labor An Uber Labor Movement Born in a LaGuardia Parking Lot
Last Tuesday afternoon, at LaGuardia Airport’s Lot 7, fifty Uber drivers logged out of the app and staged a strike. Lot 7 is where drivers typically wait to pick up arriving passengers, and it was full of rows of black and gray sedans and S.U.V.s. The protesters stood at the entrance to the lot, holding hand-drawn signs that read, “Support us we have family too” and “Bring back rates to where they were!” Any car leaving to take a job had to pass through the gauntlet. If the crowd determined that the driver was working for Uber, it slapped signs against the driver’s windows, blew plastic whistles, and shouted, “Shame!” and “You work for Uber; you are a slave!”
On January 29th, Uber had reduced fares in more than eighty cities in the U.S. and Canada. Drivers in some of those cities, including San Francisco, San Diego, Tampa, and New York City, have reacted with strikes and protests. One of the many barriers to sustainable organizing for those working for sharing-economy apps like Uber and Lyft is that the flexible, cloud-based nature of the service creates a relatively tenuous connection to other workers. Uber drivers have protested policy changes in the past, but this round appears to be more widespread and intense than before.
Beneath a tent near the entrance to the lot, about twenty protesters huddled around Fabio Krasniqi, a tall man in a black jacket and jeans with short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. Krasniqi spearheaded the protest at Lot 7. When he had logged into his Uber app that Friday, he saw that the company was lowering its rates by more than fifteen per cent, from $2.15 to $1.75 per mile, for its UberX service. Krasniqi had joined Uber after working for decades as a driver for car services. At first, he was happy with the flexibility and relatively high pay that Uber provided. In 2015, he even attended a demonstration, organized by Uber, to protest a proposed cap on the number of drivers in New York City. “I really thought that way,” he said. “I thought everyone should have the right to be an Uber driver full- or part-time so that they can make a little money.”
But a series of policy changes and what he sees as a general deterioration in relations between Uber and its drivers have left him increasingly dissatisfied. The fare decrease was the final straw. “That’s when I said, you know what, I don’t trust these people anymore,” Krasniqi told me. “These guys are gonna suck the blood out of us.” In a blog post, Uber said that the lower fares would result in more work, and ultimately higher earnings for drivers, but Krasniqi was not buying it. “That’s all bullshit,” he said.
Krasniqi works out of Lot 7 most days. At fifty-two, he no longer likes to cruise the streets of Manhattan for jobs. “You earn the same amount of money as in the city, give or take, but the difference is it’s less pressure,” he told me. New York has an estimated thirty thousand Uber drivers, and a while ago Krasniqi and some other LaGuardia drivers started a group on the messaging app WhatsApp called the Drivers Report, where they trade information about traffic and the level of demand at the airport. That Friday morning, Drivers Report members shared their dismay at the rate cut. A number happened to be in the lot. “We were having coffee, I was smoking a cigarette, and we were talking,” Krasniqi said. “I was like, ‘We need to do something about this.’ ”
Sonjam Dorjee, a Tibetan immigrant who has been an Uber driver for six months, agreed. “We were frustrated, too, but we didn’t want to step out by ourselves and get punished,” Dorjee told me. “When we see someone as charismatic as Fabio go out, we say we’re going to go, too.” Eventually, Dorjee, Krasniqi, and about a dozen other drivers from Lot 7 formed an informal committee to plan a protest the following Monday. They represent the many ethnic groups that comprise the approximately seven hundred drivers who regularly work out of LaGuardia: “I said, ‘Listen, guys, in order for us to be powerful and to be strong and for the drivers to trust exactly what we’re saying, we have to leave the door open to all communities,’ ” Krasniqi said.
