City Unions Race to Recruit Members After High Court Ruling

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling yesterday in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 — which overturned a 41-year-old ruling that nonunion government workers in unionized workplaces have to pay fees to help cover the costs of union activities they benefit from — was a major blow to labor unions, and the latest in a string of far-right rulings since Justice Neil Gorsuch was appointed by Donald Trump. But leaders of New York City public-sector unions say that being required to represent nonmembers for nothing won’t hurt them as much as it was intended to, because they’ve been preparing for it by signing up as many members as possible.

“For the past three years, we’ve been preparing our members for this day,” says Lester Crockett, president of Civil Service Employees Association Region 2, which covers the New York City metropolitan area. The 300,000-member union has eight workers in its Albany headquarters taking phone calls from workers who want to stay, quit, or are borderline, he adds.

AFSCME District Council 37 executive director Henry Garrido told a rally at City Hall hours after the Janus decision that his union represented 28,000 nonmembers just three years ago. Today, he said, there are less than 7,000.

“We knew this was coming,” says Gloria Middleton, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1180, which represents about 8,600 city administrators. Middleton says 94 percent of these administrators are now full union members; as for the others, she says, “we let them know what they will be losing if they don’t join”: They can’t vote in union elections or to ratify contracts, aren’t eligible for union-funded education programs, and, under a state law that went into effect April 1, the union no longer has to represent them in disciplinary proceedings.

Ever since the Supreme Court’s 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education ruling, public-sector unions have been unable to collect dues from nonunion workers to cover explicitly political activities such as campaign contributions. But they can charge separate “agency fees” that go toward such things as the costs of collective bargaining and representation in grievance procedures, which cover all employees, union members or otherwise.

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The lawsuit ruled on yesterday was filed by Illinois state employee Mark Janus with the backing of several anti-union organizations. They have argued that all activity by public-sector unions is objectively political, because it affects public spending and policies. The court upheld Janus’s claim that his free-speech rights were violated because he was forced to contribute about $45 a month to an organization that opposed slashing his pension and those of his fellow workers.

That court challenge was directly aimed at undermining public-sector unions, which now account for about half of the nation’s union members. In New York State, the most heavily unionized state in the country, about two-thirds of public-sector workers are members, compared with about 15 percent in the private sector, according to the state comptroller’s office. In 2016, according to a City University of New York study, the proportion of agency-fee payers in major city unions ranged from 4.8 percent of membership in the United Federation of Teachers to 16.5 percent in DC 37, which currently represents 125,000 city workers.

The Janus case was part of a concerted campaign to chip away at workers’ rights and unions’ power through litigation and legislation, much like the anti-abortion movement’s tactics of backing measures such as parental-consent laws, compulsory waiting periods, and intentionally burdensome safety-code regulations.

Over the last eight years, six states — Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, and, tentatively, Missouri — have enacted so-called right-to-work laws (called “right to work for less” by union supporters), which, like the Janus decision, allow workers to refuse to pay fees to the unions that represent them. Others have repealed “prevailing wage laws” that set floors for wages on public construction projects, and placed severe restrictions on public workers’ collective bargaining. In Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker pushed through a 2011 state law prohibiting public-sector unions from bargaining over anything but wage increases that don’t exceed the rate of inflation, the share of government workers who are union members fell from 50.3 percent in 2011 to 22.7 percent in 2016.

Several states, including Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, and Alabama, have prohibited local governments from setting minimum wages higher than the state’s. And Iowa in 2017 passed a law that required public-sector unions to seek recertification every time their contract expired — and to win, they had to get a majority of all workers in the bargaining unit, not just the ones who actually voted. (In recertification votes last October, Iowa unions won almost 98 percent of the vote, but lost 32 out of 468 bargaining units because of the hyper-majority mandate.)

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These measures, associated litigation, and anti-union propaganda campaigns have been backed by a network of far-right financiers, most notoriously the Koch brothers, but also local “little Koch brothers” such as David Humphreys and Rex Sinquefield in Missouri, packing-materials manufacturer Richard Uihlein in Illinois, and Betsy and Dick DeVos in Michigan.

At the court’s oral arguments in February, virtually all of the roughly 100 demonstrators supporting Mark Janus outside came from the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and the much lesser-known State Policy Network, a nationwide alliance of 64 state-based think tanks. In a 2016 fundraising letter, the network said that cutting off “big government” unions’ income from dues and fees would deliver the “mortal blow” that would permanently break the left’s “stranglehold on our society.” The Illinois Policy Institute, its Chicago-based affiliate, represented Janus through its litigation branch.

“People like the Koch brothers and these big billionaires, if they can do anything to cause us to have less strength, they’ll do it with a smile on their face,” says the CSEA’s Crockett.

The Janus decision may also open the door to future litigation chipping away at union rights, such as that of being workers’ sole representative in negotiations over pay, benefits, and working conditions. “Designating a union as the employees’ exclusive representative substantially restricts the rights of individual employees,” Justice Alito wrote, noting that it prevents them from negotiating with their employer on their own.

While that comment is legally dicta, or not a binding part of the decision, it is the same tactic Alito used a similar tactic in his opinion in the 2014 Harris v. Quinn case — a 5-4 decision that exempted Medicaid-paid home healthcare workers from agency fees on the grounds that they were only “partial public employees” — to signal that he would welcome a challenge to Abood. In that dicta, he called the Abood precedent “questionable on several grounds,” arguing that bargaining to increase public workers’ pensions, for example, was inherently political activity.

In the meantime, union leaders are in the position of having to convince workers that they’re better off paying dues to become union members even though they’d reap the benefits of collective bargaining and grievance procedures whether or not they join. That’s left the leaders, paradoxically, to echo arguments made by anti-union forces that having dues be voluntary will compel unions to do a better job of reaching workers. “This is something we should have always been doing,” says Crockett. “We got too comfortable with money coming in automatically. We stopped talking to our members.”

“We’re in for a fight, but it’s a fight we can win,” insists Middleton. Some CWA locals in right-to-work states have 95 percent union membership among the workers they represent, she adds. “When they understand what unions are about, they join.”


Why Are New York’s Doritos Disappearing?

Usually, regardless of the New York City borough, you’re no more than five minutes from three sure things: a turkey sandwich on a roll, a can of soda, and a 1.75-ounce bag of Doritos. It’s a Gotham guarantee, even more reliable in its ubiquity than a Starbucks latte or the immortal bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich.

In last Monday’s New York Post, Josh Kosman reported that the unmistakable crinkly-shiny bags of Frito-Lay products were conspicuously absent from many small grocery stores, newsstands, and bodegas around New York City. Kosman suggested that salary cutbacks affecting the company’s drivers had led to a workforce exodus that, in turn, left our salty-tooth dollars to be spent on other things. Smartfood? Utz? Kettle chips with Himalayan salt and avocado oil? Maybe as a stopgap, but — sensible eaters, close your eyes for this next part — there’s really no long-term replacement for the sacred nacho-cheese Doritos. (In last year’s award-winning Lady Bird, Tracy Letts immortalized the snack with an enunciation of “Doritos” that will not be bested in our lifetimes.) Whether they come in a tiny 1-ounce bag for box lunches, a multipurpose 1.75-ounce or 3.125-ounce bag, or the full-size 15-ounce bag for long car rides or lonely nights spent with a six-pack of Lagunitas Maximus IPA and a pint of AmeriCone Dream (what, just me?), there’s a bag size for every occasion.

PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay, makes for a good scapegoat. The company has been struggling in vain to entice investors after flat year-on-year stock performance and exactly-as-expected dividend payouts, and the resulting financial difficulties have trickled down to affect drivers. The company laid off nearly 1 percent of its 110,000 employees last month at the same time it announced a round of thousand-dollar bonuses to other employees. Also, perhaps inspired by new tax breaks, the company’s already long-gestating stock repurchase plan swelled from $12 billion to $15 billion. Yet these moves haven’t translated into tangible results, besides some curiously blank shelf space at your corner bodega.

“That’s happening everywhere, man,” Rob, a delivery driver for a competing beverage distributor, told me as he stocked shelves at a convenience store in Queens. Rob and his partner, Darren, pick up their load in downtown Brooklyn and at the Port Authority piers and make drops around central Queens: Corona, Elmhurst, Maspeth, and Jackson Heights. Their workday officially begins when they start hauling at five in the morning, and ends around two in the afternoon. But when you factor in their commutes, from East New York and Far Rockaway, respectively, their day is much longer than that.

