On a Friday morning the Independent Driver’s Guild facility in Bushwick is bustling with activity. Future drivers are taking a mandatory class to get their Taxi and Limousine Commission licenses, current drivers are getting advice from senior members of the guild on how to handle their labor issues and overseeing it all is IDG executive director Brendon Sexton.
Since March when Sexton took over the IDG – an International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers affiliate that represents for-hire vehicle drivers in New York City – he has already led a demonstration slowing down traffic on the BQE, Brooklyn Bridge and FDR Drive in response to Uber and Lyft kicking drivers off of their apps.
Sexton, 40, said the IDG has successfully advocated for for-hire vehicle drivers by getting the city to pass legislation mandating minimum wage of about $17.22 per hour after expenses, due process for those who’ve been kicked off the Uber app and portable benefits.
The IDG was formed in 2016 by a deal between the Machinists union and Uber. According to a source within the Taxi Workers Alliance – a union that represents thousands of New York’s for-hire vehicle drivers – the IDG gave up its right to fight for employee status for drivers in exchange for direct funding from Uber.
Many have criticized this arrangement as Uber setting up a quasi-union to prevent ride-hail drivers in New York from pushing for full employment status, which would make it easier for them to get higher pay and unionize.
But Sexton said ride-hail drivers will be able to fight for better benefits by continuing to be classified as independent contractors. And he said his ultimate goal as head of the IDG is to make New York the first right-to-bargain state for for-hire vehicle drivers.
“We hope to create legislation in New York that’s going to allow drivers to negotiate a contract to have a collective bargaining agreement,” Sexton said.
Not everyone agrees, with critics arguing that employee status would give for-hire vehicle drivers more security and a path to unionization.
Sexton has been involved in organized labor since he was a college student, when he went to school during the day and worked shifts at an Astoria grocery store at night. He got involved with the union representing the store workers – UFCW Local 1500 – by volunteering on organizing campaigns. The union then offered Sexton a staff position and he rose in its ranks until he became Director of Organizing.
Even though Sexton is not a for-hire vehicle driver, he took the job with the IDG because he was impressed by its mission to organize workers outside of the National Labor Relations Act.
Sexton said one of his goals as the guild’s leader is to encourage involvement from its’ stewards – drivers who work part time for the union.
“One of the things I like to do is create pathways for our stewards to develop professionally,” said Sexton.
Henry Chen, who’s an Uber driver and IDG Steward, said he thinks that Sexton gives stewards the responsibility and support needed to advance in the IDG.
“He gives people the support they need to create their own kind of organizing,” Chen said.
In a September City Council Committee on Transportation hearing, Sexton called upon the council to adopt the guild’s Driver Bill of Rights – a list of demands that includes higher pay, protection from companies purging drivers from their apps and promoting driver vehicle ownership over leasing.
Sexton said he wants to make New York a right-to-bargain state in order to make sure ride-hail companies aren’t cutting corners and are respecting drivers’ demands.
The passage of California’s Assembly Bill 5 – legislation that requires companies like Uber and Lyft to recognize their drivers as employees rather than independent contractors – has potentially paved the way for a similar bill in New York, which would allow drivers to unionize.
Because the IDG promised not to fight for employee status for ride-hail drivers when it was conceived, it will not be participating in an effort to pass New York’s version of AB5.
But Sexton’s confident the guild has enough support in the New York state legislature to get a right-to-bargain bill passed.
“There are definitely leaders within New York state that realize the status quo is not okay,” Sexton said.