Students collaborate with Rideshare Drivers United gig economy workers in new labor studies contract course

By Vanessa Codilla | September 21, 2021 

The new labor studies initiative, “Rideshare Drivers United Fellowship: Gig Economy Workers and the Right to Organize,” gives UCLA labor studies students the opportunity to facilitate virtual workshops and public education to mobilize gig economy workers. 

During the spring quarter of 2021, the UCLA Labor Studies program launched a contract course in partnership with Rideshare Drivers United (RDU), an independent association of Uber and Lyft drivers that works to demand higher pay and workplace rights for rideshare drivers, such as the right to unionize. 

The fellowship, held remotely over the span of eight weeks, gave students the opportunity to learn about the ways in which organizations structure political campaigns around issues affecting workers. During the first couple of weeks of the quarter, students reviewed the recent gig economy studies and learned about the RDU movement. By week 3-4 students were educating drivers about the “Protecting the Right to Organize Act,” also known as the PRO Act, which would allow app-based workers to form unions and negotiate legally enforceable contracts.

(Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil)

Students also reflected on their experiences through bi-weekly check-ins with UCLA Labor Center project director and labor studies professor Victor Narro, the fellowship faculty mentor. 

“RDU, for me, is a new form of organizing in the gig economy.” says Narro. “We’ve done research at the UCLA Labor Center on the gig economy and built relationships with rideshare drivers and RDU, so it made sense for us to then integrate the organizing work into a Labor Studies course through a fellowship program.” 

We invite you to read about the experiences from the Rideshare Drivers United Fellowship of Brenda Yamas, Kasandra Hernandez Rodriguez, and Yuliana Barron Perez. 

Can you all introduce yourselves? 

Brenda: My name is Brenda Yamas. I just graduated after being in college for five years. I’m a transfer student from East Los Angeles Community College. I went there for three years and then I transferred to UCLA and just graduated after being here for two years. I majored in economics and [Chicana/o and] Central American Studies and minored in labor studies. 

Kasandra: My name is Kasandra Hernandez Rodriguez. I just graduated with a major in political science and a minor in labor studies. 

Yuliana: My name is Yuliana Barrón. I’m graduating this Fall and I’m majoring in political science and labor studies. 

Why were you interested in joining the fellowship program? 

Brenda: I really wanted to join because I’ve never done union work or ever been involved in organizing work in this way. My dad was in the union and always told us how important that [work] is. In my labor studies classes, too, we always talked about the roots of unionizing. I thought it would be a cool opportunity to see how [unionizing] starts because Rideshare Drivers United is small but so powerful and influential. I also really wanted to see how unionizing impacts public policy because I’ve never seen that in action either. 

Kasandra: The first Labor Studies class that I took introduced me to AB5 [Assembly Bill 5] and ever since that class I followed news about the gig economy. So when I learned that there is an opportunity to work with drivers, I went for it. 

Yuliana: I learned about this fellowship through the Labor Studies weekly newsletter. It really interested me to work with RDU, an up-and-coming organization of rideshare drivers striving to be a union. I have been very involved in union efforts and my hope is to go to law school one day to become an employment rights attorney, more specifically to work with labor unions and help them negotiate contracts. From my experiences working with unions, I found that the best attorneys actually started off as organizers. Given the structural inequalities and daunting challenges that come with the [labor] movement, many lawyers often end up perpetrating the very same type of hierarchies and oppressions that they are trying to fight against. So, I’ve made it a point to really immerse myself in union efforts.

What were some of the main tasks from your fellowship? 

Brenda: I decided to be a part of the social media efforts. I conducted weekly research, looking for new and accurate articles about rideshare drivers, the PRO Act, RDU, and anything related to Uber and Lyft. It was really interesting because it gave me the opportunity to read some articles that also were against the unionization of Uber drivers, so I learned about new perspectives. We also attended meetings with workers and had opportunities to hear other organizers speak in those meetings. We also attended training sessions for people who were interested in joining RDU. 

Kasandra: One of my tasks was to create an archive of all the media coverage from RDU. I went through various articles that really got into the history of the organization, as well as the background as to why drivers first decided to form this organization… I also made calls to drivers and I think that was my favorite part because I was able to personally connect with drivers one-on-one. Seeing the diversity within the drivers themselves was really cool.

Yuliana: The first half of my [fellowship] really focused around the PRO Act, which would allow rideshare drivers to unionize. I heavily focused on researching the PRO Act and identified what parts would relate to and be beneficial to drivers. From that, I was able to create talking points to reach out to drivers. I made dozens of calls to drivers in Phoenix, asking them to come out and support an in-person action there. I heard the turnout was pretty great.

Tell us about a highlight of your fellowship experience.  

Brenda: I loved our opportunity to call workers and invite them to join RDU meetings and trainings. I liked that aspect because I got into some deep conversations with some workers and got to hear their experience about how the work was impacting their quality of life. 

Kasandra: I would say [that] the calls to drivers were my highlights. I think for me it was important because I haven’t had that much contact with drivers. Hearing their background stories was what was touching to me because it made me realize that I was helping a greater cause. These drivers are so spread out that they need contact with people to just catch up with and sometimes rant about their lives when needed. So, I think it was an outlet for me but an outlet for them as well.

Yuliana: Once the PRO Act is enacted, I feel like that would be the highlight for me… Another highlight was getting to immerse myself with the drivers by talking to them. When you listen to these stories about workers struggling, you feel like the work you are doing is meaningful and has a purpose. 

What were your main takeaways? 

Brenda: For me, it solidified the importance of unionizing and how important it is for workers to organize and learn their rights so they can challenge any exploitation that they’re experiencing. Now, as I go into the working world after graduating, it’s going to be really important for me to take what I learned about what rights we have as workers and the benefits that can follow unionizing. Given that I love education and union work, I’m thinking of looking into working with the teachers union in LA or working with the union my dad was involved in. I’m super interested because I love how engaging [organizing work] is and how you can see the impact of the work you do. 

Kasandra: I would say that, especially now with COVID-19, I thought it was impossible to gather all these people and continue collectively striving for change. But my time with RDU showed me that, regardless of the situation, regardless of where people find themselves, anything is possible. When it comes to fighting for change, for me this was a stepping stone into the labor movement. 

Yuliana: Before the fellowship I wasn’t really familiarized with the conditions of Rideshare drivers. [The fellowship] helped me understand how many app-based companies are really cutting corners to maximize their profit at the employee’s loss. Now, I educate my friends whenever we take an Uber or Lyft, and I always somehow end up talking about RDU. [The fellowship] definitely informed me about how it is that we can help drivers.

LBR STD 195B Rideshare Drivers United Fellowship: Gig Economy Workers and the Right to Organize will be offered in Fall 2021 for up to three students majoring or minoring in Labor Studies only. Upon satisfactory completion of the internship course, each selected fellow will receive 2 units of credit in Labor Studies (via LBR STD 195B) and be awarded up to a $500 stipend via Bruin Card deposit subject to BruinCard limits upon satisfactory completion of the internship course. Access the fellowship application here and submit your application by September 27 at 11:59p.m. PT.