares.
Acosta said his fellow drivers might have been too busy trying to make a living. "I think [drivers] think they can't come down for two hours, they don't have time," he said, adding that there wasn't space for parking for drivers to stop by. "But they know how important it is."
The next crisis, Townsend says, will be when the city imposes a new 12-hour limit on how long drivers can hustle. It's meant to be for the benefit of workers, but with the way Uber and Lyft pay their drivers, the regulation would likely claw even more money away from them.
Back in May, Uber agreed to let a new branch of the International Association of Machinists "represent" its drivers, but the new Independent Drivers Guild is more of labor-management relations board than an actual union. Crucially, the "guild" isn't allowed to let drivers collectively bargain for contracts and actually agreed to refrain from encouraging unionization.
The ATU may not win this round, but it has tapped into a movement that isn't going away. "We're searching for some lawmaker or regulator, him or her, who wants to step up and say, 'This is an unacceptable situation,'" Townsend said.
One such lawmaker is City Councilman Daneek Miller, a former president of the ATU and chair of the Labor Committee. He's looking to pass legislation akin to the bill passed by the Seattle city council last year that gave Uber and other ride-share drivers the ability to unionize. It was the first city in America to do so, and Miller hopes it's not the last.
"Thirty years I've been a part of this union," he told onlookers through the megaphone. "And you've chosen the right family."