Krasniqi designed a flyer on his smartphone and ordered twenty thousand copies at a print shop near the airport. The other drivers chipped in. All weekend, they fanned out to areas of the city where Uber drivers congregate, to hand out flyers and spread the news. Each member of the committee reached out to well-connected members of his or her own ethnic community. Krasniqi obtained a permit from the Port Authority, and the protest was on. The morning of the protest, Krasniqi learned that another group of Uber drivers, Uber Drivers United, was also planning a protest, on Monday, outside Uber’s office in Long Island City. After spending the morning at Lot 7, Krasniqi and the LaGuardia crew caravanned over to the Uber office. With their numbers, the protest grew to more than four hundred drivers, and gained widespread coverage in the press.
Now, in Lot 7, Krasniqi was trying to keep the previous day’s momentum going. He stood over a picnic table, scrawling the name of a Facebook page he had created on a piece of poster board. It was called Uber Drivers Report. In the hoarse bark of a coach at halftime, Krasniqi urged his audience to like and share the page to get the word out about upcoming protests. “This is better than TV,” he said. “This better than the fucking media. This is social media, bro.”
One man was concerned that some Uber drivers might not have Facebook. Krasniqi launched into a soliloquy. “I’m an Albanian guy,” he said. “My grandma lives in Albania and is ninety-two years old. Last year, I went to Albania. I sat down and saw my grandmother with a laptop, and on it was YouTube.” He continued, “When my grandmother—she is ninety-two years old—can go on YouTube, then I guarantee you every Uber driver can have a Facebook page and follow us.”
Despite Monday’s show of solidarity, tensions sometimes flared in the lot. Some of the working drivers angrily waved the protesters out of their way, and when one driver sped past an incensed protester shouted, “Yo, someone get a knife, we gonna slash some tires!” At one point, about a dozen drivers decided to head into Manhattan with signs on their windows and cause some commotion around Union Square. Krasniqi bellowed a warning to others not to join them. “I don’t want my people to get locked up—I don’t want them to be fined by the” Taxi & Limousine Commission, he said.
Then there were the unions. Unionizing among Uber drivers is an uncertain prospect, because they’re independent contractors. But a high-profile class-action lawsuit in California demanding that drivers be classified as employees, and a recent move by Seattle’s city council to allow Uber drivers to unionize, has given the question new urgency. As news of the protest spread in New York City, union reps descended on Lot 7 to court drivers. At first, Krasniqi was suspicious of the men, who handed out cards and collected drivers’ names and signatures. Earlier on Tuesday morning, he’d got into a heated argument with Dylan Wiley, an organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But they had worked things out, and now Wiley, a burly blond guy in khakis and a hooded sweatshirt with a keffiyeh around his neck, stood outside the tent, lavishing praise on Krasniqi’s organizing skills. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Wiley said. “He could probably run a country.”
Wiley was trying to collect drivers’ signatures for a petition to the National Labor Relations Board to have the I.B.E.W. represent them. “Make no mistake—every union in America wants to organize these guys. It’s a lot of people. But they’re going to go with whoever these guys want,” he said, pointing to Krasniqi. (Last week, the I.B.E.W. filed its petition to represent the Uber drivers who work out of LaGuardia.)
As the sun set and the protest wound down, the vice-president of the I.B.E.W., a former garbage-truck driver named Sammy Gonzalez, Jr., asked to talk with Krasniqi in front of the remaining protesters. The drivers gathered behind Krasniqi, listening intently as Gonzalez urged them carefully to consider each union’s pitch.
“I’ve been doing this thing here now for over thirty-two years,” Gonzalez said, “and you have to keep in mind that these locals—O.K., and trust me again, I’ve been doing this for a long long time—these guys are going to come here and try to offer you and promise you the sky, the moon, and the stars.”
Krasniqi cut in impatiently: “Sam, we know that, we know that.” He told Gonzalez that he and the drivers would discuss the options among themselves before reaching a decision. “We need to read and research a little bit, your local and other locals, and see what fits better with us,” he said. Then he said he had to go, and walked to his car with a newspaper reporter who needed a ride to the terminal.