This conversation is excerpted from the latest episode of Belabored. It has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the whole episode here.
Michelle Chen: Can you talk about how the pandemic affected your job?
Antonio Solis: I’m an organizer here in Astoria, Queens. The pandemic was really complicated for us. I used to work in a restaurant, but because so many restaurants closed during the pandemic, we started doing app delivery work. And that’s what we’re still doing now.
Chen: When you switched to the app, did anything surprise you about what it was like to be a delivery worker in the middle of the lockdown?
Solis: Yes, definitely. Before you start working for the apps, you think everything is going to be good, you’re going to do well—but when I started doing delivery, I realized that we have to face lots of different situations, like tip theft, wage theft, traffic, crime, and even the police. And then there’s the weather, which can be very severe here. So you experience all kinds of dangerous situations and risks in the streets.
Chen: And when you started using the app, were you able to make enough money to make ends meet? I imagine it probably didn’t pay the same way that your previous work had. So was that hard to adjust?
Solis: Of course, it was tough starting out. At first, I didn’t really know how to use the apps, so I had to get used to that. And then were all the expenses starting out. You have to buy a scooter, you have to insure it, you have to buy a helmet and all the other accessories we use on the street. And of course we still had to pay rent. So it was hard at first. But seeing all these needs that we had, we decided to get organized, to fight against wage theft and other issues.
Chen: How big a problem was wage theft among you and your coworkers? Before you organized, would you just have to deal with it on your own?
Solis: Before we started organizing in the streets with the Worker’s Justice Project, we didn’t have anybody to talk to or complain to. At that point our main concern was just to keep working and earning money. We didn’t complain to anyone, because our boss was the app, and if we complained, they might deactivate us.
Chen: Can you give me a sense of what the wages were like? How many hours did you have to work in order to cover your needs and cover your expenses? Were you working more hours than you did at your previous job or fewer?
Solis: There isn’t that much difference between doing delivery for a restaurant and doing it for an app. We have to work many more hours to be able to earn a little more than we did at the restaurants. We have to be in the street all day long, and cover all the expenses we have for our bikes.
We participated in a study that showed we were earning $7 an hour. That’s outrageous. Last year we were treated as the heroes of the pandemic and now we don’t even make minimum wage. So that’s what we’re fighting for right now: to get the wages we deserve.
Chen: When everything was locked down, did the apps do anything to help you protect your health? Did they give you protective equipment, or were the workers on their own? Did people get sick as a result of working through that time period?
Solis: I have to say, that question makes me laugh a little, because the apps didn’t do a thing. When someone had an accident, the first thing they would ask was whether the food was okay. That was the first thing they asked. They never asked if we were okay, they never came to check on us, or helped with our medical bills. They’re only worried about what goes into their pockets. They haven’t given us any protective equipment at all. Absolutely nothing.
Many did get sick with COVID, but also, many got into accidents. Unfortunately, in the last year or so, nineteen of my coworkers died in the streets. And some people I know have died from COVID. People continue to get injured and die. I don’t think the apps really care.
Chen: You started organizing on WhatsApp—who came up with that idea? And at what point did you reach out to the Worker’s Justice Project? How did you find them?
Solis: Well, originally it was Ligia Guallpa, the director of the Worker’s Justice Project, who helped us start organizing in the streets. We met her at a march, and she started to talk to us about the power we could have by organizing. And that’s what we’ve been figuring out little by little.
We have big WhatsApp groups where we communicate with all of our comrades, we have the Los Deliveristas Unidos Facebook page, we have GPS groups, and radio groups. We have a lot of tools to organize ourselves and take care of each other out here in the streets.
Early on, we began to organize ourselves. We had a small group here of fellow workers, friends, and acquaintances that came from the same part of Mexico, and we started to organize because we were having issues with crime.
They were stealing our scooters and our bikes. That’s why we got a small group together. There were thirty or forty of us. That’s how it all started, here in Astoria, and it grew with the Worker’s Justice Project and the rest of our friends.
Most of us were Mexican, from the state of Veracruz, and some of us came from the same town. I saw in the streets that not only were we victims of robberies, but so were other comrades that we didn’t know. So after we started to organize, I got to know more groups, I got to know more comrades. Through WhatsApp and things like that, we became a broader group including lots of different delivery workers, no matter where they were from or where they lived. So that’s how the network grew.
Chen: How did you actually build that network?
Solis: When I started, I was afraid that people would reject me if I invited them to be part of Los Deliveristas Unidos. But seeing all of their needs, I gained more confidence. I saw all the potential that we have organized here, so I invited them to join the WhatsApp groups and invited them to the offices of the Worker’s Justice Project. They would see that we, as an organization, could help them get things—a lawyer, for example, or even just an ID.
I was adding them, convincing them to join, so that they would know that they were not alone in this country, that just because they were undocumented wasn’t a reason for us not to have rights.
If we got in an accident, we could find a lawyer. If someone got their bike stolen, I would add them to WhatsApp, so we could all join together. So that’s how we gained more people, and they started believing in the project of Los Deliveristas Unidos. It’s not just about words; it’s about action. That’s how we’ve been winning over our comrades here in Queens. Of course, there is a lot of work to be done, but I feel that we’re on the right track.
Chen: You pointed out that some of the issues involved safety on the street. How did you approach the advocacy around that? What kinds of measures did you want to see and whose responsibility do you think it is to provide those protections?