Rob gave me some figures of how a typical driver cobbles together a paycheck: a base salary plus a few pennies for every case delivered. Other drivers I talked to, like Marce in Kew Gardens, who delivers produce for an outfit much smaller than PepsiCo, build their paychecks by relying on overtime earned from sixty- to seventy-hour weeks. In the case of these two guys, dedicated sales teams pre-canvass stores, usually by phone or email, to get a fulfillment agreement. Stores have the privilege of changing their mind at the point of delivery, if the product hasn’t moved fast enough, or if they don’t have enough space.

The chance of canceled orders is something drivers have always had to expect. But, Ron explained, the distributor he works for recently implemented a new commission structure where it takes back almost half of what the drivers earn for each cardboard box unpacked and shelved — a clean doubling of the 22 percent clawback when he signed on. Competition for space in even the most remote drugstores and supermarkets is legendarily cutthroat, even while marketers and manufacturers wage a billion-dollar commerce war across continents. But on the micro level, drivers might correctly feel that they’re the very sandpaper companies use to unstick any irksome nickels and dimes not already being siphoned into deeper pockets upstairs.

At the tactical level, however, delivery drivers may have a clearer big-picture view than executives and company officers. Two PepsiCo drivers — both of whom spoke freely and enthusiastically on the condition of anonymity — confirmed several points outlined in Kosman’s article relating to small operations (newsstands and bodegas) being neglected in many neighborhoods around town. This was the case even after the company rallied to get nonregular drivers, such as managers and dispatchers, to cover blind spots caused when as many as 45 out of 140 fleet drivers quit as a result of the new salary structure.

What was the flash point? The two PepsiCo drivers said it was an abhorrent new contract signed last summer, which both men told me their union did nothing to alleviate or avert. Where pay had previously been a 30 percent salary–70 percent commission split, incentivizing drivers on two fronts (land new accounts, take good care of existing ones), as of July 2017, the split reversed to 80-20 in favor of salary, with new, more difficult metrics required to earn commissions. (Teamsters Local 802, which negotiated the contract, did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.) Not exactly the principle the early-twentieth-century sociologist Vilfredo Pareto had in mind when he created the 80-20 rule.

Both of the PepsiCo haulers I talked to told me that the new model no longer encourages outreach to the city’s smaller operators. Consequently, many owners of small stores and kiosks have found themselves compelled to make cold approaches to drivers, and to offer cash for a box or two of what may be the best-selling snacks and drinks in their inventory.

“Our hands are tied,” one driver said. “Guys who own bodegas might come up to my truck and offer me twenty dollars, thirty dollars for a few boxes of chips, but I can do nothing. It’s not in the system, so when they scan everything back at the base, it looks like theft, and then I get in trouble. I could lose my job.” He explained that it wasn’t so long ago when he would have taken the time to sign up a new account, or restore one that got left behind. But now, it wasn’t worth the effort.

In the end, massive driver attrition is a punishment that keeps on punishing: Somewhere between the transmission-grinding gearshift from 30-70 to 80-20 in the drivers’ salary-commission model, those who remain with PepsiCo have seen their incentives torched. Metro area Duane Reades and Rite Aids may never notice a Frito hiccup (they’re not the clients you want to leave high and dry), but many smaller sellers like the all-night store outside your subway station or the news and sundries kiosk in your midtown high-rise office building might have just been wiped from the margins.

Or if the math is too granular, consider the driver exodus ratio in these terms: You have just opened a large bag of Doritos. I walk over and, with one swipe of my right hand (which, believe me, is a veteran chip scooper-upper), abscond with one-third of the bag’s contents, and vanish. Now imagine that happening to a city of 8 million.


The Sex Abuse Behind Your Tomatoes

Lupe Gonzalo covers her face with her hands, leaving only her eyes visible. She’s miming the handkerchiefs young women would wear on the tomato fields to disguise their youth and protect themselves from men on the job site.

“When you’re harvesting tomatoes, you’re leaning down and bending,” Gonzalo explains. “There were people who would come by while you were leaning down and doing unwanted physical contact, touching you in ways that you didn’t want to be touched. These were crew leaders, supervisors, even fellow workers.”

Gonzalo moved alone to America in 2000 from Guatemala, at the age of 20. “We are people of the fields,” she says in her native Spanish. “Since I was very little I’ve been working in agriculture.” She did not know what she would find in her new home, only that she wanted something more than the unceasing poverty she’d endured in Guatemala.

For the last twelve years, Gonzalo has harvested tomatoes in Florida, Virginia, and North and South Carolina, a story she wants the public to hear again and again. “We had to work in silence and put our heads down, in order to deflect and not feel the harassment that was coming our way,” she says.

Gonzalo would often observe women returning sad and silent after having taken a ride with crew leaders. These leaders would lure women into their trucks by telling them they’d drive them to a different spot on the farm, and then instead would drive them to a deserted area, where they would sexually coerce, grope, or sexually assault the women. There was no one the women could report the behavior to. “Sometimes when you did that, it would make the problem even worse, which was why people were discouraged from reporting,” Gonzalo says.

Lupe Gonzalo

Along with Julia de la Cruz, Nely Rodriguez, and Silvia Perez, three other women in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Gonzalo is trying to bring attention to the sexual harassment and assault female farmworkers who harvest America’s crops regularly endure. On February 28, these four women penned an open letter to the Time’s Up movement that beseeched the women of Hollywood to share their platform with the farmworker women of the South who have endured low wages, rampant sexual harassment and abuse, and some of the worst working conditions in the country.

Their goal is to encourage food retailers to join the Fair Food Program, a seventeen-year-old worker-driven social responsibility model set up by CIW that has succeeded in getting many fast food and supermarket companies to commit to improving working conditions among the employees of its food suppliers, thereby ensuring better working environments on many farms. Many major chains, including McDonald’s and Taco Bell, have since signed on. But Wendy’s has been a prominent holdout, claiming it has its own internal code of conduct and that it prefers tomatoes harvested outside of the U.S.

In response, the women staged a five-day fast last week outside the Manhattan offices of Nelson Peltz, Wendy’s largest shareholder and chair of its board of directors, which culminated in a march last Thursday beginning outside of midtown’s One Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza.

“Women agricultural laborers have for decades said, ‘Me Too,’ ” says Gonzalo. “It’s important that the media focus not just on the stories of actresses and models and high-profile figures, but also on the day-to-day struggles of workers everywhere, of women everywhere.”


Near the southern end of Florida is a swampy, muggy area called Immokalee, which means “my home” in the Mikasuki language. There’s a regional airport a mile from the central business district, a Seminole tribe reservation and casino, a swamp sanctuary, and not much else: 23 square miles of land, 384 acres of water, and about 24,000 people. But chances are, if you’ve ever bought or consumed a tomato, it has come from Immokalee.

Women working on the farms rise every day at five in the morning; those with children, like Gonzalo, must be up to wake their children at 3:30 a.m., preparing their breakfast and readying them for school before dawn, she shares. At 6 a.m., the women are at the bus stop, and by 7 a.m. they are at the farms.

Manhattan, NY- March 15, 2018: Wendy’s and its director Nelson Peltz has refused to join the Fair Food Program (FFP), and has stopped buying tomatoes from Florida since the implementation of the FFP in the state. From March 11-15 farmworkers from Immokalee went under a five day freedom fast in front of 280 Park Avenue demanding Wendy’s join the FFP. David ‘Dee’ Delgado for the Village Voice

And then, they arm themselves with buckets to await the exact moment the heat dries the tomato plant. Finally, after 10 a.m. they march forward and begin picking. This is merely the start of a workday that many times will last another twelve hours, one where farms keep workers at the ready from early morning, even if they’re simply waiting.

This is not easy work. The swamps that used to thrive here before agriculture took over the land still haunt these fields with their sticky heat. The Florida sun is not kind to naked skin. The women have to fight the plants for the fruits and vegetables. The bugs are as omnipresent as air.

If the work itself — bend, pick, stand, fill, repeat — is not easy, the working conditions are even worse. Many times, there are no bathroom breaks and no access to clean drinking water; CIW has recorded instances of workers being beaten for taking breaks.

Julia de la Cruz moved to Florida twelve years ago from Guerrero, Mexico, at the age of 22. She left behind her entire family to support them with her wages, she says in Spanish. She has worked as a migrant farmworker, chasing harvest seasons from Tennessee to Michigan to Florida and back. There’s no type of plant she hasn’t picked with her hands, including squash, cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and rice.

For her fellow farmworkers, she says, even Spanish is often a second language, as indigenous languages are their native tongues. Lacking fluency in a common language, as well as unfamiliarity with labor laws, makes them an easy mark for wage theft, as farms pay them in cash with no record of what they were owed.

Some supervisors would summon farmworkers to work around the clock without pay. Others visited the female farmworkers in the dead of night.

