How a deal for gig workers fell apart

There was a tentative agreement to give them the right to organize, but a flawed negotiation process created backlash.

Protesting Uber's working conditions

Protesting Uber's working conditions Christopher Penler/Shutterstock

Depending on who you ask, the death of a deal between business and labor groups to allow many gig workers to unionize can be tracked to a few different points in the final days of the 2021 state legislative session. A state lawmaker who opposed the deal said that a May 17 Bloomberg News story quoting the head of the Transport Workers Union celebrating the agreement, which would have given ride-hailing and delivery workers collective bargaining rights but stopped short of reclassifying them as employees, botched its rollout. Some proponents of the plan said that there just wasn’t enough time left in session to address objections to the controversial proposal, especially after state Sen. Jessica Ramos, chair of the labor committee, spoke out against it. Others pointed to the second to last week of session, when one of the major unions reversed its support. But many of the proposal’s harshest critics simply put its time of death at “on arrival.” 

The proposal in question never really arrived, at least not in the form of an introduced bill. When news broke in Bloomberg in mid-May that tech companies and labor unions were “nearing a deal” – before many workers’ groups had even heard about it – the broad strokes of the proposal were roughly agreed upon by the companies and unions. But even those groups expected it to undergo changes before making it to the Senate floor.

While state Sen. Diane Savino, who planned to sponsor the proposal, said in the final weeks of session that a bill would be introduced, it never was. “This is like the most contested piece of non-legislation ever,” said John Samuelsen, the international president of the TWU. Samuelsen was the one quoted praising the agreement in the Bloomberg story, even though he had only been brought into the fold weeks before. At the time Samuelsen spoke to Bloomberg, his lawyers were still working their way through the draft legislation the other groups at the negotiating table had given to him. Days later, after the bill draft leaked to the press and began to draw backlash from progressive lawmakers and workers’ advocacy groups, Samuelsen reversed course and said he wouldn’t support the plan.

The negative response was partially based on what critics said amounted to a rollback in gig workers’ rights: While the proposal would have granted collective bargaining rights, unemployment insurance and workers compensation to ride-hail drivers and delivery workers, those rights all came with asterisks. One provision restricted workers’ ability to strike or demonstrate against their employer. Opponents also said the proposal would have rolled back the limited wins gig workers already achieved at the local level, including a New York City rule establishing a minimum pay formula for drivers that takes into account how long they spend waiting for a ride, among other things. The draft bill would pay drivers only for “engaged time” – from when they accept a ride request to when they complete it. 

But while many of the deal’s opponents – such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the National Employment Law Project and progressive lawmakers including Ramos – saw the proposal as a failure in its substance, the larger failure may have been the fact that it came as such a surprise to those who would be affected by it. “You’re going to get a poor product when you have a poor process,” Ramos told City & State a week after news of it broke. 

Both its proponents and critics say that the proposal failed because increasingly influential workers’ groups like Los Deliveristas Unidos, a group of mostly immigrant food delivery workers backed by the immigrant worker advocacy group Workers Justice Project, were not brought to the negotiating table. Despite leading grassroots organizing efforts among food delivery workers, organizing thousands in an April rally in Manhattan for better labor protections, Los Deliveristas Unidos – and groups including the New York Taxi Workers Alliance – first learned about the deal in that May 17 news story.

In the final days of session and those following, City & State spoke to the people who were involved in hashing out this compromise, and those who were left out, leading to another year of stalled action on granting gig workers more rights in Albany. Here’s what we know about what happened. 

Breaking news in Bloomberg

Tech companies and labor unions, overseen by the state AFL-CIO, have been working together on a compromise for months. Savino, who previously introduced failed legislation to allow gig workers to collectively bargain, said that she gave a directive in late 2020 to tech companies and labor, including the state AFL-CIO, to negotiate an agreement to grant gig workers more rights. The instruction echoed the idea of having these often-opposing groups negotiate a solution in a gig worker task force proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January 2020.

