You can learn a lot about taxi driver relations, a New York cabbie used to say, by watching how two drivers interact when stopped at a light late at night and a passenger is waiting up ahead.

You’d see they wouldn’t make eye contact — because when you make eye contact, you admit to the other’s humanity.

And that makes it near impossible to cut them off.

The driver who had pointed this out, Yilma Wolde-Mariam, an Ethiopian organizer with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance union, has since died. But that story, said NYTWA cofounder Biju Mathew, “is a metaphor for the kinds of divisions we’ve had, and what we’ve built on top.”

The NYTWA is a union of 21,000 that fought for — and won — landmark protections for Uber and Lyft drivers last year: a minimum wage and a temporary cap on rideshare vehicles. Speaking at a conference Tuesday at Penn about gig workers, Mathew said it was the hard-won unity among taxi drivers and app-based drivers that made the NYTWA successful. They knew they had to break free of the structure where “Uber starves Uber drivers who starve the yellow driver," he said.

“Once that unity was created, we knew we were going to win,” Mathew said.

(Uber is currently suing to overturn the temporary cap on vehicles in New York, while Lyft is suing New York over the minimum wage.)

As accessing services such as transportation, food delivery, or house cleaning through apps or “platforms” has become ubiquitous, gig workers, researchers, and advocates have called attention to the dark side of this work that’s long been championed by tech companies as a way to “be your own boss": Workers are managed by algorithms; classified (or misclassified) as independent contractors, meaning they lose out on benefits afforded to employees; and get their wages cut as companies search for profitability.

But even though independent contractors generally cannot collectively bargain, they are organizing in new ways to fight for better working conditions. In Los Angeles this week, Lyft and Uber drivers went on a 25-hour strike to protest a 25 percent pay cut. In Seattle, ride-share drivers fought for City Council to grant them the right to collectively bargain (but lawsuits have held up the decision). While in Philadelphia, which has passed several laws protecting workers, Deputy Mayor for Labor Rich Lazer said his office is in the early stages of developing a package of bills to protect gig workers.

Biju Mathew, cofounder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, speaking Monday at the Media, Inequality, and Change Center's conference on the "Platform Economy and the Future of the City" at Philadelphia City Hall.
Biju Mathew, cofounder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, speaking Monday at the Media, Inequality, and Change Center's conference on the "Platform Economy and the Future of the City" at Philadelphia City Hall.

Here’s a look at some successful strategies of folks credited with dealing the biggest blows to platform companies as discussed this week at a conference organized by the Media, Inequality, and Change Center out of Penn and Rutgers.

Tap into already-formed communities

Callum Cant, a member of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, says he “drank the Kool-Aid” when he started working as a courier for Deliveroo in 2016, when it was the biggest food delivery platform in the U.K.

The commonly touted narrative, he said, was that couriers were siloed and “downtrodden," but what he discovered was that these workers were already working together in well-established Facebook groups. They were using WhatsApp to locate immigrant couriers who had gotten hypothermia on the job and helping them get to the hospital.

It was important, Cant said, to tap into “what forms of embryonic solidarity already existed.”

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Couriers with Deliveroo and UberEATS in the U.K. have gone on wildcat strikes several times over the last few years, including the “fast food shutdown" in October, when couriers shut off their apps alongside workers from the fast-food chains from where they deliver to protest a pay cut. The public awareness created from their strikes, alone, has been a victory, but the couriers showed that a “disaggregated” workforce could organize, he said.

Be a force of stability in an unstable work environment

The hardest part of organizing gig workers is overcoming their distrust, said Yaseen Aslam, a former Uber driver in the U.K. who has challenged Uber in court over misclassification, and won. Aslam cofounded the United Private Hire Drivers union with former Uber driver James Farrar, who was Aslam’s co-claimant in the misclassification case. (Uber has said it will appeal the court’s decision in the Supreme Court.)

These are workers who “come from deprived communities,” he said. They’ve been exploited, they have a precarious immigration status, they don’t trust government agencies. “They don’t want to be seen as troublemakers,” he said. Often, they’re grateful that they’re earning anything.

One way to build trust is to be consistent, especially because gig work is so unstable, Farrar said. You can’t have one conversation with them and expect them to be on board for life; you must continually engage them.

“You have to keep showing up,” Farrar said.

Drop what doesn’t work

Mathew said the NYTWA tried a number of avenues to challenge Uber and Lyft: Aside from working to get laws passed and challenging the companies in court over misclassification, it developed worker coops and its own ride-sharing app. But it since shelved the app, as the union realized it would not be able to invest the money needed to make it effective.

On the other hand, SEIU 775, which represents care workers in Washington state, developed its own online platform for finding home-care workers for Medicaid patients called Carina, with 10,000 caregivers and clients registered, said Alexis Rodich, who works in research and policy at the union. The union is now planning to expand the platform beyond clients on Medicaid.

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.