All photos by the author
In normal circumstances, Lyft’s drivers congregate in a Facebook group set up by the ridesharing company in order for them to share tips with one another, ask questions, or reach out to corporate with feedback or concerns. When yet another cut in driver pay was announced on Thursday, September 25, however, the driver's lounge filled up with countless “Fuck this, I quit!” posts, calls to organize strikes, and demands that Lyft's CEO, John Zimmer, step down. On top of all this, dozens of drivers decided they’d be leaving the company in a more dramatic, and cathartic, fashion: by burning their cars' iconic fuzzy pink mustaches in a symbolic pyre.
I met one of the organizers (who, like many drivers I met, did not want her name shared) on the beach where this mustache burning party was to take place and she laid it out for me as the other drivers showed up with pizza, beer, lighter fluid, and giant mustaches. At this point, she explained, most drivers were driving for both Lyft and Uber, and everyone was really just hanging on and waiting for the moment when Uber will inevitably emerge victorious, purchases Lyft, and raises their rates back up to more reasonable levels. This particular rate cut had been another 10 percent decrease, the third of its kind in September, most likely to compete with Uber.
Lyft, unlike Uber, has aimed to make the experience more socially engaging for the passenger. Drivers are encouraged to be chatty or decorate their cars in themes. This social aspect was even a key factor in some of Lyft’s investors choosing to back the company over Uber.
"Lyft is a real community—with both the drivers and riders being inherently social—making real friendships and saving money,” is how Scott Weiss of Andreessen Horowitz, the venture capital firm that gave Lyft $60 million, put it in a blog post last year.
The organizer told me that Uber has always been up front about its view that only the bottom line matters, while Lyft hid behind its quirky façade and pretended the mission was “changing the world” and “building a community,” when anyone who observed its cutthroat business strategy unfold could plainly see the focus was dollars and cents. She noted that, for all its faults, Uber incentivized its drivers to get on the road with cold hard cash, while Lyft tended to show its appreciation with attaboys and mustache tchotchkes.
Other drivers at the fire echoed her sentiments. In fact, compared to the other bonfires surrounding us on the beach, this one was pretty dour, despite the pizza and beer. The anger and frustration was palpable and nobody was chit-chatting about their lives outside of Lyft. It was all shop talk, and the shop sounded in bad shape.
Gone are the smiling, friendly, and competent Lyft drivers of last summer. As these drivers have seen their compensation go from a guaranteed minimum of $18 per hour to a fare rate of $1.10 per mile and $0.21 per minute (when they can even get a fare; one of their complaints is that there's an overabundance of cars on the road), those with better moneymaking options have moved on to other work while the holdouts and new, completely unvetted hires are left to fight over scraps. Many of these poor souls wind up making less than minimum wage at the end of a shift, which Lyft gets away with as it classify its drivers not as employees, but as “platform users.” Or is it “independent contractors?” Or “partners?” Those terms have been used in the past and the company can’t seem to nail down the language when communicating with its drivers, but one thing is certain: They are emphatically not employees.
Next, I spoke with Sarah, who's something of a celebrity in the SoCal Lyft scene. Sarah had raised the ire of the Facebook group moderators by coining the phrase “but did they tip?” See, as Lyft's fares dropped, passengers started treating the company like the 99-cent store it was positioning itself as. This sometimes took the form of condescension and rudeness towards drivers, but mostly it just meant that the once-common tips stopped almost altogether. So when a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed driver shared a story in the lounge about a friendly passenger, Sarah’s catchphrase acted as a sobering pinprick to pop that balloon.
“But did they tip?” No, they didn’t tip. Not anymore. Sarah eventually got kicked out of the lounge for posting a picture of homegrown tomatoes and asking if any other drivers would like them.
“I was kicked out of the lounge for bringing down morale.” Sarah said. “But this is an elective service and our culture is taught to tip for elective services. And yet HQ doesn’t want to offend or dissuade customers by making the ability to tip more prominently featured for fear they may end up going to Uber. And so no drivers get tipped even when a passenger would like to give one. Maybe that’s more likely what’s bringing down morale.”
When the influx of drivers showing up at the party trickled to one or two new arrivals every ten minutes, we started the official mustache burning. The organizer, donned in a shemagh and, looking more like an Arab Spring revolutionary than a pissed-off Lyft driver, dipped the pink 'stache into the fire pit where it went up in a blaze instantly.
The faces around the fire had Cheshire Cat grins from ear to ear. You could see how satisfying it was for them to symbolically cut themselves out of such an abusive employment relationship. The somber mood of the earlier chit-chat dissipated and the three dozen or so drivers started dancing around as they took turns throwing their 'staches into the flames.
Not wanting to come off as assholes, the pyro drivers noted that these mustaches were probably putting a ton of noxious chemicals into the air, so they held back on burning all their stock. We switched to pink paper mustaches, ranging in size from life-size replicas of the car 'staches down to two-inch confetti versions.
I asked the girl who made the confetti, “Were these left over from happier times with Lyft? A Lyft party or something?” No. She’d cut them all out today. That is the kind of passion and dedication that led to the non-employees decorating their cars like the Batmobile or a rave during the old salad days of Lyft.
Confetti girl gave me a handful of mustaches to throw into the fire. I tossed them like an idiot, and the beach wind took my entire payload past the fire and scattered it on the dark sand. I spent the next five minutes searching for my litter by the light of my phone before bringing the wad of garbage back to the fire pit and carefully tucking it into the blaze to avoid a repeat of my last attempt.
I cracked a beer and chatted with a guy in an Eyes Wide Shut masquerade mask. He was very much enjoying the event and likened it to a mini Burning Man. He and the others seemed to be getting a much-needed release from this stach sacrifice. (Stachrifice? Nah.)
With the mood now lightened, people started taking selfies flipping the bird at their mustaches, surely to post on the unofficial Lyft lounges later. They started talking more about what they do outside of ridesharing, past careers, hobbies. There was no real plan for after this burning. They’d keep driving for Uber, taking advantage of the surge times and promotional weekends. They wouldn't, however, be going back to that Facebook lounge.
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