Please Let’s Never Call Uber “The Future of Work” Ever Again

Rebecca Burns May 8, 2019

Uber and Lydt drivers across the country went on strike Wednesday, May 8. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

It was back in 2015 that Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion alum David Plouffe, fresh­ly decamped to Sil­i­con Val­ley, first sug­gest­ed that the gig econ­o­my was the future of work.”

On-demand plat­forms like Uber will con­tin­ue to grow, Plouffe declared, because they’ve found a new means to offer work­ers some­thing they des­per­ate­ly need: an easy way to make a quick buck in a tough econ­o­my. While Uber wasn’t pro­vid­ing health­care or over­time pay to its dri­vers — deemed part­ners” by the com­pa­ny — it offered them flexibility.

When you look at the full pic­ture of how peo­ple are tru­ly using these plat­forms and seiz­ing these eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties,” wrote Plouffe in a Medi­um post, it’s clear that this is much more of an oppor­tu­ni­ty to be seized than a prob­lem to be solved.” 

The future of work” soon became the phrase that launched a thou­sand con­fer­ence pan­els. Even though gig work­ers com­prise no more than one per­cent of the U.S. work­force, accord­ing to the lat­est esti­mates, Sil­i­con Val­ley has attempt­ed to prop­a­gate the myth that we have entered a brave new world where the old rules no longer apply — those rules being basic labor pro­tec­tions and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights.

But the defin­ing fea­ture of the gig econ­o­my has nev­er been work­ers accept­ing jobs through an app on their phone: it’s that they work with no ben­e­fits, no job secu­ri­ty and no unions. And it’s this mod­el of the future, in which work­ers are more ful­ly fun­gi­ble, that is being pro­mot­ed not only by tech acolytes, but also by tra­di­tion­al employ­ers and the Amer­i­can Right.

A March report from the Nation­al Employ­ment Law Project (NELP) details how hotel chains Mar­riott and Hilton, as well as the right-wing Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil and the Cato Insti­tute, have thrown their weight behind a far-reach­ing, mul­ti-mil­lion-dol­lar influ­ence cam­paign” to rewrite work­er clas­si­fi­ca­tion stan­dards at every lev­el of government.

As the NELP report explains, Gig com­pa­nies are sim­ply using new-fan­gled meth­ods of labor medi­a­tion to extract rents from work­ers, and shift risks and costs onto work­ers, con­sumers, and the gen­er­al public.”

Yet despite all this effort, rideshare dri­vers nation­wide took a page out of the labor movement’s play­book on Wednes­day and went on strike.

Kathrine Federo­va, who dri­ves for both Uber and Lyft, has actu­al­ly been on strike three times as a mem­ber of Chica­go Rideshare Advo­cates. As a full-time account­ing stu­dent, Federo­va says she does appre­ci­ate the flex­i­bil­i­ty the plat­forms pro­vide. But lots of peo­ple need flex­i­bil­i­ty in their jobs for lots of rea­sons, and Uber and Lyft take advan­tage of that,” she told In These Times.

Chica­go Rideshare Advo­cates, a work­er-run group orga­nized pri­mar­i­ly through social media, has orga­nized a hand­ful of labor actions in recent years, and first began plan­ning Wednesday’s strike in coor­di­na­tion with a sim­i­lar group in Los Ange­les. Through dri­ver Face­book groups, as well as a wide­ly shared tweet from pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Bernie Sanders, the coor­di­nat­ed action spread to dozens of major cities.

Dri­vers were already angry about a declin­ing share of fees, unpre­dictable surge pric­ing and deac­ti­va­tions. But Uber’s state­ments ahead of their $90 bil­lion ini­tial pub­lic offer­ing (IPO) — set to begin trad­ing on Fri­day — incensed them fur­ther. In fil­ings with the SEC, the com­pa­ny wrote that we expect dri­ver dis­sat­is­fac­tion will gen­er­al­ly increase” as it removes incen­tives to improve our finan­cial per­for­mance” and keep returns for investors healthy.

Dri­vers are talked [about as if they are] lia­bil­i­ties and not the actu­al heroes that built their empire,” Bhairavi Desai, founder of the New York Taxi Work­ers Alliance (NYT­WA), told AM New York. We’re send­ing a mes­sage that dri­vers need to come first.” Mem­bers of NYT­WA, which orga­nizes with both tra­di­tion­al taxi and rideshare dri­vers, went on strike Wednes­day morn­ing dur­ing ear­ly rush hour traf­fic from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Uber said in a state­ment that it planned to hand out approx­i­mate­ly $300 mil­lion in bonus­es to acknowl­edge Dri­vers who have par­tic­i­pat­ed in [its] suc­cess” ahead of the IPO.

But dri­vers say those bonus­es of a few hun­dred dol­lars per per­son are a drop in the buck­et. They also only apply to more senior dri­vers. Lyft award­ed bonus­es to dri­vers who have com­plet­ed more than 10,000 rides. Barb Lloyd, anoth­er orga­niz­er of Chica­go Rideshare Asso­ciates who has been dri­ving for six years, says she has giv­en more than 9,990 rides but got nothing. 

Rideshare dri­vers began stag­ing small strikes in 2014, and soon after, Sil­i­con Val­ley stepped in to offer its own alter­na­tive to an actu­al union. In 2016, Uber announced that it would rec­og­nize and fund a driver’s guild” affil­i­at­ed with the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Machin­ists and Aero­space Work­ers union.

Telling­ly, the Koch Broth­ers-backed anti-union Mack­inac Cen­ter also called the guild a mod­el that could pull the anti­quat­ed union mod­el into the 21st cen­tu­ry.” As Chris Brooks report­ed in a 2016 Labor Notes arti­cle, the asso­ci­a­tion has no col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights and promised not to insti­gate strikes among dri­vers in exchange for Uber’s blessing.

Instead of strik­ing this week, the dri­vers’ guild announced that it would hold a ral­ly in sol­i­dar­i­ty with strik­ing work­ers. The guild also respond­ed to a recent spate of dri­ver sui­cides by launch­ing a new dri­ver well­ness” hot­line and offer­ing free counseling.

The ben­e­fits of this mod­el pale in com­par­i­son to the ground­break­ing wins secured by the NYT­WA, which last year helped achieve the nation’s first min­i­mum wage for Uber and Lyft dri­vers in New York City. Wednesday’s strike, and Uber and Lyft’s ner­vous­ness about the risk it pos­es to their prof­itabil­i­ty, fur­ther demon­strates that the ride share behe­moths remain vul­ner­a­ble to tra­di­tion­al labor organizing.

Uber is not, as its advo­cates fre­quent­ly claim, a ground­break­ing new employ­ment mod­el. In fact, it’s bare­ly even a busi­ness mod­el at all. As Doug Hen­wood recent­ly detailed in Jacobin, the com­pa­ny is not prof­itable, and its entire plan for becom­ing so depends on con­tin­u­ing to reel in new investors while unrav­el­ing labor reg­u­la­tions and, per­haps even­tu­al­ly, can­ni­bal­iz­ing the pub­lic trans­porta­tion sector.

That’s an unsa­vory future, but, as Wednesday’s nation­wide strike sug­gests, it can still be avoid­ed through good, old-fash­ioned col­lec­tive action.

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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