Gig workers grieve one of their own and race to the finish line with new bill to protect efforts to organize

Image provided by Vanessa Bain, Gig Workers Collective

Lynn Murray, a 62-year-old Instacart shopper and delivery driver, was reportedly killed when a lone shooter opened fire in a Boulder, Colorado grocery store on March 22.

Consistent with other gig workers, Murray was not classified as an employee by Instacart, the company she worked for, and therefore was not guaranteed protections or workers compensation under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA.)

Consequently, in the wake of Murray’s occupational death, her family was left to reckon with the enormity of their loss without any survivor or death benefits that the families of other victims are assured by liability laws.

Vanessa Bain, an Instacart shopper and labor organizer from the San Francisco Bay Area said during a phone interview that gig work is dangerous in more ways than one.

“We don’t have any sort of oversight over the terms and conditions under which we work. Our employers aren’t obligated to pay us for all the time that we work,” she said. “We are denied a whole host of rights and protections that are afforded to properly classified employees.”

Nicole Moore, a part-time Uber and Lyft driver based in Los Angeles, agreed.

She said in a phone interview that app-based workers are often denied the rights to organize, minimum wage, workers compensation, unemployment insurance, paid family leave, paid sick days, employer sponsored health benefits and life insurance.

Moore added that stories like Murray’s unfortunately happen nearly everyday. The majority, however, don’t make national news.

“If the pandemic does not kill you in your workplace, then there is no guarantee that you’re not going to go to work and be murdered. Or, as with any job that requires you to be behind the wheel, you won’t be hit by a drunk driver or encounter a freak accident or even have a heart attack,” she continued.

“Plus, you can be injured in other ways too, like putting a suitcase in the car or carrying heavy groceries. This is all on top of other things, well, like carjacking or assault by passengers. None of this is protected.”  

Bain’s organization, Gig Workers Collective, has been organizing fellow workers for four and a half years without NLRA protections. She says that doing so is “intimidating as hell.”

“If they [Instacart] decided to just get rid of me, and deactivate me, I would have zero recourse,” Bain, 34, said.

“And there wouldn’t be any kind of real process in place that I could, you know, appeal. I have no one to take that to except the company. And the company, I think, really benefits knowing that we’re a workforce that’s devoid of any actual, meaningful muscle behind us when it comes to our organizing, right, like, we can build for power. But we can’t, for example, build a federally recognized union.”

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021, known as the PRO Act, was approved by the House of Representatives along party lines on March 9. If it advances in the Senate, the bill would mark the largest expansion of collective bargaining rights since 1935, according to a statement released by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO.)

The Pro Act would ban right-to-work laws that prohibit companies from requiring workers to join a union as a condition of employment, ban employers from permanently replacing strikers, implement more defined tests for determining an individual’s status as an independent contractor versus employee, protect the basic right to join a trade union and impose new civil penalties on employers for violations, including personal liability.

The lawful ability to organize, Bain said, would allow gig workers a more legitimate foundation to leverage their grievances.

“The PRO Act is absolutely necessary in order to start advancing work toward those other objectives,” she said. “We need to be able to flex our power, we need to be able to demand that our employer properly classifies us, we need to be able to demand that our employer pays workers compensation for us, we need to be able to negotiate our contracts.”

“So that in the event of us being killed or injured in our work, there is actual recourse and a way for workers to be able to replace income that they’re losing, or their families sort of replacing income that they’ve lost when they lose a loved one.”

President Biden strongly supports the legislation.

In a statement released by the White House on March 9, he urged Congress to pass the PRO Act so that “we can seize the opportunity to build a future that reflects working people’s courage and ambition, and offers not only good jobs with a real choice to join a union — but the dignity, equity, shared prosperity and common purpose the hardworking people who built this country and make it run deserve.”

The bill is unlikely to pass swiftly through the Senate, however, given a lack of Republican support for the legislation. As a result, the potential for a filibuster to block the bill is looming. Ending a filibuster would require a three-fifths vote in the Senate. If this is not achieved then the bill could remain in limbo indefinitely.

While passage of the PRO Act is considered to be essential by many app-based workers, not everyone in the gig sphere has the same sentiments as Bain and Moore.

Kristin Lipp, an Uber and Lyft driver from Washington state, operates an anti-Pro Act campaign named the Gig Consumers Coalition. She says that there would be “so many consequences” if drivers were to be labeled employees.

“We would have to take every single ride. We’d have to accept it whether we wanted it or not. If you didn’t want to drive past eight at night, for example, you wouldn’t have the choice. You would no longer have the agency to like, quit whenever you want to go home,” Lipp said in a Zoom call.

“They need drivers, but if the Pro Act passes they’re going to have to get rid of some drivers,” she predicted. “They couldn’t afford all of us. They’re also going to need drivers out there, honestly, on a schedule, so you’re not going to be able to work around other schedules if you do this part-time.”

One of Lipp’s biggest fears is that gig workers will be obligated to sign a no compete contract if the Pro Act passes. 

“You’re not going to be able to like go switch to Lyft if you want to during a shift with Uber, which I have done many times. You can’t do that, because you’ve already put yourself on the schedule.”

Moore says that people who oppose the PRO Act misunderstand what is being proposed.

“If the majority of freelancers don’t want to organize, then nobody’s gonna fight for a union the majority of people don’t support. But, why not at least have that right,” Moore said. Plus, she said, the right to organize would empower workers.

Nonetheless, even opponents of the PRO Act agree that gig workers deserve more rights than they are currently granted.

“With Uber and Lyft we’re obviously not employees. But, we’re definitely not true independent contractors, either. So, I mean, we’re somewhere in the middle,” Lipp said.

 “We need like, a straight up law by and for the people. For us to continue to be able to be freelancers, we need to be able to have, like, some kind of stable insurance from the government, not from Uber or Lyft, ensuring things like unemployment and workers compensation,” she continued.

Now, Moore says, it is up to union leaders and Congress to settle on a decision ensuring that workers and their families have dignity on the job.

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