To a steady beat of whistles, car horns and “AB5 and a union!” hundreds of rideshare drivers amassed outside Uber’s corporate headquarters in San Fransisco on Wednesday. For over an hour, Market Street slowed to a crawl, choked by the cars of for-hire vehicle drivers.
The Market Street shutdown is just the latest stop in a three-day protest caravan across California in the U.S. advocating for the passage of the aforementioned Assembly Bill 5. Introduced by U.S. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez in January, AB5 is seen by proponents as a kill-shot against the gig economy practice of classifying workers as independent contractors. It’s a convenient arrangement for companies like Uber and Lyft, which don’t have to provide benefits like health insurance and overtime pay, while passing fuel and vehicle wear costs onto drivers themselves.
Editor’s Note: While AB5 is a proposed American bill, the outcome of its passing may have an impact on the gig economy in Australia, and the push for more protection for independent contractors.
In a true contractor relationship, workers have a considerable degree of autonomy over the work they provide. But as California’s Supreme Court and AB5 argue, the evidence gig workers possess this freedom — when platforms essentially dictate when and how they perform their work, and have the ability to fire them through deactivation at any time for any reason — is sorely lacking.
Almost immediately at noon Pacific time, when Wednesday’s action was set to begin, Google Maps listed the area surrounding Uber HQ as having heavy traffic. And while cars waving baby blue Mobile Workers Alliance flags from their windows circled the block, a massive crowd gathered in front of Uber’s office at 1455 Market Street.
Different faces took turns behind the microphone, but the soundbites were the same as any other rally of this kind around the country. “I cannot estimate my income, other than the fact that it constantly goes down,” a driver named Adan told the crowd. “One accident, one serious illness is all it would take to ruin my life and my ability to provide for my son.”
“Do we want a future with no unions, no protections and no rights for workers? Or do we want a future with justice!” – @PeteButtigieg
— Mobile Workers Alliance (@mobile_alliance) August 27, 2019
Joining these workers was South Bend mayor and U.S. Democratic nominee hopeful Pete Buttigieg. “Where I come from ‘gig’ is another word for job,” Mayor Pete said in front of the rideshare giant’s front door. “That means you deserve a minimum wage. That means you deserve protections from workplace and sexual harassment. That means you deserve overtime protections. And yes that means you deserve a union,” the mayor assured drivers.
The speech, of course, comes at a time when other U.S. Democratic presidential candidates are working to court the votes of unions across the country, with Sanders by far rolling out the most expansively pro-labour plan. In recent polls Buttigieg has sunk to a distant sixth place among the crowded Democratic field.
The caravan is timed around an important vote this week in the U.S., where AB5, which already cleared California’s House of Representatives in July, will come before the state’s Senate Appropriations Committee. If successful, it will still require one more vote in the state senate to pass, though momentum appears to be building broadly against technology companies which have grown rich during the current period of deepening inequality in the country and others around the world.