Solis: It’s been difficult, because dealing with thieves is dangerous. We risk our lives when we try to recover a bike. I tell the guys to use GPS to track their bikes. We’ve even gone to the Bronx ourselves to bring back a stolen bike. We have GPS, the radio, and WhatsApp, but we would like the police to cooperate more with us and act faster.
Robberies happen daily—with guns and with knives—and the police still don’t do anything about it. We know that if they arrive, they will be an hour or two late. So this fills us with uncertainty and with more fear. Because if we don’t trust the police, who are we going to trust? We can’t take justice into our own hands because it’s too dangerous. We are not the police, and we don’t want to be the police. We don’t want to have to risk our lives because we are trying to recover what is ours—the tool we use for work every day.
Chen: The New York City Council passed some legislation last year that was pretty unprecedented. Can you talk about the process of getting the City Council to enact those policies and, in the past year, what has come of it? Have you seen that legislation enforced?
Solis: We started working with the City Council two years ago to pass some laws that could help us. One of them is about access to bathrooms, which is something many of our coworkers still struggle with. The restaurants still don’t allow us to use the bathroom. It’s totally unreasonable.
We’re also working on limiting the distance the apps require us to go—we’re still trying to get that enforced. And for next year, we’re working with the city to finally put in place a minimum wage. I’m confident we can win that too.
Chen: Have the apps changed the way they work in response to the legislation?
Solis: I’ll be honest with you—they haven’t changed at all. The apps have been violating the law. They keep stealing our tips; they keep deactivating and closing our accounts in retaliation.
So this is another fight we have to have. The enforcement isn’t happening, so the apps keep doing what they want. We have to keep up the pressure to make them comply, because they’ve already taken so much from us. We need a living wage.
Chen: Which apps are these?
Solis: It’s GrubHub, DoorDash, and Uber that are not doing what they need to do. They don’t respect the law and they feel like they can do whatever they want. So that’s why we have to continue this fight.
Chen: When you say that they close people’s accounts in retaliation, what are they retaliating for? Do you think you’re being targeted because you’re organizing, or are they punishing you for something else?
Solis: We’re not sure why they’re doing this, but what I do know is that they feel they can do whatever they want. Because we don’t have a formal union that represents us, they can deactivate us when they don’t need us. It’s complicated because even if you’re someone who’s accepting all the orders you get, and you have a really good rating, sometimes they still deactivate you, and they don’t explain why—they just block us without sending a message. This is why we need to sit down with the company, so they can actually explain to us why they’re doing this.
Chen: What has your interaction been like with them if any?
Solis: We haven’t met with the companies directly. It’s complex to negotiate with them, because we’re not a formal union yet. We’re hoping that once we formalize our union, we can meet with them, but for now, no, I haven’t talked to them directly.
Chen: Under the law, it’s hard for delivery workers to get a formal union because they’re often not considered employees of these platforms. Is that part of the law that you would like to change?
Solis: Right now, the priority for us is forming our union. That’s the main goal of Los Deliveristas Unidos, so that we can put more pressure on the companies, and they listen more to our demands.
Chen: I think the city in the past few months has been trying to pretend that the pandemic is over. How has that affected your organizing?
Solis: Right now we have a lot of energy. Now more than ever, our fight is to pressure the city to guarantee a living wage. And actually, I think we’re stronger than ever, and we have lots of politicians standing with us and supporting us. That gives me more hope and more motivation to move forward.
Chen: Earlier in the pandemic, there was a lot of emphasis on essential workers. There are a lot of workers who are calling for some kind of immigration relief, or some kind of protection for people who are undocumented, if they served as an essential worker during the pandemic. While it seems a lot of the political attention around the pandemic has faded, is it also your hope that workers who are undocumented can be acknowledged or protected from deportation or consequence for their immigration statuses?
Solis: That would be great, if they could help us regulate our immigration statuses. That’s the dream—it’s everybody’s dream—but sometimes, we find ourselves living a nightmare.
So yes, let’s hope that happens. I’m not focused on that, but it’s something I’ve thought about—how great it would be if everyone’s status could be regularized.
Chen: In terms of what you what you’ve learned about organizing, and how to use your power as workers over the past two years—do you think that there could be a time when you could organize a strike or call for a boycott to make the platforms recognize your demands?
Solis: Of course, that would be the right way to go. It would be great to boycott the company, to make our demands clear, and to show them our reality, with real numbers and data about what we’re going through on the street. Sometimes it seems like they think the deliveries are being done by robots or something, that nothing happens to us when it snows or when it rains—they just worry that the food arrives, and they don’t worry about us. So we need to find a way to make sure they take care of us and stop blocking us from the apps.
Chen: Lastly, I know that there have been efforts to organize delivery workers and other app-based workers in other cities, even around the world. Do you hope this can become a global movement outside of New York City?
Solis: Yes, of course. Actually, I know people who are organizing in Mexico. I have a friend who is doing good work in Mexico City. We even have comrades in Chile and in Argentina. I’m so proud to see that we’re an example to follow. What’s most important is for people to know that when we organize from the street, we have a lot of power. What we’re asking is for something fundamental to our day-to-day survival.
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent’s editorial board and co-host of the Belabored podcast.
Antonio Solis is a member of Los Deliveristas Unidos.
Thanks to the Ford Foundation of Social Justice for sponsoring this series.