De la Cruz says she was lucky: She was able to ask for help from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who persuaded the grower to fire the farm supervisor who had subjected her to inappropriate and uninvited touching.

“I learned that the same person had raped someone before, in that same farm,” she says. “Two young women, but they were fired instead.” Though she never met them, she says, “what I told myself was that I will never let that happen to me. I will find a way out if it ever escalates beyond that, but it never did.”


Gonzalo first met the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in 2010 when it visited the farm she worked at; she had previously only heard of it on the radio. The CIW was launched in 1993 by farmworkers in Florida, largely women from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti. It describes itself as a “worker-based human rights organization internationally recognized for its achievements in the fields of social responsibility, human trafficking, and gender-based violence at work.”

In 2011, the CIW officially inaugurated the Fair Food Program (FFP), which now covers farms in Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey. It includes such buyers as Chipotle Mexican Grill, Taco Bell, Burger King, Subway, McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, and Whole Foods Market. Participating growers represent 90 percent of the tomato industry in Florida, and now include Florida pepper and strawberry farms too.

The FFP model developed after years of failed attempts to pressure the farm growers for better wages and a more protected environment. By convincing food corporations to buy tomatoes only from farms engaged in fair food practices, the CIW could force farms to join. The participating companies also pay farmworkers a penny-a-pound premium, which, according to a New York Times article from 2014, resulted in a 20 to 35 percent pay increase for the farmworkers from what they earned before and from what non-participating farms still pay their farmworkers.

“That’s where [companies’] market power comes in,” says de la Cruz. “If they can say, ‘We are not gonna buy from these farms,’ then that will trigger change down the supply chain.”

A third-party monitoring system spot-checks farms to ensure they’re in compliance with FFP standards; if they fall short, retailers immediately stop purchasing from that farm. Farmworkers also have access to a 24-hour hotline where they can report instances of abuse and have a human rights investigator come in to the farm.

Once the FFP was launched at her farm, Gonzalo says, change was swift, something that’s reflected in the yearly reports by the Fair Food Standards Council. Water and shaded breaks were suddenly a given. Reports of abuse were met with action rather than with escalation or termination. And minimum wages were implemented when the payment per bucket was not enough. But most of all, workers did not have to walk into an abusive workplace every day.

Manhattan, NY- March 15, 2018: The children of the fasters were in attendance and addressed the crowd of supporters. Wendy’s and its director Nelson Peltz has refused to join the Fair Food Program (FFP), and has stopped buying tomatoes from Florida since the implementation of the FFP in the state. From March 11-15 farmworkers from Immokalee went under a five day freedom fast in front of 280 Park Avenue demanding Wendy’s join the FFP. David ‘Dee’ Delgado for the Village Voice

De la Cruz speaks of a moment early in the days of the CIW, in 1996, when a farmworker in Immokalee was brutally beaten by a crew leader after pausing to take a drink of water. “The community responded to that instance of violence and they organized a march directly to the house of the crew leader who had beaten this worker,” she says. “And that became a point of unity for all of us and strengthened our struggle.”


The Fair Food Program was not adopted without a fight. In 2001, the CIW boycotted Taco Bell, which had been pressuring suppliers for discounts, a practice that trickled down to the farmworkers in the form of low wages and a poorly regulated work environment. The company eventually agreed to join what would eventually become FFP in 2006; Chipotle followed suit in 2012, after the CIW supporters began picketing the company’s headquarters in Denver following six years of “talks.”

When pressure began mounting from CIW and its allies five years ago, Wendy’s claimed its own internal set of fair practices meant it didn’t need the FFP. Soon after, the company decided to pull its business out of Florida altogether and move it to Mexico, where abuse of workers is rampant, says de la Cruz.

“The FFP hasn’t expanded to Mexico yet, and these workers who are laboring in the fields have no access to the kinds of protections that we do,” says Gonzalo. “They don’t have a government that is vying for their human rights. There is a culture of abuse, a culture of fear. Workers cannot speak out when they face abuse and have to continue to work silently, suffering through these exploitative conditions.”

Manhattan, NY- March 15, 2018: Wendy’s and its director Nelson Peltz has refused to join the Fair Food Program (FFP), and has stopped buying tomatoes from Florida since the implementation of the FFP in the state. From March 11-15 farmworkers from Immokalee went under a five day freedom fast in front of 280 Park Avenue demanding Wendy’s join the FFP.
David ‘Dee’ Delgado for the Village Voice

Wendy’s spokesperson Heidi Schauer tells the Voice the CIW has been “spreading false and misleading information about the Wendy’s brand in their continuing effort to extract a financial commitment from us.” The company vowed never to join the FFP — which Schauer said forces companies to pay fees directly to their suppliers’ workers — and Schauer invites readers to learn more about its position on the Wendy’s blog. (The CIW’s own response to the Wendy’s blog post can be read on its website.)

“Wendy’s is currently not buying tomatoes in Florida where the FFP operates and collects its fees,” continues Schauer. “We instead buy higher-quality, vine-ripened tomatoes in the winter months, which were not available to us in Florida. That is at the heart of the CIW’s campaign against us — we buy a lot of tomatoes for which they directly or indirectly receive no money.”


Both Gonzalo and de la Cruz are hopeful that they’ll find support from powerful women in the movement against sexual harassment. When she first heard of the Time’s Up movement, says de la Cruz, “I immediately thought of the FFP, and the model of worker-driven social responsibility as a way to put an end to these abuses, and what it would look like for a program like the FFP to exist in other industries like Hollywood. Could it eradicate this type of abuse there too?”

This week, CIW activists flooded Peltz’s office lines with messages of support for FFP, culminating in the march on Wendy’s. Gonzalo’s two boys, 17 and 14, joined her in New York, and in the fast last week. It haunts her that she was a mentally absent mother sometimes, her mind always back in the fields thinking about the harassment she’d have to go through again the next day.

The farmworker activists say that Wendy’s reliance on Mexican suppliers to avoid accountability for worker mistreatment is unacceptable, especially for a company that uses the image of a young girl on its logo.

“Many people go to a supermarket, or a restaurant, and they don’t think twice about the hands who picked the food, who that person was and under what conditions they were working to make that happen,” says de la Cruz.

“We are saying, ‘No more,’ ” adds Gonzalo. “Let’s create this solution so that workers don’t have to say ‘Me Too’ anymore. It’s time to say ‘no’ to abuse, and when we say ‘no,’ we mean ‘no.’ ”


Uber Drivers Speak Out on That MIT Hourly Pay Study

Last week, a public relations skirmish broke out between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Uber, after researchers at the school’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR) released a dismaying study on the subject of ride-sharing drivers’ profits. Across the board, they estimated, after accounting for such business costs as fuel, depreciation, and insurance, Uber and Lyft drivers — independent contractors by definition, and thus granted few of the protections that even the most rudimentary part-time jobs boast — often saw their take-home pay dip well below $4 an hour. 

After the gist of MIT’s findings were conveyed to the public square by Sam Levin’s March 1 article for the Guardian, Uber — far and away the largest ride-share platform, with an estimated 88 percent participation among operators — quickly contested the numbers. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi even took to Twitter to blast MIT, joking that the august research university’s initials stood for “Mathematically Incompetent Theories (at least as it pertains to ride-sharing).” By Saturday, the study’s lead, Stephen Zoepf, quietly emailed a walk-back to Reuters, suggesting that the fire MIT found in the industry’s smoke might allow for a few different layers of interpretation.

Lyft CEO Logan Green, who has tweeted a mere 167 times since 2008, adopted the WarGames strategy, in which the only winning move is not to play. Instead of wading into the firefight, Green took the opportunity to plug his company’s rapidly developing role in medical transport, i.e., non-ambulance rides to and from medical facilities. On the company’s official Twitter, its deluge of funny GIFs and earnest customer-care replies flagged not for a moment. Uber’s Khosrowshahi acknowledged (at least temporarily) mended fences on Saturday, and by the time The Shape of Water was anointed Best Picture of 2017 at the Academy Awards, there was, as Wheeler’s telegrams in Citizen Kane might have put it, no war.

Let’s take a step back. Bystanders to this fight will find it hard to resist assigning face and heel roles: In this corner, Uber, the mustache-twirling villain, tossing defenseless driver operators (“partners,” in gig economy parlance) into the meat grinder. Challenging the transportation Goliath, there’s MIT, benevolent bulwark of higher learning, ceaseless fount of geniuses across a broad spectrum of human endeavor, home of the finest Will Hunting movies, soberly but decisively assuming a defensive posture over the racked bodies of the ride-share industry’s labor pool, as the university apparatus is wont to do, or, at least, would like to be seen as doing.

