On the picket line

Gig workers are essential workers

As pandemic business closures escalated in 2019-2020, many immigrant workers who lost jobs at hotels and construction sites turned to the gig economy for work with Lyft, Uber, DoorDash, GrubHub and Instacart. Labelled as independent contractors by the companies, these workers have few labor protections. Mainstream media and corporate heads hailed them as essential heroes during the pandemic lockdown — while the workers themselves are treated poorly.

What is it like to rely on this type of job to earn a living? Conditions are bleak. The hours are long, and the pay is low. Safety is a real concern. Drivers have been robbed; those on bikes have had them stolen. Francisco Villalva, a 29-year-old delivery cyclist, was killed in March during an attempted robbery in New York City.

Drivers depend on tips to supplement the minimum wage they receive. But restaurants commonly steal the tips to apply to app service charges. Workers are frequently paid only when out on a delivery, even though they may spend hours on a company’s app searching for a gig.

Workers are fighting these enormously profitable companies for status as employees — with the right to receive adequate compensation, sick time and workmen’s compensation and the right to form a union. Like Amazon workers, gig drivers are organizing for basic measures around human dignity. There are close to 5,000 restaurants serviced by DoorDash, and fewer than 200 allow delivery drivers to use their bathrooms. Workers report urinating in bottles or on the street, because they are denied access to these bathrooms.

Gig workers are connecting through social media to share experiences and take up grassroots organizing. Groups like Los Deliveristas Unidos and El Diario de los Deliveryboys en la Gran Manzano (Deliveryboys in the Big Apple) are working with the Brooklyn-based Worker’s Justice Project/Proyecto Justicia Laboral (WJP). Mexican and Guatemalan gig workers are reaching out to workers from West Africa.

However, gig workers in New York City should be wary of draft state legislation, backed by the New York State AFL-CIO, that would organize food delivery drivers and rideshare drivers into two preselected, massive unions. (Labor Notes, May 21) No vote by rank-and-file members would occur, and the designated unions would deal directly with the company with no input from members. State law could wipe out local victories that have won minimum pay laws. Workers labeled “contractors” would not gain employee status.

A setback in state law happened in California in 2020. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart spent hundreds of millions of dollars in a successful campaign to enact Prop. 22. The measure denies gig workers the right to organize and refuses to recognize them as company employees. These workers are the backbone of the corporations; their labor provides the expanding profit margins.

Ligia Guallpa, WJP executive director, puts it plainly: “There is no labor movement without organizing the new workforce, which just happens to be immigrants in New York. Which is the exact same way the labor unions got started back in the day, right? They got started by immigrants.” (Labor Notes, May 20)

Strikebreaker nurses

The valiant nurses at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester, Mass., are still locked in their struggle with hospital owner, Tenet Healthcare Corporation, over adequate compensation and safe staffing. Tenet has undercut the nurses by hiring itinerant nurses to keep profits flowing amid reports of unsafe practices.

Who are these nurses who would cross the picket line? What motivates them to risk their professional and ethical standards to take a job in a state in which they may not be licensed, at a hospital they are unfamiliar with?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be money. Salaries for a “strike nurse” are considerably higher than the pay for the average RN. Tenet is paying millions for nurses to cross the picket line, rather than negotiate with the experienced nurses who know how to care for patients at St. Vincent’s.

Multiple agencies advertise for nurses to travel to hospitals where nurses are striking. Agencies pay travel and room and board expenses. Minimal experience is required from the nurses.

An online listing by the U.S. Nursing Corporation currently advertises a need for nurses for an “indefinite nursing strike” in Massachusetts. (tinyurl.com/252bcyrx)

That doesn’t seem to bode well for St. Vincent’s nurses, as Tenet digs in its heels to fund corporate greed at the expense of patients and the professional standards expected from nurses. Meanwhile, nurses with little experience, or union consciousness, are enticed to work in an unstable hospital environment that their peers have already deemed so unsafe they have walked off the job.

As companies expand into health care empires, RNs are struggling to hold their place at the bargaining table to fight for the well-being of their patients and their fellow nurses. Nurses should be speaking as one voice against capitalist greed instead of being divided by the bosses.

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