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Change Generation

New York Bike Messengers Are Organizing To Fight For Their Rights In The Gig Economy

First they wanted better pay from Uber. But they realized they needed to tackle the entire industry if they wanted progress.

New York Bike Messengers Are Organizing To Fight For Their Rights In The Gig Economy

[Photo: GibsonPictures/Getty Images]

When New York City bike messenger Sadio Ballo broke his ankle making a delivery for Uber, he had to keep working—riding through Manhattan traffic with a cast, in part to pay his ER bill.

"I came out with a $4,000 bill," says Ballo, who no longer works for Uber. "I was barely making $4 for each pickup—how am I going to afford $4,000?"

Uber, like other delivery apps, doesn't offer messengers health insurance, workers compensation, or paid sick leave. The companies also keep cutting pay, and it's common for messengers to ride 12- to 16-hour shifts to try to make enough money for rent. So a group of messengers decided to launch the New York Messengers Alliance, a labor organization affiliated with the National Taxi Workers Alliance, to push for change in the industry.

Organizing unofficially began in November 2015, when Uber lowered its rate of pay to a level that usually works out to be below minimum wage. The company promised new messengers $25 an hour earlier in the year, they say; by November, rates had dropped to $3 for a pickup and $4 a mile if they rode at least 11 miles an hour, something that isn't always easy in traffic.

"Usually between the pickup and making the delivery, it takes an hour," says Ballo. "So if you lower the rate to an extent where guys are making less than $5 for delivery, that means on an hourly basis I'll be making $5 and change. Even though we complained to Uber, they still didn't want to change the rates and reinstate the old rate."

Ballo started talking to other messengers. "A lot of people didn't think it was fair at all," he says. "I was like, 'Yo, I think we should band together and strike, and not work until we get our old rates reinstated.' That didn't work out because whenever we tried to organize Uber would always undermine us."

When messengers attempted a strike, they say Uber offered a $50 bonus to anyone who would take a job—and some people took it. Now, the new alliance is hoping for better results with the entire industry, from Uber to Instacart and Postmates. Their first focus is pushing delivery app companies to focus on worker safety.

Messengers want to be reclassified as employees instead of independent contractors (noting that apps like Caviar ask workers to commit to a schedule if they want "priority" jobs), and to get workers compensation when they get hurt.

"Being a bike messenger is a dangerous occupation, period," says Ballo. "When people get injured, and when you get injured while performing a delivery, you should be able to go to the hospital and get looked after and get whatever care you need, without that money coming out of your pocket."

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