“Bullshit,” Uber driver Shahid (who, like most of the contractors I spoke with, asked not to be named in full) told me Tuesday morning, as he used a cloth rag to wipe down his powder-blue Honda Accord, overlooking the Flushing Bay Promenade. I took an extended lunch break from one of my day jobs to pedal out to the LaGuardia Airport For-Hire Vehicle holding area (where drivers wait for audio alerts to scoop up a fare at the terminal) and find out what drivers thought about this public squabble over driver pay. I learned Shahid’s biography in about nineteen seconds: He had a mortgage, he had his children’s tuition bills, he’d worked at a grocery store for many years, and he’d turned to ride-share driving when he lost that job.

“Peak times, even when you take out the gas, the insurance, the car note, the tolls, you take home twelve to fifteen an hour,” Shahid said. “During slow times, you make about minimum wage. But that’s before tax.”

Most of the drivers I spoke with this week joined Uber at some point in the last three years, validating reports of low contractor retention. Shahid started in November of 2017 and had never before driven any kind of taxi, or for any ride-share company. By my lights, he seemed an incredibly quick study, and his grasp of ride-share metrics and P&L ratios were on par with someone who’d been in the game for years, not months. He was only too eager to crack open his driver app to show me a few relevant rides, such as a Westchester-to-Westchester job that was mostly spent on the Bronx River Parkway, with a payout of about $11. Another ride, one that brought him to LaGuardia from Brooklyn, was almost identical in terms of time and miles but paid more than half again as much. As we talked shop for almost thirty minutes, it became clear that he knew exactly which work practices would butter his bread.

Shahid and many others confirmed some things I already knew from my own years behind the wheel. For trips in the five boroughs, plus Westchester and Long Island, the absolute minimum fare (let’s say, driving someone from their apartment on First Avenue and East 86th Street to the subway station at Second Avenue and East 86th Street) is around $7 or $8. Traveling outside those eight New York counties reduces the base fare to $4 or $5, and drops the mileage and time rates as well. (Shorter version: New Jersey and Connecticut rides are cheap as hell.)

Nationwide, rates fluctuate based on region, county, and state. Some of the worst fare structures I found (by exploring city-specific pages on the Lyft website, as well as fare calculators on other platforms’ sites) are in Florida, with Miami, Tampa Bay, and Orlando drivers earning 30 percent less (per minute and mile) than their colleagues in Daytona Beach, one of the only Sunshine State markets to offer rates that begin to approach what one can earn in most other parts of the country. Working near small towns and in rural areas may permit drivers access to fare matrices that look reasonable at first glance, but when those ride requests come once an hour or less, as Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta says on the subject of cooking a steak too long, it defeats its own purpose.


I caught up with Uber driver Dennis on his smoke break. I briefed him on the bullet points of the MIT study, and Uber’s response. He was carrying two smartphones, which is pretty common among drivers who want to cover all their bases by signing up for every available platform.

Dennis wrinkled his nose at the sub-$4-per-hour figure, and suggested that it sounded a bit extreme. “Maybe in the sticks,” he said. “If you want to make decent money at this, you have to work city jobs.” Our unscientific line of inquiry quickly concluded: Operating a car for a ride-sharing platform is a tough racket; you gotta put in the hours, don’t take two-hour lunches, do work crunch time in Manhattan, and always have a backup plan when the push alerts stop pushing.

This is all big-city talk, with some degree of carry-over into other metro areas around the country. Not surprisingly, online ride-share operator support groups have lamented the drought of fare opportunities in small towns and rural areas. Drivers in these markets may either make a special effort to head to the nearest larger market (Fargo instead of Moose Lake) or find alternative ways to make their dead time pay.

The MIT report relies on data from a 2017 study by “The Rideshare Guy” — Harry Campbell, a blogger and writer who has contributed to Forbes, the New York Times, and Wired — to make allowances for geography. Campbell’s survey, drawn from a pool of over 1,100 respondents, provides an array of interesting findings concerning demographic data like age, race, and gender. It’s a commendable job of work, and a fair place to start a conversation on dozens of intersecting concerns about the industry, about labor, and so on.

At the same time, as CEEPR’s only source of self-reported driver data, it’s being asked to do a lot of heavy lifting. When Zoepf tweeted out his official statement on the paper, he explained how differently calibrated calculations might show overall driver take-home pay to be more than double the now somewhat incendiary $3.37-per-hour estimate.

Still, skepticism or apathy toward MIT’s study doesn’t automatically translate to an unquestioning embrace of the tech platforms in question. More than one driver expressed ambivalence, or something harsher and more colorful, toward one ride-share company or another. The names of this or that company were sometimes spat more than spoken. Lyft loyalist Omar, who wound up at the LaGuardia lot after fruitlessly cruising for fares around nearby Flushing, explained that he’d shut the door on Uber after getting burned one too many times.

The last straw occurred in 2016 when he took a drowsy, late-night rider to Jersey City from Battery Park, only for the semi-coherent young man to inform him, well after crossing the Hudson, that the intended destination was Twelfth Avenue in Manhattan, not 12th Street in Jersey City. Although the New Jersey destination was, in fact, a matter of permanent digital record, Uber issued a merciless fare adjustment the following day, sticking Omar with the Lincoln Tunnel toll, and reducing the price of the ride to what it would have otherwise cost, had the somewhat blissfully impaired passenger double-checked his order details: eleven bucks to go from FiDi to one of those ice palace cinder blocks overlooking Chelsea Piers, down from a relatively lofty thirty plus a blanket twenty for going over the river. All in, counting an E-ZPass transaction that would now never be recouped, Omar netted negative one dollar for his trouble — not including expenses.

You may be thinking, Omar’s mistake is his own affair, and if Uber hoisted him up by his Skechers to make his lunch money fall out of his pockets on behalf of an irate rider, well, c’est la guerre. I even told him about how, when I drove for Lyft and Uber, I always confirmed a passenger’s destination, especially when it was a long haul. Maybe Omar could write letters to E-ZPass, in the hopes of reclaiming the errant toll.

Or maybe you’re already cringing from muscle memory of a different kind of toll, a psychic toll, extracted after interacting with bureaucracies. A driver like Omar will almost always find that the less agonizing option is to take a mulligan, and just plug away for an extra hour or so, turning an anticipated twelve-hour shift into thirteen or fourteen hours.

Several drivers who had signed on with Uber, Lyft, Juno, and Gett showed me a relatively new feature, a shift timer, implemented to comply with new New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission rules aimed at curbing driver fatigue. When you’ve been on duty for ten hours, you’re automatically logged out for a mandatory eight hours. Even so, flouting the (debatably) well-intentioned TLC rule is a simple matter of logging off Uber and logging on to Lyft, or vice versa. And if you run out the clock on two apps, there is always a third, or fourth, and so on.

Which led to my final query to each driver at the LaGuardia lot: Yes, we talked about how you have to expect to put in a long day (upwards of twelve hours) to earn a decent take-home. But should you have to? You can imagine the answer, but if you can’t, here’s a hint: It was unanimous.


Over the years, I’ve spoken with drivers hanging out at Taxi and Limousine Commission offices, at Uber and Lyft headquarters, at airports, at dive bars and Indian restaurants. The complaints about the soft tyranny of ride-share platforms remains consistent. The Uber driver is, in antiseptic-smelling policy terms, a small business owner, and business owners are nothing if not familiar with the thousand bleeding cuts that threaten to make a hash of their bottom line.

But the “Morning in America”–esque swelling pride we’re supposed to associate with American small business strikes a dissonant chord when you consider the Uber driver. What kind of small business is it that keeps you turning the mill every minute of a fourteen-hour day, alone, where a restroom break has to be considered in terms of lost revenue opportunities? Ride-share drivers are bound to their own steering wheels by invisible handcuffs, and while they may be the only ones who have the keys to those cuffs, the first thing they notice is they can’t seem to find those keys, forever. Driving for Lyft or Uber — or carrying an order of poke for Postmates, or building furniture for TaskRabbit — often makes one feel like the emissary in Franz Kafka’s An Imperial Message, doomed to an eternity of insisting the urgency of his charge against unending throngs of spectators and bystanders pressed the other way. Or like inhabitants of a variation on Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon, where one laboring body is beset on all sides by innumerable collectors of fines and fees — a “pan-kleptocon” in the shape of a smartphone and an automobile of your choosing. Show me six months’ of checking account statements of those same 1,100 drivers, and I’ll show you a virtual prison with no bars and no guards, but an easy-to-use interface on Apple iOS.

