If you hail an Uber on Wednesday, you’re crossing a (virtual) picket line.
Uber, Lyft, and Juno drivers around the world are going on strike and planning other work actions to protest Uber’s Friday IPO, when the company will seek to raise $9 billion in cash from investors. Drivers who spoke to VICE News said they’re struggling to survive with meager wages, few on-the-job protections, and long hours — while the ride-sharing giant is expected to go public with a valuation between $80 billion and $91 billion.
“You guys are making billions of dollars,” said Mena Yousef, a 37-year-old driver in Washington, D.C., who’s participating in Wednesday’s strike. “Your drivers aren’t making anything.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by countless drivers for the company, many who say they work shifts as long as 14 hours with no idea how much money they’ll make for the day. Yousef told VICE News that he makes about $600, after expenses, if he works a 40-hour week. Uber drivers' pay varies widely by city, depending on local laws and demand for rides. Drivers also usually have no idea how much money they'll make for any given ride.
“I’ve heard stories of people who do this 16 to 18 hours a day,” Yousef said. “You can’t last.”
Strikes and protests are happening in at least six countries around the globe, including the U.S., where at least a dozen cities — including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Atlanta — are participating. The actions vary in intensity. A 24-hour strike is planned in Los Angeles. But drivers are striking for just two hours in New York — where rideshare drivers recently won an hourly-rate boost to about $17 (after expenses) from $11.90 — in part to show solidarity with other cities’ drivers. Many drivers said they’re boycotting apps for the entire day, regardless of their location.
“I don’t have time for my children."
The drivers are demanding a 10% commission cap from Uber as well as an hourly rate that matches New York City’s $17 hourly rate for app-based drivers. It’s the second strike against Uber in just two months. In March, drivers in Los Angeles also asked riders to boycott the app to protest Uber’s slashing of per-mile pay rates by 25 percent, from 80 cents to just 60 cents. The average Uber driver makes about $9 per hour, according to an Economy Policy Institute study released Tuesday.
Transparency for pay — which is often a guessing game — was the biggest sticking point for Steve Gregg, a 51-year-old Lyft driver from the Bay Area. He said drivers have “absolutely no clue on every single ride” if they’re going to turn a profit.
“I drive until I’m exhausted every day,” Gregg said. “I don’t feel like it’s safe. I occasionally work 12-hour days. I get so tired. You just can’t. I’m not going to risk it.”
“I don’t have time for my children. I spend three or four hours a week with my children,” he added.
Despite the long hours, Gregg said he loves his job because it gives him an opportunity to meet and converse with interesting people. But the drawback is that it’s simply not a sustainable lifestyle. Drivers often need second jobs, or they have to work 14 hours a day. He said he’s protesting Wednesday to encourage the government to step in to protect exploited workers.
“If I could make enough money, I’d do it for the rest of my life, because I’ve never enjoyed my work more,” Gregg said.
For its part, Uber doesn’t seem too concerned about driver backlash to its IPO. The company has offered cash bonuses ahead of the IPO as a symbolic way of addressing drivers’ grievances, but ride-sharing drivers who qualify say the bonuses offer insultingly low amounts for huge amounts of work.
“Drivers are at the heart of our service ─ we can’t succeed without them ─ and thousands of people come in to work at Uber every day focused on how to make their experience better, on and off the road,” a company spokesman told VICE News in a statement.
One Bay Area driver, 37-year-old Rebecca Stack-Martinez, said Uber and Lyft’s wages are so exploitative that some drivers commute hours to more lucrative markets just to make ends meet.
“In order to make a living here, they sleep in their cars for two to three weeks,” she said.
But a big reason many ride-sharing drivers are upset with Uber and Lyft is related to their status as “independent contractors” rather than employees. Uber, in particular, has been embroiled in a legal battle with drivers over their employment classification, which affords ride-sharing giants much more leeway for cutting wages and altering working conditions, without input from workers. Independent contractors also face difficulty and risk in forming labor unions because most federal labor laws don’t protect them.
Ben Valdez, a 42-year-old Los Angeles organizer and ride-share driver, said that Uber drivers “absolutely” need a union. He said drivers have “zero representation” when it comes to deciding their working conditions. It’s not uncommon to find homeless drivers or for drivers to work 24-hour shifts by switching between the Uber, Lyft, and Juno platforms because their wages are so uncertain and shaped by the whims of the apps.
“It’s like going to Vegas,” Valdez said.
A union could also help drivers navigate the increasingly competitive market. The strike coincides with a jump in New York cabbie suicides. Last year, at least eight cab-industry workers committed suicide. Cabbies, many of them immigrants, spent fortunes on official taxi medallions that gave them exclusive rights to pick up people who hail cabs on the street. Ride-sharing disrupted that status quo, introducing extreme competition that's left many cabbies in financial ruin.
The suicide crisis is so dire that the Independent Drivers Guild, a union representing 45,000 for-hire drivers in New York City, announced Tuesday it would begin offering free counseling in numerous languages to address depression, stress, and anxiety that drivers are facing.
While Uber drivers do cut into cabbies' market, the two groups are facing many of the same problems. New York’s taxi union, which represents green and yellow cab drivers, supports Wednesday’s strike.
“We call on legislators in every state and city to bring these tech giants under stringent regulations to stop the worker exploitation that leaves drivers in despair,” six taxi and ride-share organizations said in a joint statement. “We call on drivers across the globe to show Uber and Lyft the power of our unity. We call on workers everywhere to stand in solidarity with our struggle.”
The strikes are just the latest signal of a nascent labor movement in the U.S., catalyzed by a huge wave of teacher strikes in 2018. Uber drivers are part of the gig economy — which is still small — but the larger service industry has shown signs of renewed labor activism. Marriott employees led a strike against the nation’s largest hotel chain in December and won San Francisco housekeepers a pay bump and some workplace protections.
Cover image: Uber and Lyft drivers, with signs on their vehicles supporting better wages, cross the Brooklyn Bridge in a caravan of about 25 vehicles, Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)