The Sharing Economy’s ‘First Strike’: Uber Drivers Turn Off the App

Rebecca Burns October 22, 2014

Uber drivers went on strike in five different cities on Oct. 22, including San Francisco. (@YayneAbeba / Twitter)

Sil­i­con Val­ley types often wax lyri­cal about the way that the app-based shar­ing econ­o­my” dis­rupts exist­ing busi­ness mod­els and cre­ate new forms of social rela­tions. When tech mag­nates extol dis­rup­tion,” of course, they like­ly aren’t talk­ing about the sort caused by labor actions.

But on Octo­ber 22, tech-giant Uber got a taste of its own dis­rup­tive med­i­cine when dri­vers in at least five cities who work on the rideshar­ing plat­form turned off their apps and stopped pick­ing up pas­sen­gers, in protest of what they say are unjust work­ing con­di­tions and a dwin­dling share in the company’s prof­its. Some dri­vers are call­ing this action the first strike in the shar­ing econ­o­my,” a sec­tor known for its aver­sion to labor organizing.

A small crowd of Uber dri­vers and labor activists ral­lied out­side the company’s offices in San­ta Mon­i­ca, Cal­i­for­nia, at noon today, car­ry­ing signs read­ing Uber: 15 Hour Days and Pover­ty Wages” and Stop the War on Work­ers.” Dri­vers in San Fran­cis­co held a con­cur­rent ral­ly, while groups in New York, Chica­go and Lon­don pledged to turn off their phones for three hours in what orga­niz­ers are call­ing a glob­al day of protest” against Uber. 

Anoth­er demonstrator’s sign asked, Uber, are we your employ­ees or your part­ners?’” and demand­ed, Stop impos­ing your unfair rules!” The ques­tion gets to the heart of the shar­ing econ­o­my” con­tro­ver­sy: Ask the tech com­pa­nies that cre­ate shar­ing” apps, and they’ll say that peo­ple who dri­ve for Uber, rent out spare rooms on AirBnB or do small jobs via TaskRab­bit aren’t employ­ees at all; they’re micro-entre­pre­neurs” or part­ners” in a new kind of market.

Crit­ics retort that these peo­ple are hard­ly shar­ing” their time and resources out of the good­ness of their hearts; rather they’re work­ers who have turned to a new niche in the ser­vice econ­o­my to try to make a liv­ing — and find them­selves increas­ing­ly strug­gling to do so.

Uber has been a tar­get of par­tic­u­lar resent­ment because of recent fare cuts. In Sep­tem­ber, the com­pa­ny emailed dri­vers to say that a sum­mer dis­count on its stan­dard UberX” ser­vice of between 15 and 20 per­cent, depend­ing on the city, would be con­tin­ued into the autumn. In an info­graph­ic accom­pa­ny­ing an email to dri­vers in July, the com­pa­ny rea­soned that the price cut would gen­er­ate high­er demand for rides, lead­ing to more trips per shift and result­ing, ulti­mate­ly, in a boost to dri­vers’ bot­tom line.

Many dri­vers, how­ev­er, were uncon­vinced. I had an awe­some day! I earned $5.33 an hour!” snarked one UberX dri­ver on an online dri­ver forum. Thanks to high­way tolls and long trips to pick up pas­sen­gers want­i­ng to go only a few blocks, he explained, more rides hadn’t off­set the low­er fares.

On top of the low­er prices, Uber has also demand­ed a larg­er cut of fares. New UberX dri­vers in San Fran­cis­co now hand over 25 per­cent of their earn­ings to the com­pa­ny; dri­vers for the more expen­sive Uber black-car and SUV ser­vices, which unlike UberX are oper­at­ed only by pro­fes­sion­al dri­vers, sur­ren­der 25 and 28 per­cent, respectively.

After months of scat­tered unrest among Uber dri­vers, the Cal­i­for­nia App-based Dri­vers Asso­ci­a­tion (CADA), a labor group affil­i­at­ed with the Team­sters, called for protests out­side Uber offices in cities nation­wide at noon on Octo­ber 22. CADA was formed ear­li­er this year in Los Ange­les and has staged sev­er­al protests there, but believed a coor­di­nat­ed out­pour­ing of dis­sat­is­fac­tion would have greater effect. 

It shows Uber that dri­vers are speak­ing with each oth­er, and it shows con­sumers and the share­hold­ers that it’s not just one group of dis­grun­tled or unpro­fes­sion­al dri­vers — there’s a prob­lem nation­wide,” says Joseph DeWolf San­doval, co-founder and pres­i­dent of CADA.

Indeed, groups of Uber dri­vers in oth­er cities quick­ly picked up the call. After learn­ing about CADA, Lon­don Uber dri­vers opt­ed to form their own asso­ci­a­tion, the Lon­don Pri­vate Hire App-based Dri­vers Asso­ci­a­tions (LPHA­DA).

Lon­don is one of the most expen­sive cities in the world,” says LPHA­DA mem­ber Yaseen Aslam, who has been dri­ving for the com­pa­ny since UberX launched in Lon­don in July 2013. It used to be that [dri­vers] could make a liv­ing work­ing eight hours a day. Now, many are work­ing 12 or more to make the same amount of mon­ey. That puts a strain on their health and fam­i­ly lives, as well as the safe­ty of passengers.”