If CEEPR’s long list of sponsors — energy companies like BP and National Grid, automakers like Toyota — is any indication, the center speaks to large policy-making circles, spread across massive global markets. But the center’s clinical remove, while plausible in terms of academic decorum and protocol, has produced a kind of haze over what kind of conversation the study was supposed to have ignited. (The one conversation it did start certainly couldn’t have been the one it was after.) And I can’t look at the heavy reliance on a single, secondary data set, the Rideshare Guy survey — already confined to a narrow array of subjects — without a fair amount of disappointment.

With all due respect to Campbell, is there no significant driver data on weight gain, blood pressure, or heart disease, or stats relating to morale and mental health? What about steep bureaucratic expenses, like livery operator insurance, special licensing, and vehicle tags? What about lost time spent duking it out with City Hall over parking tickets and moving violations? Perhaps in expanding the scope of its examination, CEEPR (or a research entity like it), having erred in calculating hourly take-home pay by as much as 253 percent, could have done more to make it less easy for Uber’s CEO to destroy months of research and analysis in a single 9:25 p.m. tweet.

I can grok the letter of MIT’s study, but not the spirit. I envision the CEEPR panel through the famous Hindu parable about the roomful of blind men who cannot identify an elephant by its parts. Except that the creature in the room is an Uber driver, and the room is an abattoir, and the wise, blind men are conditionally (yet permanently) unable to figure out why the animal is dying.


Healthcare THE FRONT ARCHIVES Working

As Flu Rages, Food Workers Resist Calling in Sick

On a bench outside a small diner on the north shore of Staten Island, Stephanie, a waitress who handles busy breakfast and lunch services, sat for a quick break after the midday rush had died down. Perfectly healthy at the moment and soaking in some vitamin D from the bright winter sun, Stephanie admitted she didn’t know much about what her options would be if she were, “knock on wood,” to come down with the flu.

“I had a cold this year,” she said. “Not bad enough to skip work, though. Anyway, I work for tips, so it wouldn’t be worth it.”

Stephanie is one of many employees in the food-service industry we spoke with who have only a vague idea about their businesses’ sick day policies, a statistic that corresponds with a recent report from the Community Service Society of New York. According to the report, as of last year 55 percent of low-income workers covered by New York City’s Paid Sick Leave Law, which went into effect in 2014, had heard little or nothing about it, including 63 percent of those covered whose employers failed to provide sick days.

Those numbers could have serious implications during this year’s particularly bad flu season. Influenza and pneumonia, an occasional complication of the flu, cause more deaths each year in New York than any other infection, and the virus is highly contagious. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, so far this season four children have died from the flu, and more than 19,000 cases of influenza have been reported in the city.

“People think the flu is a bad cold, but the flu is a different virus and can be very severe,” says Mirella Salvatore, an infectious diseases expert at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York–Presbyterian, who notes this has been the worst flu season at the hospital since 2009, with around 200 patients per week at its peak.

“In a populated city, it’s really hard to escape the flu,” Salvatore says. “We go on the subway, we touch an elevator button, we’re in the gym. The glass you bring to the customer if you’re in the food industry, and then someone touches the glass, touches his face — the flu can be transmitted that way, because the flu can stay on surfaces up to six to eight hours.”

For most workers in New York City, the ability to stay home if they get the flu is a right that’s covered by the Paid Sick Leave Law, which guarantees employees who work at least eighty hours per calendar year the right to take time off when they’re sick, or if they need to care for a sick family member. Employees can annually accrue a maximum forty hours of sick time; if the business has five or more employees, the time off is paid, while smaller businesses don’t have to pay for sick time.

When it comes to food-service work, there are some special considerations. For example, employees whose wages are based on tips and are entitled to paid time off must be paid minimum wage for those paid sick leave hours, but aren’t entitled to lost tips. Employees who work shifts have the option of swapping shifts, but employers can’t require that they add shifts to make up for a missed shift.

“I’m not sure if we’d get paid, but anyway it doesn’t make sense to call out, working for tips,” said a bartender working in the Financial District, echoing the thoughts of many tipped employees we spoke to. “True, you’re putting yourself at risk, and others. It’s something to think about.”

Nancy Rankin, vice president for policy research and advocacy at CSS and lead author of its report, says employee knowledge about the sick leave law won’t improve without targeted outreach and enforcement efforts by the mayor’s office and the Department of Consumer Affairs, the agency tasked with administering the law. Though widespread advertising across media platforms has largely vanished since the law’s first two years, DCA says it continues to educate employers at hundreds of events, distributes tens of thousands of pieces of educational materials, and engages in partnerships with community and labor organizations to ensure the message goes out to their members.

“We are constantly working on this,” says DCA commissioner Lorelei Salas. “We recognize that there are still workers that need to know about this. We’re looking at how to target our outreach campaign to those workers who are, according to the report, less likely to know that the law exists.”

Some of the focus has shifted to enforcement, with the agency reporting that it has recovered more than $7 million to date in fines and restitution for workers. Still, while DCA can launch proactive investigations, a large part of that enforcement is dependent on complaints that have been filed through 311 or directly through the agency.

“Much of enforcement is complaint-driven — it relies on workers to know their rights, to speak up to their employer, or to lodge a complaint with DCA,” Rankin says. “But even if you’re armed with information, many of the workers — particularly in the food industry where you have a lot of immigrant workers — even if they know their rights, may be reluctant to complain to their boss or to lodge a complaint with a government agency.”

Additionally, even where employees know about the law, several we spoke to said they weren’t likely to call out sick because they felt they were essential, while others described an unspoken pressure to avoid using sick days.

“It was a hassle, trying to get that pay,” a waiter at a small restaurant in Brooklyn said about having taken a sick day under a former manager, who resisted paying him for the shift. A waitress standing nearby agreed, adding that she’d had an easier time at a larger restaurant she’d previously worked at, where structured HR systems made things like taking a sick day institutionally normalized. “Everyone knew about it, and it wasn’t a big deal,” she said.

Workers we spoke to at larger establishments and fast-food chains were, in fact, more likely to know about the law and feel comfortable taking a sick day. “I feel like corporate makes sure we all know,” said a woman fielding calls and constructing pizzas at a Domino’s franchise in Brooklyn. “They don’t want anyone, us or customers, getting sick.”

Ensuring that kind of knowledge of the law is key, says Rankin, who notes the pressure from the CSS report helped encourage DCA to hold a joint press conference with the health department to remind workers they should stay home if they’re sick. Rankin suggests additional outreach strategies could include advertisements in drug stores, notices to be sent home from schools with students, and possibly even amending the restaurant letter grade inspection system to include whether employees know about and feel able to take sick leave.

“There was all this hoopla when the law was launched, but there are new people entering the labor force all the time, people moving to New York City from other places, people changing jobs,” Rankin says. “Coca-Cola wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, we advertised when we launched that in 2014, we’ve finished that.’ Advertising and outreach has to be repeated and ongoing.”

She also sees the current flu season as an opportunity for Mayor Bill de Blasio to simultaneously increase awareness of the law and take credit for a measure that has positively benefited so many residents, and public health at large.

“The mayor should pick up his megaphone,” Rankin says. “We’re in the midst of a flu epidemic, and that seems like the perfect time to remind people that in New York City, most of us can now, if we’re sick, not go into work with the flu. We shouldn’t send sick children to school with the flu, and we’re able to do that because we have this law.”

As we enter the second half of the flu season, which runs through May, Salvatore recommends diligent hand-washing and the use of hand sanitizer, adding that it’s not too late to get a flu shot to help protect yourself and vulnerable people around you. But if you do get sick, she says, do not put other people at risk.

“If you can stay home,” Salvatore says, “you should absolutely stay home.”

NOTE: An earlier version of this article misstated the figures in the Community Service Society: It found that 63 percent of those whose employers failed to provide mandated sick days did not know about the sick leave law, not that 63 percent of those who were covered did not receive sick days.


Twerking Class Heroes

Vanity Redz wore a bright-red cape to Saturday’s New York women’s march, carrying a sign that read “Captain Empowering Hoes” in pink and sparkly-gold lettering — her twist on model Amber Rose’s Captain Save a Hoe costume at her SlutWalk in Los Angeles last fall. The cape also referenced the 1994 E-40 hit “Captain Save a Hoe,” which the rapper has said is about “saving” women who work in clubs with money, gifts, and childcare.

The 22-year-old stripper, who performs in New York area clubs from Queens to Yonkers, came out to support #NYCStripperStrike. The hashtag — which doesn’t represent a formalized walkout — started cropping up in November as a way for black dancers in Queens hip-hop clubs to speak out against discrimination and sexual harassment at work.

“There’s a plethora of issues that we’re covering, but our main ones are racism, the colorism that’s going on” — favoritism toward lighter-skinned women — and body shaming, Vanity told the Voice. She also decried payments, known as house fees, that strippers must make to venues: Dancers are required to pay in excess of $100 each shift, and it’s increasingly difficult to break even, she said. “We’re basically making money to pay the next house fee the next day, or we’re making money for the transportation that we pay to get from the Bronx to Brooklyn, or we’re paying for just food, after the clubs. So it’s not much of a profit.”