While some in labor had pushed for gig workers to be reclassified as employees, the gig platform companies have waged a fierce battle against that. Following a successful effort by gig companies in California last November to overturn legislation that would have reclassified workers, the message from Savino was to find an alternative approach in New York that would secure three things for gig workers: the right to organize, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation insurance for workers injured on the job. As those negotiations began in earnest earlier this year, they have included Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart, and on the labor side, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, overseen by the state AFL-CIO. RWDSU said they stepped away from the table to focus on other issues, and Samuelsen at TWU stepped in this May. The Machinists would presumably be in line to represent drivers, while the TWU would likely try to organize delivery workers.

But progress from those groups was slow this year, causing Savino to get impatient. “They were talking and talking and talking and talking and talking,” Savino, a Democrat who represents Staten Island and part of southern Brooklyn, recalled. “January, February: ‘Well we can’t do anything now, we’re working on the budget. We’ll get to you after the budget.’ And then the break comes and I say, ‘Hello? Tick tock people. We’re getting close to the end of session.’” On Thursday, May 20, Savino was given a draft of the legislation.

But before Savino had even seen that draft, news of it broke in Bloomberg. Samuelsen said in that story that despite typically being critical of striking compromises with companies, he would fully support this one. “I had every intention of staying away from it, and now after seeing how much it’ll advance gig workers, I’m fully supporting it,” he said. 

The draft legislation wouldn’t start to make the rounds publicly until a few days later, but the concept as reported in Bloomberg was quickly condemned. “Some unscrupulous leaders of the labor movement … are trying to cut a deal with gig bosses to lock New York State gig workers out of employee rights and protections and possibly preempt cities from passing stronger labor laws,” the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a labor group representing taxi and ride-hail drivers, tweeted on May 18. 

The draft legislation started circulating a few days later. Though Savino herself had only seen the draft that week and hadn’t introduced a legislation, some of the critics appeared to perceive it as a finalized agreement that had to be stopped in its tracks. “I got people on Twitter asking me to withdraw the bill,” Savino recalled. “I’m like, ‘Withdraw a bill that doesn’t exist?’”

While Savino said that the leak of the draft bill was “detrimental” and “pushed people to their respective corners,” other proponents of the deal said that a leaked draft was actually a positive in terms of transparency in the legislative process. The problem was not the leak, but the fact that some worker groups were caught unawares.

“One guy and a bunch of companies in a room”

Those worker groups, in a depiction contested by the agreement’s proponents, characterized it as a backroom deal. “For a long time, Albany, they’d say it was three men in the room. Now it feels like one guy and a bunch of companies,” the Taxi Worker’s Alliance Executive Director Bhairavi Desai said.

Los Deliveristas Unidos complained that they and other workers were left out of the negotiating process. “LDU is opposed to any legislative proposal that is pre-negotiated without delivery workers’ input, and that directly impacts our industry, work conditions, and the well-being of our families,” the May 25 statement read, with just eight days left of session. 

Some proponents of the compromise between labor and tech companies dispute the notion that no workers were consulted, pointing to the involvement of the Independent Drivers Guild, an affiliate of the Machinists Union, which gave input, according to Brendan Sexton, the group’s executive director. The IDG functions as an advocacy group but also as a quasi-union for Uber, Lyft and other for-hire vehicle drivers. The guild, for example, offers help in securing drivers due process and remediation when they have been kicked off certain apps. On a June 2 call with Sexton and Tina Raveneau, a driver-organizer at IDG, Raveneau spoke in favor of the proposal. “All of us drivers knew about it, so we had a chance to give our opinions,” she told City & State. “This bill, I know many think it’s not perfect, but it’s a stepping stone.” The IDG, however, has faced criticisms for being aligned with Uber and receives funding from the ride-hail giant.

