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Mass ride-share drivers push for unionization

Thea Sweet

In a significant stride toward improving working conditions and wages, ride-share drivers across Massachusetts are fervently championing a statewide ballot initiative that seeks to grant them the right to unionize.

A coalition of dedicated drivers, known as the United for Justice ballot initiative committee, has been collecting signatures across the Commonwealth with the backing of SEIU 32BJ — which in the past has organized personal care attendants and child care workers who similarly may not report to a single worksite.

Momentum for the drivers’ unionization push is growing following news that the ballot initiative has surpassed the signature threshold for next year. The coalition has amassed enough petition signatures to warrant a delivery to Secretary of State William Galvin, who could potentially approve the initiative for inclusion on the 2024 ballot if all signatures are validated. Ride-share drivers were poised to hand-deliver the voter signatures to the Galvin’s office at noon on Wednesday, Nov. 21 at One Ashburton Place in Boston.

As the wheels of change in the industry gain traction, a recent poll reveals a resounding two-thirds majority among likely 2024 voters across the state support the right of ride-share drivers to unionize.

Domingo Castillo, a driver leader and Roslindale resident, stated in Spanish-English in a translated interview, “They said they’re going to build opportunities and flexibility, but we really don’t have any flexibility. Uber and Lyft like to pretend that this is just a part-time thing, but we’re family people and we have wives or husbands and children, and we have to take care of them and provide for them.”

He added, “During the pandemic, I was working 12-hour days every single day. At that time, we were making what we deserved, but after the pandemic is when we started to see the pay really decrease, despite that we had been providing a service the community needed. They just started lowering pay, waiting time became longer, and unjust deactivations occurred more frequently. There was no consideration about the sacrifice we made to keep their service running. A union is the only thing that would give us a voice to be able to have some say in the things that really directly affect us.”

Promised earnings proclaimed by ride-share companies often fall significantly short of the actual net hourly earnings of drivers. Uber and Lyft do not compensate their drivers for work-related expenses such as vehicle depreciation, gas and maintenance. These costs have skyrocketed since the pandemic disrupted the economy, and drivers’ income has taken a considerable hit. A recent report by the Drivers Demand Justice coalition reveals that almost half (48.9%) of the typical driver’s gross earnings is wiped out by driving expenses.

The coalition also reports that ride-share drivers’ median take-home pay is below the Massachusetts minimum wage, stating that the monthly net hourly pay of the typical Massachusetts driver was just $12.82 an hour. Adding insult to injury, the net pay calculations overlook an additional factor: As independent contractors, Uber and Lyft drivers are obliged to pay a 7.65% Social Security and Medicaid payroll tax on their income.

Ride-share drivers might not have to hold out until November 2024 for the opportunity to increase their earnings. The United for Justice ballot initiative committee is also part of the Drivers Demand Justice coalition that hopes to pass a similar bill in the Legislature, giving workers unionization rights before the Legislature wraps up in July. The ballot initiative and the related Rideshare Driver Justice Bill currently before the Legislature both deal specifically with making sure ride-share drivers have the right to collective bargaining. Drivers are demanding rights that they have nearly unanimous agreement on, including the need for higher wages, discrimination protections and a clear path to unionization to collectively bargain for additional improvements with the companies.

In a prior statement, Roxana Rivera of SEIU 32BJ noted that many of the drivers the union is seeking to organize have identified as people of color or are members of immigrant communities. Although Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other app-based gig companies say the independent contractor classification creates more opportunity for workers of color and immigrants, many question the legitimacy of those claims. The independent contractor classification denies those workers rights like minimum wage, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance  and unionization — rights enjoyed by many workers in majority-white industries.

“This is common sense, and voters overwhelmingly agree. It’s past time to grant drivers the basic union rights that workers across Massachusetts have enjoyed for generations, so we can finally end the unacceptable wages and working conditions that Uber and Lyft drivers have been subjected to at the hands of tech companies,” said Rivera, SEIU 32BJ assistant to the president nationally and the head of the union in Massachusetts, and chair of The United for Justice Coalition. “Whether through the ballot or the state Legislature, 2024 will be the year for drivers to win a union in our state.”