Vanity and other strippers marched with dozens of sex workers and advocates down Central Park West on Saturday to fight back against the stigma surrounding their jobs, which they say makes it difficult to acquire basic workplace protections. They carried signs reading “We Dance 4 Dollars, Not Disrespect,” “Twerk Is Work,” and “Black Stripper Lives Matter.”

Sex workers, strippers and activists all met at the Diana Ross Playground before the march

In 2017, national organizers with the Women’s March temporarily removed a line from their platform that pledged “solidarity with sex workers’ rights movements.” (Some prominent feminists, including Gloria Steinem, consider sex work to be exploitative without exception, and therefore anti-feminist.) The snub discouraged many activists, who say the destigmatization and decriminalization of sex work would curb low-level arrests and increase safety.

“Whether you work at a factory, or in a strip club, or as an escort, it’s all labor,” said Melissa Sontag Broudo, co–executive director of the Brooklyn-based nonprofit SOAR Institute, which advocates for sex workers. “And it all needs to be recognized, acknowledged, and supported.”

“I myself did not march [last year], partially because of the exclusion,” she added. “This year a bunch of us got together and said, especially because of the stripper strike that’s going on, there seems to be sort of a new energy, a new wave in the sex worker movement in New York right now.”


Simone Mendoza, 26, strips under the name The Real Black Swan. She marched on Saturday because she is fed up with club promoters and managers favoring lighter-skinned women for lucrative bartending gigs, and urging those women to get implants.

Mendoza recently took a break from dancing because the money she was bringing in didn’t justify the time she spent away from her 4-year-old son, who has autism. “We have to take the power back,” she told the Voice.

News coverage of #NYCStripperStrike has portrayed dancers’ complaints as a war against bartenders. “I think sensationalizing ‘bartenders versus strippers’ is very attractive to the media,” said Jacq the Stripper, a 30-year-old stripper and comedian who does not work in Queens, but stands in solidarity with black strippers there. “People just love pitting women against each other. It’s part of the problem, but it’s not the problem.”

More importantly, she said, “I really want strippers to feel proud of the work that they do. Feeling pride in work is going to be part of the fight for labor rights.”

Strippers in the United States have been fighting off and on for workplace protections for decades, according to attorney Juhu Thukral, program director of the nonprofit Narrative Initiative and a founding advisor at SOAR, ever since clubs started introducing house fees in the 1990s. Strippers are often labeled as independent contractors but treated like employees. Their informal status comes with none of the benefits of full-time work — health insurance, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies — and all of the downsides (strict hours, set lap dance prices).

Thukral said that harassment thrives in these work environments. “There’s a great deal of sexual harassment, and management encourages this by increasing stage fees and not having proper protections,” she said. “Women have to put up with more in order to get a livable wage.”

Three strippers on Saturday told the Voice that they’d been sexually harassed or assaulted on the job. Vanity recalled one customer who touched her between her legs while wrapping his arm around her neck in a chokehold. She managed to make eye contact with a bouncer, afraid to resist, because “I wasn’t sure if he was going to try to do anything hurtful or extra once I called out for help.” The bouncer did nothing, she said. Afterward, “he was basically victim blaming — ‘you should have done this, you should have done that.’ ”

Musician and stripper Cali Luv, 28, recalled a customer who slapped her buttocks. “This man hit me, hard, saying that because I’m a stripper that he can touch me any kind of way,” she recalled. “It was horrible and every time I see him, my skin crawls. People just violate you. They think that just because you dance you don’t love yourself and respect yourself, and that’s not true.”


Months into #NYCStripperStrike, club management has yet to acknowledge the movement. It has helped connect strippers across the country, though. Gizelle Marie, a 29-year-old stripper from the Bronx and one of the strike’s lead organizers, told the Voice that “every day I get a story from a woman of color.” Gizelle said she started using the hashtag last fall because “I took these issues for so long, and I was just over it.” On Sunday, she flew to Las Vegas to march with strippers in that city’s Women’s March.

Vanity Redz and Mz. Holly Hoodz (from left), Cali Luv and Gizelle Marie (from right) pose with another #StripperStrike supporter at the Women’s March on Saturday.

Gizelle told the Voice that she’d like to see mandatory licensing for bartenders and strippers, “to create boundaries for everyone.” She is also considering reaching out to the Teamsters union to see if it “wouldn’t mind having women in this line of work in their union.” As of 2015, only one American strip club had successfully unionized: the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, in 1997. However, stripper class-action lawsuits alleging misclassification as independent contractors have proliferated. According to Thukral, the hashtag is doing important work by amplifying stripper’s grievances. “It’s the first step,” she said.

Throughout the march on Saturday, women in pink knit pussy hats looked curiously at the sex worker contingent. “If it’s your free choice to be doing it, knock yourself out,” surmised Rosemary Andress, an Upper West Side woman marching with her two young daughters.

Mz. Holly Hood, 32, carried a “No More House Fees!” sign. She told the Voice that she’s been stripping in New York City off and on for ten years. She also hosts a podcast called Strip Talk Live, where she interviews strippers about their work. Holly has little patience for the stigma around stripping, which suits her outgoing personality. She ticked off dancers’ primary complaints: insufficient take-home pay, racism, sexual harassment.

“I’ve worked in the corporate world, so I know it’s the same thing,” she said. “Same issues.”


A Day in the Uber Life

I haven’t been at the Uber lot at LaGuardia Airport’s Marine Air Terminal five minutes, mindlessly scrolling through Twitter while I decompress and meditate on what I’m going to get from the 7-Eleven, when I spot the unmistakable body language of an approaching human. Sometimes salespeople stalk the FHV (For-Hire Vehicle, i.e., Uber, Lyft, etc.) lots, trying to entice drivers to sign up for some new fly-by-night rideshare platform, or buy high-tech gear like dashboard cameras. But I recognize this guy immediately: We used to go to the same garage in Flushing when we drove yellow cabs. I roll down my window to shake his hand.

“You do this now?”

“Yeah, you know.” I make a comme ci, comme ça face. “It took me a long time to make up my mind. I wanted to see how things were going to shake out first.”

He doesn’t remember my name. I don’t remember his. It’s fine. The mere fact that we were both parked here fills in our respective backstories, and it isn’t like we’re on each other’s birthday card lists. We recognized without words that we’d both made the transition from working in the century-old yellow cab industry to trying to catch the city’s latest brass ring, Uber driving.

“This is your own car, or you’re renting?”

He’s referring to the two methods for getting fixed up with a vehicle in order to accept rideshare requests from one of the widely accepted platforms. You either buy a car yourself, the normal, civilian way, and get it properly registered and fitted with plates and decals in accordance with municipal guidelines, or you rent. And I don’t mean like renting from Hertz or Avis: When you rent a vehicle to drive for Uber or Lyft, it’s similar to the “everything’s taken care of” model of leasing a yellow cab every morning or evening, except it’s an indefinite arrangement, paid for weekly. One all-in fee, paid to a company that might be as small in scale as a one-person sole proprietorship on the side of the road in outer Brooklyn.

These entities usually do nothing else besides managing cars for this exact purpose, and they charge a flat fee that covers insurance, maintenance, mechanical problems, and all the assorted legal bunk. The downside is that, somehow, this single fee tends to be slightly bonkers — quadruple or more what civilians pay when they lease or finance. You get sticker shock when you see this fee deducted from your pay every week, rain or shine. Remember in Goodfellas, when Sonny (Tony Darrow), owner of the Bamboo Lounge, took on Mafia caporegime Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) as a business partner? The drivers are the Sonnys of this scenario: Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. You had a fire? Fuck you, pay me. Oh, you got hit by lightning? Fuck you, pay me.

A crucial detail that most riders are blind to is that Uber, Lyft, and all the other tech companies are totally insulated from this arrangement. As many journalists have pointed out, Uber is one of the largest transportation companies in the world, yet owns zero vehicles.


My friend drives a Lincoln MKX, a midsize SUV, rented from one of the major outfits in Long Island City. You see these places around Queensboro Plaza, using massive billboards and storefront signage to hard-sell to hundreds of cab drivers as they make their way toward the 59th Street Bridge. My friend says he shells out $600 a week for the Lincoln. I pay $450 a week for my Toyota Camry, the standard-issue rideshare vehicle, now almost as much of a fixture on New York City streets as the age-old yellow cab. Compared to the yellow cab, the Lincoln is a promotion, an upgrade, like choosing a Montblanc pen over a BIC ballpoint. With the MKX, he can accept UberBLACK “luxury” rides for a much higher minimum fare than I can. At least in theory, that means he can bring in higher revenue.

