As Uber, Lyft, and lesser-known transportation companies masquerading as tech firms have gradually squeezed savings out of their contingent workforces, those same contract drivers have gotten angry and organised. The first big mass action was a global strike in May of last year, kicked off by LA’s Rideshare Drivers United (RDU).
On Thursday, many of those groups, both grassroots and union-backed, are coming together to meet in London under the auspices of the philanthropic group Open Society Foundations to found a new entity they’re calling the International Alliance of App-Based Transport Workers (IAATW).
“The rapid growth of platform companies has been built on a business model that excludes fair labour practices and perpetuates low pay for drivers. But the global reach of the companies dominating this sector also presents important opportunities for shared action among workers across borders,” Elizabeth Frantz, director of Open Society Foundations’ Fair Work portfolio, told Gizmodo over email. Attendees will span 23 counties, and include several U.S.-based heavy hitters like RDU, as well as New York’s Taxi Workers Alliance and the Philadelphia Drivers Union, and will be hosted by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain.
While ridesharing looms large in the conversation for worker rights, according to Frantz, IAATW will also include contingent security, janitors, bike couriers, and foster care contractors.
Despite the impressive list of groups intent on convening, IAATW doesn’t truly exist yet: The first order of business will be the production of a manifesto that, one assumes, will guide the operations of any future actions. Open Society Foundation, founded by billionaire George Soros and operating with a $US1.2 ($2) billion budget for 2020, has thrown the clout of its name and a $US130,000 ($192,665) grant to cover convention costs behind this effort. And as of now, however, no governance structure or policy goals have been set in stone. RDU and IWGB did not respond to a request for additional comment.
Both the current nebulous state of the group, as well its funding source, draws an immediate comparison between IAATW and Athena, the Open Society-backed coalition that made its splashy debut in the New York Times in November.
A cadre of groups currently taking action against Amazon—Illinois’s Warehouse Workers for Justice, Minnesota’s Awood Centre, and national policy centre Good Jobs First—have thrown their names behind Athena. And while it may grow into a fearsome force, currently its broad mandate and lack of policy wins make it feel more like a holding company of loosely connected ideas. “A coalition to stop Amazon’s injustices—#spying, gentrification, #dirtyenergy #monopoly & worker abuse,” the group’s Twitter bio currently reads: all important fights, but ones that have historically remained the target of separate actions.
Even if a one-off is all IAATW amounts to, it’s a crucial way for often-atomized workers who don’t share an office or other means of direct communication to build relationships and swap strategies. Naturally, though, the attendees have higher hopes. “In California, we are fighting to defend AB5,” Nicole Moore a member of RDU wrote in a statement to press, referencing the bitter fight over a new gig-work law in California. “But what we are learning through international organising is that no matter where the gig giants go, they break the law at every turn. That’s why we need the IAATW—not just to share information, but to build a global strategy.”