I started driving for Uber in 2016. There were a lot of incentives that Uber offered including $1000 to cover your initial costs because of course even to start the drivers were responsible for the equipment we needed to work, the vehicle. Initially, I had to spend about $700 of my own money to get the Taxi and Limousine Commission license, lessons, and training. I rented a 2015 Hyundai Sonata that had over eighty thousand miles for $450 a week.
The ride was tough, especially at first. I was working so much just to pay the $450 I needed to rent the car. I had an agreement with the leasing company that they would take the money out of my salary before I could even access it at the end of the week. Often, after paying for gas and other expenses, if I wanted to have pocket money, I had to work overtime. There were times when I started driving where I was at a loss. I had a negative balance with Uber. Eventually, I was able to enlist the support of my family and friends to purchase a vehicle, which I prepaid $2,200. Although cheaper than renting, the payments for the car were still extortionate considering my poor credit at the time.
I loved driving and interacting with people, but I hated crazy hours. I often had to sleep in my vehicle because I was too tired to get home safely or because I hadn’t earned enough money yet. I would often nap at the airport while leaving the app on between trips.
When I started driving, there was not even access to toilets in the airport, despite the thousands of drivers passing through the terminals daily. I remember my excitement the first time I saw a porta-potty being installed. But it shouldn’t be an amazing experience to have basic needs met like having access to a bathroom at work. I researched one of the organizations that helped gain bathroom access and started paying the dues right away.
Over the next several months, I became involved in actions to fight some of the city’s regressive efforts to regulate the industry, which added additional costs for already overworked and underpaid drivers. This resulted in the Brooklyn Bridge being closed demanding better compensation. We’ve seen ride-hailing companies continually slash wages, hours, and affordability while their executives reap record profits. With the market flooded with drivers every day, we demanded and won the first such salary floor for independent contractors in the country.
But even that was not enough. I spent more time organizing mutual aid on behalf of drivers — giving them access to resources, getting them on PPE loans, helping them navigate the system — than driving.
I worked with an organization called United for Brownsville, where we could feed about seven hundred families a week. Drivers began delivering what we called “love boxes,” which contained produce, PPE, and other materials to families in East Brooklyn. At its peak, we delivered love boxes to over 1,600 families in one month.
Funding for this eventually dried up and we realized the need to continue to organize. A friend had approached me with a concept of a system where drivers controlled schedules, routes and profits.
It is important to understand the scale of the industry in New York. Before the peak of the pandemic, New York City was making nearly eight hundred thousand rides a day just by carpooling. And then, if you include the yellow taxis, you can add two to three hundred thousand more on top of what is, for all its shortcomings, the largest public transport system in the country. Millions of people traveled through the city every day. In order to maximize connectivity between a passenger needing a ride and a driver to transport them, we realized we needed our own app. Initially, we didn’t know how to get the resources and materials needed to get this project off the ground.
By March 2021, the less than ten of us working on the project had pooled money and organized over 2,700 drivers. We didn’t have a working app yet. All we had was a promise – conversations we started on Zoom about what we hoped to achieve. And the drivers responded. We were able to use it to generate dynamics that cost us around $200,000 or so to get a very basic application. We kicked off May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day.
Later that month, we received coverage in the New York Times as well as other leftist media. We took the opportunity to get more than forty thousand downloads in a month and a half after our launch before launching a crowdfunding campaign that raised $1.4 million. Then we gained access to government contracts and built what is now the largest worker cooperative in the country by number of members. We are just under six thousand drivers in our universe now, in February 2022.