The asso­ci­a­tion is call­ing on Uber to reduce its com­mis­sion from 20 per­cent to 10 per­cent of dri­vers’ fares, add a tip option to the plat­form and con­sult with LPHA­DA before any fur­ther changes to fares or com­mis­sions, along with sev­er­al oth­er demands. 

There are many chal­lenges to orga­niz­ing Uber dri­vers. In addi­tion to their iso­la­tion and unpre­dictable sched­ules, both Aslam and DeWolf San­doval believe a fear of retal­i­a­tion keeps many dri­vers from com­plain­ing. Orga­niz­ers in Lon­don and New York told In These Times that they had ini­tial­ly planned to stage protests, but fear­ing low turnout, they instead opt­ed to focus on reach­ing out to dri­vers to strike by shut­ting off their phones. 

Uber can deac­ti­vate — basi­cal­ly, fire — a dri­ver with­out cause or expla­na­tion. It’s a stick in the clas­sic stick and car­rot sce­nario, except there’s no car­rot. The dri­vers live in fear,” says DeWolf Sandoval.

Uber acknowl­edges that if dri­vers’ rat­ings from pas­sen­gers dip too low, they may not be allowed to con­tin­ue on the plat­form. DeWolf San­doval says that dri­vers have also been told that their rat­ings could drop if they decline too many ride requests or refuse low­er-fare UberX rides when dri­ving on the Uber Plus plat­form. He adds that sev­er­al offi­cers in CADA have expe­ri­enced pre­cip­i­tous drops in their rat­ings or had their cars down­grad­ed to the low­er-fare UberX ser­vice, in what they sus­pect may be an attempt to chill dri­ver organizing.

DeSan­doval Wolf says that Uber has thus far refused to meet with CADA, and hopes that the protests will force the com­pa­ny to rec­og­nize that dri­vers are attempt­ing to orga­nize, and that our orga­ni­za­tion wants to sit down and have a real con­ver­sa­tion with Uber management.”

One Uber dri­ver was even briefly fired for Tweet­ing a com­ment crit­i­cal of the com­pa­ny. The dri­ver received an email from an Uber oper­a­tions man­ag­er inform­ing him that his account had been per­ma­nent­ly sus­pend­ed due to hate­ful state­ments regard­ing Uber,” though the com­pa­ny lat­er reversed course after the sto­ry went viral. 

A state­ment pro­vid­ed to In These Times by Uber said, Four years ago, dri­vers sim­ply didn’t have the eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty they have today. Uber pow­ers entre­pre­neur­ship and pro­vides the tools for dri­vers to build their own small busi­ness — that is a fun­da­men­tal and sig­nif­i­cant change from the sta­tus quo, where dri­vers start the day at least $100 in the hole just to rent their taxi.”

At the moment, since Uber dri­vers are clas­si­fied as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors rather than employ­ees, they are legal­ly pro­hib­it­ed from tak­ing the next step and form­ing a union. Many are wait­ing with bat­ed breath for the out­come of a class action law­suit, filed by San Fran­cis­co Uber dri­vers in August 2013, charg­ing that they have been mis­clas­si­fied and are owed tips and expens­es that would legal­ly be due to employees.

In the mean­time, dri­vers can do plen­ty to change the sta­tus quo, says New York Taxi Work­ers Alliance Exec­u­tive Direc­tor Bhairavi Desai, whose umbrel­la orga­ni­za­tion the Nation­al Taxi Work­ers Alliance made his­to­ry in 2011 when it became the first inde­pen­dent con­trac­tor work­force to affil­i­ate with the AFL-CIO.

There’s no ques­tion that the taxi indus­try is one of the most exploitive indus­tries, and what Uber has done is mag­ni­fy that exploita­tion,” says Desai.

By oper­at­ing in a reg­u­la­to­ry gray zone, Uber is able to offer cheap­er fares in part by skirt­ing the con­sumer and labor pro­tec­tions that bind tra­di­tion­al taxi com­pa­nies. Cab dri­vers who believe Uber is under­cut­ting their busi­ness have held sev­er­al large protests against the com­pa­ny, includ­ing a mul­ti-city Euro­pean strike in June.

But Desai says that in New York, the two groups are now work­ing togeth­er. Many tra­di­tion­al taxi dri­vers switched to Uber when its fares were high­er and they believed they would be able to make more mon­ey. Now, once again fac­ing low wages, many dri­vers are export­ing the orga­niz­ing mod­el built up over years in the taxi industry.

Taxi dri­vers, like Uber dri­vers, have been very invis­i­ble,” explains Desai, not­ing their iso­la­tion from each oth­er and long­time exclu­sion from the main­stream labor move­ment. We’ve real­ly bro­ken through that by hav­ing mass actions on the street and work stop­pages, and that’s the same mod­el that the Uber dri­ver move­ment is utilizing.”

Dri­vers have debat­ed back and forth whether to term their protest a work stop­page or strike.” DeWolf San­doval empha­sizes that dri­vers will only be stop­ping work for a few hours, but hopes to send a clear mes­sage to the company.

If we’re not dri­ving, I don’t think Uber man­agers are inclined to hop in their cars, put X’s on the front and shut­tle peo­ple around L.A.,” he says.

Aslam believes the action amounts to a strike by Uber drivers.

At the end of the day, it is the dri­vers who make Uber suc­cess­ful,” he says. With­out them, Uber’s tech­nol­o­gy is useless.”

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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