Other gig workers were not involved. Delivery workers who organize with the Deliveristas told outlets including The City and Mother Jones that the proposal was snuck “behind their backs” and that it was “unjust” that they weren’t informed of it. 

So how did a deal that amounted to a major shift in gig workers’ rights get hammered out without consulting key workers’ organizations? Several people familiar with the talks said that those who were negotiating on behalf of the companies believed that the unions were engaging organizations like Los Deliveristas Unidos. Samuelsen and Savino said they were also under the impression that the Deliveristas had been involved.

Instead, the delivery workers organization learned of the proposal when the Bloomberg story broke. “And they freaked the fuck out, which honestly, you can’t blame them,” said one Albany insider who asked not to be named because of their work with one of the parties involved. The Deliveristas said they were not even aware that there had been negotiations happening between tech companies and labor over the last year.

RWDSU declined to comment on whether they had any conversations with the Deliveristas about this proposal in the months before stepping away from the negotiations. The Machinists, who were involved in negotiating the deal from the start, did not respond to a request for comment. “I think there was a belief that the labor unions spoke for the workers, and honestly, there were plenty of workers the labor unions weren’t speaking for,” that insider said.

Losing the support of labor

On May 25, the same day that the Deliveristas released their statement, one of the deal’s key labor backers dropped out when Samuelsen announced that because of what he learned about the lack of worker input, particularly from the Deliveristas, the Transport Workers Union could no longer support the deal. “If the workers don't want the bill, then we will continue to collaborate with them and perhaps advance a piece of legislation that they have direct input in,” Samuelsen told City & State at the time. 

Losing the TWU meant that, within organized labor, only the Machinists (and the IDG as their affiliate) were left supporting the deal. It became clear then that it wouldn’t have enough backing from labor to move forward in the final days of session. 

Even before the Deliveristas came out against the bill, one of the more powerful legislators on labor issues announced her opposition. On May 21, state Sen. Jessica Ramos, who chairs her chamber’s Committee on Labor, released a statement saying that she could not support legislation “crafted without uncompromised worker voices at the table.” 

While Savino said that she’d had conversations with Ramos as recently as late last year about gig workers’ rights generally, she said she didn’t talk to Ramos about the fact that there were negotiations happening between tech companies and labor unions.

That may have been a key error. “For a labor bill to have legitimacy in the state Legislature, I think it would need the backing of the (Senate) Labor chair,” Desai said. 

A scramble to save the deal

Savino tried to rescue the effort, meeting with the Deliveristas, Samuelsen and more in the last week of May to hear their concerns. An amended version of the draft bill leaked and circulated on Tuesday, June 1. A copy of that draft shared with City & State removed the provision explicitly prohibiting striking, picketing and boycotting by workers, but included language that would keep them from coercing others from ceasing to do business with gig companies. Critics said that that effectively kept the no-strike restriction in place, and called other changes to the draft tweaks of no substance.

Savino made a last ditch effort to get everyone together in a room on June 5, the Saturday before the last week of session, but failed to rally everyone. “It was clear that by the last weekend before session ended, that we just weren’t going to be able to put together a piece of legislation to address all their concerns in time.” Savino said that she did not work on any of the draft bills that circulated. By the end of session on June 10, a bill was never introduced. 

There’s a fundamental break between lawmakers and labor groups who believe that securing gig workers more rights in increments – even if imperfect – should be done immediately, and those who believe that gig companies will use any compromise to undermine efforts to treat those workers as actual employees. In the days following the end of session, the proposal’s opponents celebrated its death, saying that no progress in this session was better than a deal that would have rolled back their rights, including by preempting existing minimum-wage rules for drivers. Those who hoped to pass it are frustrated by their victory dances. “There are hundreds of thousands of workers out there who are at risk every day,” Savino said last week. “So people can be smug and self satisfied about what they think they did to derail what could have been a serious discussion about helping workers. And I’d just like to remind them all that it’s a long way down from that high horse they climbed up on.” Savino declined to be more specific about who she was talking about.