I rent my car from a small-time operation out near Lefferts Boulevard in Queens, set up in a disused nail salon, in a neighborhood famous for nothing. So small-time, the guy who takes his cut from my paycheck hasn’t bothered to change up the outdoor signage — but that’s OK because nobody’s busting down his door to get their nails done, anyway. I can still remember asking him about direct deposit the day I signed on. “There’s no direct deposit, no.” Answering with a wry smile like I was a tourist in Times Square asking a three-card monte operator which way to Grant’s Tomb.

My friend and I compare notes and misery. He’s been driving Uber for a year longer than me. He jumped into the game around the time the company became a regular feature around New York City streets — 2014 or thereabouts. I remember this sea change well: It was like having a front-row seat to watch New York City say “yes” to Uber and “no, but thanks for the memories” to yellow cabs. Over a short period of time, a lot of the regular hacks at my garage, especially the younger folks, simply weren’t picking up their steady cars anymore. And when I say a lot, I mean like a bloodbath, like Omaha Beach, Dog Green sector.

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Management panicked because we were all independents, and could walk away with absolutely no advance notice. Handmade signs and photocopied news articles, taped up by the management, started to appear around the office and waiting areas, bad-mouthing Uber for unfair practices. The morning dispatcher who glared at you every day, just for living, suddenly was all smiles, cracking jokes. You started getting newer cars with low miles, not the junkers that had fun features like ripped seat belts and trunks that don’t open. There were two or three other employees around the garage, hard guys from the bad old days who’d rather be framed for murder than treat hacks with an iota of human respect. Because they wouldn’t change their ways, well, one day you noticed you hadn’t seen so-and-so for a couple of weeks. They vanished like political dissidents under an authoritarian regime.

These band-aid solutions were OK with me for a while. When you’re driving a yellow cab and you don’t have any other irons in the fire — an easy jam to find yourself in, when the game compels you to drive for twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week — you make your peace with every part of your job that’s a pain in the ass: shitty cars, hostile attitudes from everyone from the dispatchers and mechanics to the NYPD officers and Taxi & Limousine Commission agents, the long hours, the bad days where you drive all the way up Sixth Avenue, down Fifth, up Madison, and down Park with absolutely no hails. There’s a lot more to it, of course — you can use your imagination. To the job’s credit I’ve never, contrary to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, had to clean blood or cum off the seats. (That’s a little something called “the magic of the movies.”) You put up with all this garbage because, at the end of your shift, all you want to do is switch off your brain and collapse, and you lack the creative impulse to imagine a different strategy. Along comes Uber, and it’s imagined for you.

I’m a habitual late adopter, the kind of person who didn’t buy an iPhone until the third iteration. I waited and watched until well after a sizable chunk of the yellow cab labor pool had jumped ship. I’d spent months talking to drivers on both sides of the divide. Some made miraculous claims for switching to Uber — the kind of ludicrous revenue figures you see in work-at-home internet ads. I tried to stick to finding out basic facts about what the job was actually like, day by day, hour by hour.

That’s where I wanted the change, not some pie in the sky vision that I’d be swimming in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, but a fundamental change in my routine. I didn’t want to freeze my nuts off in the dead of February grabbing the 7 train or the Q66 bus to pick up a cab in Flushing from the surliest people on the planet, only to make the reverse trip eleven hours later. I didn’t want to shell out upwards of $120 per day for the privilege. And I didn’t want to pilot a hunk of yellow metal that signaled to everybody in the metro area that I was some kind of wild-eyed kook. Uber signaled that those changes weren’t just possible, but necessary, and inevitable.


My friend and I wander over to one of the picnic tables at the edge of the holding lot. At the yellow cab lots, I’ve seen hacks play dominoes, hearts, and pickup hands of No Limit Texas Hold’em (you better believe it for cash), but never here. I’ve never seen waiting Uber drivers do anything besides smoke, look at their phones, and talk. And talk. And talk. Whenever drivers get together — it doesn’t matter if they’re long-haul truckers on the Texas Panhandle or pedicab operators on Central Park West — the place they occupy becomes a low-key coffee klatch. For us, because smartphone apps have replaced the taxi garage, this is one of the few places where we’re going to hang out together.

“It isn’t like it used to be, man,” my friend tells me. He describes Uber’s early adoption in New York City as some bygone halcyon era, when driving for the platform was like being one of the first miners during the Klondike Gold Rush. “They used to take 20 percent, now they take 25,” he says. “It used to be, you could choose to accept only Uber BLACK rides. Now they make you take everything. UberX and UberPOOL, everything. Sucks, man.” Like everything cab drivers say when they get a chance, what he says is a hybrid of truth and pity-me fiction. We all do it.

But the honey jar that drivers like him have their hands caught in is another story entirely. When you choose to operate a high-end vehicle, like the MKX, or a Lexus, or a fully loaded, black-on-black Chevy Suburban, as opposed to a more modest Hyundai Sonata, it’s a little like moving to a higher-stakes table in blackjack: The peaks and valleys are more severe, and a bad week can be lethal. If you’ve ever used the Uber app as a rider, you’ve probably noticed that there are different options for your ride, depending on your needs and your budget. The standard version is UberX: Any car that meets the company’s minimum standards may appear to pick you up. UberPOOL is often cheaper, and your experience as a rider may be identical to that with UberX, but you have to be OK with taking the scenic route as the driver fills his car with other customers along the way. (Airport shuttles, Access-a-Ride vans, and city buses operate on this model.)

You may like UberPOOL, and you may not, but many drivers hate it. Put yourself in my guy’s shoes for a second: It’s 2013, 2014, thereabouts, and you start out driving for exclusive, discriminating passengers. You have the option to accept only premium fares, if you so choose. (This is Scrooge McDuck swimming in his vault of gold.) Then, around 2015, you’re told you no longer have the ability to opt out of UberX and UberPOOL, and furthermore, the company tells you that they, uh, need a bigger cut of your money.

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Not coincidentally, it was around this time that Lyft, Via, Gett, and Juno started to groom themselves as seductive alternatives to Uber’s relatively iron fist. Some trimmed their commissions by a few points, others gutted them. Some offered guaranteed hourly wages. One even offered stock options. At the time of this writing, Uber still dominates the market of rideshare platforms in New York City, but the others have achieved valuable footholds. Lyft has even acquired the not-dishonorable also-ran position, the other household name; Pepsi to Uber’s Coke.

When you park your car in the designated airport holding lot, you enter a virtual queue that eliminates the need for drivers to physically line up, as they still do at airport yellow cab lots. Instead, you get the unmistakable (branded) audio alert from whichever rideshare platform you happen to be logged into.

I hear the Uber ride request push notification from somebody else’s phone, and it’s a surreal little fillip, like when a ventriloquist throws his voice. (Every driver’s amygdala is conditioned to respond to these branded audio notifications, like Pavlov’s dog.) It catches my attention that the driver whose phone has lit up, one of the three guys sitting at the table, isn’t sprinting to his car. He isn’t doing anything. He smiles at the other guys sitting with him.

“I don’t want that shit.”

“What was it?” I ask him.

“Pool. Pool is shit.” His phone lights up a second time. I ask him why he doesn’t just accept the ride, why he’s picking and choosing. He tells me that UberPOOL (and Lyft’s counterpart, Lyft Line) rides cost him money because they’re cheaper fares. Plus he just doesn’t like them, point blank. The money objection makes no sense because turning down a ride and waiting for the next one is irrational, slot-machine mentality. You waste money by waiting longer — you even risk getting booted to the back of the virtual queue. It boggles my mind that a driver would wait an hour or more at the airport, only to decline the first request that comes down the pike because it doesn’t suit him.

“A ride is a ride, though, no?” I ask him. He shakes his head.

“You’re probably not going to get multiple riders from an airport pickup anyway, because you’ll be on the highway most of the time,” I continue. “And then you’re back in the city, just like you’d be anyway.”

I don’t really care about his business strategy and he isn’t really listening. In the Navy, older enlisted men and women who talk a lot and like to come across like they know everything are called “sea lawyers.” In the taxi industry, everybody’s a road lawyer. The pressures of the job to adhere to passenger expectations, to avoid Taxi & Limousine Commission agents who are out to ruin your day with fines and summonses, and to observe traffic enforcement rules, almost make it a matter of self-care to broadcast your opinions, given the slightest pretext. If you have ever been on the receiving end of a cab driver’s rant (or lecture, or tall tale), you’ve caught a glimpse of this culture.

