Uber, Lyft driver caravan lands in California capital demanding a living wage

With backing from several Democratic presidential candidates, a proposed state bill on how to classify gig workers takes center stage.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
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Uber and Lyft drivers protested in front of Uber's headquarters in downtown San Francisco last month.

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A caravan of Uber and Lyft drivers concluded their journey on Wednesday in Sacramento, California, with one message to state lawmakers: pass Assembly Bill 5.

The proposed state law could allow for drivers to be classified as employees, rather than independent contractors, which advocates say would give them more worker protections, including overtime, minimum wage and the right to unionize.

"We're simply asking these billion-dollar corporations to do what we expect the mom and pop pizza parlor on the street to do -- pay their workers fairly and give them the right to organize," Lorena Gonzalez, the state assembly member who introduced AB 5, said at a rally in front of capitol in Sacramento.

The caravan of dozens of drivers started its 500-mile-long pilgrimage in Los Angeles on Monday. Before arriving in Sacramento, it stopped in downtown San Francisco on Tuesday to protest in front of Uber's headquarters. The group was joined by Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.

"I'm here because where I come from, 'gig' is another word for 'job,'" Buttigieg said at the protest. "If you're working a gig that means you ought to be protected as a worker."

Three other Democratic presidential candidates -- Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren -- have also lined up behind AB 5

Currently, Uber and Lyft drivers are classified as independent contractors, sometimes referred to as gig-workers, which means they don't get benefits including Social Security, health insurance, paid sick days and overtime. Many drivers say this system has led to exploitation. They say they've seen lower pay, higher costs and longer working hours as the cost of living has risen over the years.

Uber and Lyft say, however, that this system gives drivers flexibility.

"What we repeatedly hear from drivers is what they value most about Uber is the flexibility to work whenever, wherever, and for whom they choose," an Uber spokesman said. "We believe that independent, on-demand workers should not have to sacrifice security to enjoy that flexibility."

The two companies have been actively working to defeat AB 5 as it's currently written. If their drivers are required to be classified as employees, Uber and Lyft will have to rework their business models. That could mean they'd have to manage a workforce of tens of thousands of drivers in California.

The Uber spokesman said the company is working with "stakeholders" on an alternative model that would give drivers a minimum earnings guarantee, a package of "portable benefits" that could be used no matter what company drivers work for and "meaningful representation" that gives drivers more of a say within the company. A Lyft spokesman said Lyft is working on the same alternatives.

"Lyft is advocating for an approach in line with the interests of our drivers, by modernizing century-old labor laws that make it difficult to provide both flexibility and benefits," a Lyft spokesman said.

In a rare showing of cooperation, Uber and Lyft have banded together over the issue. The CEOs of both companies wrote a joint op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle in June saying they wanted to work with the state to allow drivers to remain independent contractors. And they've sent messages to all California drivers saying that if they're classified as employees, they could lose their flexible work schedules.

On Wednesday afternoon, Lyft sent an email blast to its customers with the subject line, "Act now to protect rideshare in California." The email said AB 5 could "significantly impact the way Lyft operates in California" and encouraged people to call California Governor Gavin Newsom and urge him to "fix" AB 5.

"AB 5 may require Lyft to make all drivers employees, which the majority of drivers have said they do not want, and might lead to hundreds of thousands of fewer rideshare drivers," the email read. "As a result, you could pay more, wait longer, or risk losing reliable access to rideshare altogether." 

The messages that Uber and Lyft are sending to both drivers and customers are part of a "misinformation campaign," say Mobile Workers Alliance and Gig Workers Rising, which are supporters of AB 5 and organizers of the caravan. Some drivers also say the two companies aren't playing fair.

"Uber and Lyft claim that they care about the drivers and that they want to talk to us, but it's hard to have a conversation when somebody with all the resources in the world is doing everything they can to stand on your neck," Uber driver Ramon Gonzalez said in a statement. "Uber and Lyft need to play by the same rules as everyone else."

AB 5 passed the California State Assembly on May 29 in a 53 to 11 vote. The State Senate is expected to vote on the bill next month.