David Alexis, a labor organizer and former Uber driver, is running for New York State Senate in East Flatbush in hopes of unseating longtime incumbent Sen. Kevin Parker, a powerful Brooklyn Democrat who has represented the 21st District since 2003. After a year of working as an Uber driver, Alexis began organizing his fellow drivers against the rideshare company’s exploitative practices. Their success led to Alexis co-founding the Drivers Cooperative, an Uber rival that has nearly 7,000 members and has become the largest co-op in the country.
Now, Alexis is vying for the Brooklyn seat and running on an ambitious pro-worker platform as part of a progressive slate of candidates backed by the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. He’s offering an alternative to the corporate-friendly politics that have dominated the district for years, and aiming to build on the community and workplace organizing he’s been doing for years. Alexis is campaigning on a platform that includes support for a Green New Deal, universal healthcare, making the City University of New York tuition-free, taxing the rich, and defending workers’ right to organize, among other policies. Parker, a pro-crypto Democrat who has taken at least $100,000 in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry over the years, chairs the Energy and Telecommunications Committee. Environmental advocates and other progressives have criticized Parker over his role in killing or watering down ambitious climate legislation.
A working-class father of two, Alexis’s decision to run for public office was shaped by his experience taking on a second job to provide for his family. Working conditions as an Uber driver were often “degrading” and “humiliating,” Alexis told More Perfect Union in an interview earlier this month. He began driving for the rideshare app in 2016, shortly after the birth of his first child. He had been working as a home health aid but the money simply “wasn’t cutting it.” So he turned to Uber, hoping that gig work would give him the flexibility to stay at home with his family when needed. And it didn’t hurt that Uber was offering a $1,000 promotion at the time to cover initial costs for new drivers.
Just to start driving, Alexis had to spend hundreds of his own dollars on the city’s required licensing and training, in addition to the car rental, a 2015 Hyundai Sonata that cost him $450 a week. This meant he had to make sure he worked enough hours each week to cover the $450 to rent the car in the first place. If he didn’t make enough to cover the rental that week, the money would be automatically deducted from his Uber account and “I would actually have a negative balance.”
In 2017, and the years to come, Alexis saw his wages reduced “more and more.” He found himself “having to drive longer and longer and longer to make ends meet.” Though it was the gig work’s flexibility that initially appealed to him, driving for Uber increasingly required long hours on the road. “I would see drivers sleeping in their cars at the airports, trying to leave their apps open so they can catch people come in and catch the ping, but they could still get a bit of sleep,” Alexis said. “And instead of looking [at that] like ‘that’s horrible’ — my thought process was ‘that’s genius, I should do the same thing,’ and would then go on to do the same thing because what I was making wasn’t enough.”
Uber and other rideshare giants have lured workers with temporary bonuses and incentives, but when the wages inevitably fall, drivers struggle to break even. These app-based companies have waged war on workers — attempting to rewrite labor law or regulations in their favor — as they’ve courted politicians and spent tens of millions of dollars on a global influence machine. With California’s Proposition 22, for example, gig companies like Uber, Lyft, and Doordash spent $224 million in a successful effort to reclassify their workers as independent contractors in order to exempt them from labor protections, including the right to a minimum wage, unemployment compensation, and overtime pay. A judge later ruled Proposition 22 unconstitutional, but the measure broke spending records in the state, becoming a model for corporations looking to outright purchase new laws and continue their assault on workers’ rights.
It was actually the issue of bathroom access that drove Alexis into organizing and the workers’ broader fight against exploitation. “A porta-potty appeared at the airport one day that had definitely not been there the week before,” he said. “It was profound, because such a simple thing just made a world of difference. Before at LaGuardia, you’d have to go inside to negotiate with the guards to see if you could even get the right to use the bathroom.”
There was a note on the porta-potty that said the arrival of the new restroom was the direct result of organizing. From that moment, Alexis said, he joined the coalition’s pressure campaign to try to change legislation that had been affecting drivers. “Everything from marches, demonstrations across the Brooklyn bridge,” he recounted. “We shut the Brooklyn Bridge down twice. We shut the FDR going south twice. We took our car caravan straight to the heart of the industry in Long Island City.” Their escalating campaign notched several victories, with the New York City Council passing a first-in-the-nation cap on Uber and Lyft, as well as a minimum wage for drivers.
When the pandemic hit, and gig work became even more precarious, Alexis and some other rideshare drivers and organizers began toying with the idea of competing with major rideshare companies through a worker cooperative of some sort, a model designed to give drivers power in the workplace. Together, they formed the cooperative, officially launching an app in May 2021. From the beginning of their membership drive in December 2020 to now, the Drivers Cooperative has raised nearly $3 million for its service, most of which was crowdfunded. In a little less than two years, the co-op has paid out nearly two and a half million in wages to its drivers. Members of the cooperative make between 8 and 10 percent more on each trip than on the major rideshare apps, and see all profits distributed back to the workers as dividends — as opposed to a traditional company, where the wealth goes to investors instead of the workers who created it. The worker-owned structure also means that decisions about the business and how it’s run are made democratically and collectively by the workers, rather than a handful of distant bosses.
Alexis began organizing out of the need to survive, but quickly saw that his struggles — from poor wages and working conditions to the reality of navigating an inhumane healthcare system — were shared by countless working people across the country. Like many others, he was told he wasn’t doing enough, or that his college degree wasn’t enough for him to make ends meet. An important part of his political journey, he believes, was realizing that the problem wasn’t individual.
“The real problem was that we saw a private enclosure of these commons that were built by workers like myself, from communities like this one, and that they were able to — as you would say in Haitian Creole, pwofite, pwofite, pwofite — and use the surplus that they gained from our labor and then use it to capture our political system and create legislation and an environment that would reproduce this hierarchy that would would really edify capitalism,” he said.
He also learned that when workers came together as part of a broader movement, they could win pay raises, protections, and generally improve their material conditions. “By running for the seat I would be able to build this organizing that we had been doing in our communities to the next level and begin to create legislation that would make it easier to build on that,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, it’s power that makes these decisions and all power is, is organized money or organized people.”
Despite Democrats holding supermajorities in both chambers, a number of progressive bills languished in the state legislature this past session, from good cause eviction legislation to a measure that would have built publicly owned renewable energy. “The best way to overcome that is to elect more socialists in office, more elected officials who are willing to hold the line on policies” that benefit the communities they serve, Alexis said, adding that many longtime lawmakers have “demonstrated that they are not willing to make the big changes.”
On labor, he said, “Kevin Parker does not stand out in any way, shape or form.” Alexis added that his opponent is “not an ally” of the efforts to improve conditions for workers, particularly gig workers, in large part because he continues to be promoted by a variety of corporate interests, including Con Edison, National Grid, the Real Estate Board of New York, the crypto industry, and the casino lobby. “You begin to see someone that not only has not really been a champion on any real labor issues, but his biggest contributors are all those industries that are real enemies of labor,” Alexis said.
Alexis is backed by NYC DSA, Working Families Party, and prominent progressives in the state, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Parker, meanwhile, won early endorsements from a number of local labor unions, including the Public Employees Federation and the District Council of Carpenters. One other candidate, Kaegan Mays-Williams, a former Assistant District Attorney, is also competing in the August 23 primary.