My friend chimes in: “UberPOOL passengers are assholes, man.” I don’t really understand what he means, but another of the guys at the table nods in agreement. I’m a little taken aback by the apparent consensus. (I’m no statistician, but seeing two strangers instantly agree on something is powerfully suggestive of a larger trend.) But I don’t want to press the point. A lot of these drivers can be real characters, given to rigid prejudices and a stubborn adherence to routines that, from a distance, are indistinguishable from superstition. I often saw behavior like this in the yellow cab game. You probably have, too, if you’re a black New Yorker and you’ve tried to hail a ride in Harlem or Morningside Heights. I don’t agree with what they’re saying, but I recognize the impulse to view different market segments through a veil of various prejudices, because I’ve seen that brand of psychology, insidious but quite real, in practice in other industries. All industries.

Since I saw him back at the yellow cab garage, my friend has made a point of dressing up, trading in hack sweatpants for slacks and a tie, and trimming down his facial hair so he looks sharp, like a nightclub bouncer. He doesn’t look happier — we all look beat to shit — but he looks better. When you trade up from a shit-kicking yellow cab to a hot rod Lincoln, and you swap out your personal appearance from “just fell off a mountain” to “executive chauffeur,” perhaps you also start to think that all riders aren’t on an equal footing. Maybe it isn’t right, but it happens.


After waiting half again the amount of time I expected to, I catch a ride to Cobble Hill. The longer you wait at the airport, the more fervently you hope for a long ride, and the more anxiously you fear a short one. (Hello! My name is Jaime. Ask me about my Sunk Cost fallacy.) Most Brooklyn rides from LaGuardia Airport tend to gross around $30 to $35, which ends up netting the driver $19 to $22 once Uber gets its taste. All things being equal, a yellow cab fare might have been a dollar or three more, plus a tip, but you’re losing more to the garage.

Every passenger drop-off is a destination for the rider, and a new starting point for the driver. If I’m sitting in my car in Cobble Hill, I can look at my iPhone and mentally thumb through my options. Union Street is behind me, Atlantic Avenue is ahead of me. The closer I get to Flatbush Avenue and the Barclays Center, the more of a pain in the ass pickups will be. What I should do is try to get somebody from the Whole Foods on Third Avenue, or — better yet — hang around the IKEA in Red Hook. Occasionally, that IKEA contracts an NYPD officer to make sure drivers like me aren’t hovering like vultures, but that’s only inside the loading area. The No Standing zone across the street, which has little to no city enforcement presence, works just as well. 

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For rideshare drivers on city streets, cruising around or idling in one spot will often give you an equal chance of getting your next fare, and there’s an ebb and flow in each neighborhood, at each hour of the day. Afternoons and evenings in Brooklyn are strong for ride requests, although, as the sun goes down, driver aggression goes through the roof there. I could log off and head home, I could park and maybe get something to eat, or I could see where the next fare takes me.

That’s the freedom, which is totally foreign for taxi drivers, who often have to hurry out of Brooklyn the moment they discharge their rider. For the yellow cabs, there’s Manhattan and the airports; everywhere else is “here be dragons.” For me, all five boroughs are my office. Whether you’re driving through some blighted street in the South Bronx, or creeping down pedestrian-heavy Union Square West, if there are more riders than available cars, you can keep working as long as you like. When you’re at the airport, you wait for an airport ride, hoping the math will work out (long wait = a good fare, in theory), but when you’re on the street, a whole catalog of strategies opens up. Mine tends to boil down to wandering over to a sure thing, like a hospital or shopping center, hoping I’ll catch a random hail along the way.

I’ve already been on duty for more than ten hours, which is about the time when my sciatic nerve starts to fire up to protest my foolishness. But it’s up to me: Rideshare driving is a “you’re your own boss” situation, and I have to decide if I’m going to listen to my dwindling checking account or a little discomfort on my backside. An unexplored nuance of rideshare technology is that it uses the same dopamine hooks that galvanize many of our smartphone interactions (Twitter notifications, texts, news alerts, etc.) to keep the labor pool pushing past various disincentives like body aches, fatigue, and stress. It’s cheaper than popping a few Advil.

I get the unmistakable rosy-fingers-of-dawn chime on my iPhone that sends me over to grab a Lyft Line (party of two) on Degraw Street, and that settles it. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.


Black Friday’s True Toll

Outside of some undisclosed Target location, a blonde woman in a perfectly coiffed ponytail does sit-ups, lifts weights with baskets full of goods, and literally screams in crazed excitement at a Black Friday flyer. No, this is not real life: It’s one of Target’s bizarrely humorous ads from holiday seasons past, starring comedian Maria Bamford. And while it’s an extreme exaggeration of the planning that holiday shoppers do in order to psyche themselves up to brave the Black Friday crush, some of it is based in truth.

To find the deals you actually want, you must sift through ads, decide which store to stake out, figure out when to arrive, determine how much to bundle up…and choose whether to bring coffee to stay awake or leave it behind because of the inevitable bathroom break it would require while standing in a line that’s snaking down the block. Now that we have Amazon and countless other speedy online delivery services, lining up for Black Friday deals in frigid temps seems quaint, almost old-fashioned. But stores haven’t given up on doorbusters for the old-school tribes of deal hunters, and it’s almost a given that once those doors unlock, there will be viral videos of streams of people risking life and limb trying to get their hands on this year’s hot shit.

But if shoppers have to go through all of this just to get a few hundred bucks knocked off a TV, what about the employees? Imagine watching a stampede of people seeing little more than dollar signs and merchandise rushing at you at breakneck speeds. It’s terrifying.

I’d know. As a retail veteran, I have spent hours upon hours during holiday seasons past catering to customers’ requests: Does this scarf match this jacket? Can you check for another one in the back? Would you get this necklace for your mother? Why doesn’t this coupon work? Are you sure there’s not another one of these in the back? Can you give me another discount? Can I just go in the back and look myself?

Last week, I stopped by Macy’s Herald Square location to pick up a pair of boots. The plan was to be in, out, and on my merry way before I got sucked into the anxious headspace I operated in during my holiday shifts at Macy’s years ago. The poor sales associate who helped me was already completely overwhelmed, and it was more than a week until Black Friday.

In 2016, Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren told CNBC that an eye-popping 16,000 people entered the flagship location when it opened for Black Friday…at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving day. Countless more shoppers will queue outside of thousands of other stores around the country on Thanksgiving, too.

Those were the days when I took a deep breath in the stale popcorn stench of the break room, because I knew I’d spend the rest of the day playing catch-up. Backbreaking days of waking before dawn, pulling double shifts, and running from one end of the store to the other were ended with Icy Hot patches and exhaustion before having to go back and do it all over again. A staggering amount of emotional labor went into remaining chipper after having dealt with a difficult customer and a frazzled manager while Alvin’s pip-squeak voice drilled through my ear canals for the thousandth time. Yes, this is what employees are getting paid for, but I’d argue that they’re not getting nearly enough.

For two years, I had Victoria’s Secret managers breathing down my neck, reminding me that my job depended on asking customers — not once, or twice, but three times — if they wanted to open an Angel card and get early access to Black Friday deals. And forget about trying to keep the actual merchandise in order that day: If someone breathed wrong on the panty bar, I spent an hour refolding each thong to perfection only to look back and see it’d been picked through again. It was a Sisyphean task that made me question my sanity every time I stepped into that pink-and-black wannabe boudoir.

And it’s not just the people behind the counter working hard to make your holiday shopping experience a winter wonderland. Those who make the holiday magic happen have pulled all-nighters to make sure everything is just so. On my way out of Macy’s last week, I saw a trio of window dressers bundled up in puffer coats and woolen scarves peeking at their handiwork in progress from the sidewalk. “It works! The perspective is great!” The relief in their voices was palpable.

Now that I’m no longer in retail, there’s once again a sense of wonder, hope, and magic that fills my heart during the holiday season. Just as when I was little, my eyes grow saucer-wide when I see department store holiday displays replete with elfin animatronics, tinsel-tipped trees, and flecks of faux snow glittering under fluorescents — and it’s thanks to those people behind the scenes.

While Black Friday has historically been a good thing for companies and store owners, it’s hell for their employees. Working during the holiday season sometimes means extra hours and overtime pay, but I’d wager that there are few people who truly relish the onslaught of demanding shoppers.

So while you’re making your Black Friday game plan this year, here’s a gentle plea from someone who survived retail hell: Be nice to the people helping you find that perfect pair of gloves, the people putting extra whip on your PSL, the people helping you get to where you need to be, and the people delivering your Cyber Monday haul. Even if you’re the humbuggin’ type or you don’t celebrate any of these holidays, remember that the golden rule goes a long way for everyone — especially those in the service industry.