A coalition of labor organizations and Uber and Lyft drivers will participate in a global strike May 8, protesting unfair wages and exploitative pay policies from the ride-hailing giants. The action is timed to coincide with Uber’s expected blockbuster $90 billion initial public offering later this week.
Drivers in at least 10 U.S. cities will participate in the strike, including New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, in solidarity with other strikers in London and other UK cities. Most drivers plan to log off between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. local times, during peak morning commute time.
Due to the decentralized nature of the protests, which have been organized by different groups in each city, demands, and additional actions, vary. In San Francisco, drivers plan to protest outside Uber’s headquarters, followed by a 12-hour app shutoff, while LA drivers plan to stop working for an entire day.
While the strikers represent a small fraction of the workforce of both companies, and large-scale service disruptions aren’t expected, this could be far from a symbolic action. According to a representative from the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which is leading the worker action in that city, a “vast majority” of their roughly 10,000 members who drive for Uber and Lyft in the city will be striking tomorrow.
Surge striking in search of job security and higher wages
For drivers, the strike boils down to pay. The two ridesharing giants, which have been valued at billions of dollars each by the market and investors, continue to be criticized by workers and labor groups for classifying drivers as contractors, as opposed to full-time employees, and taking more and more of the profit per ride. A 2018 study from the Economic Policy Institute found that nationwide Uber drivers make less than $12 per hour, on average.
A cap on the per-fare commission taken by ride-hail companies is one of the core demands of participating groups, as well as fewer driver deactivations, benefits, more say in company policy, and an end to up-front pricing. Striking working in Los Angeles, for example, demand a $28 an hour wage.
Henry Rolands, a Lyft driver living in Queens, says it’s all about job security.
“Nobody pays attention to these poor people who move New York,” he says. “What’s wrong with giving them fair pay? Drivers are the lifeblood of the business.”
Inder Parmar, 54, who drives in New York City, has been driving for Uber since 2013 and says the strike is all financial. When he started driving, he worked 50 to 60 hours a week and made a decent wage, roughly $30 an hour before expenses. Now, since he’s taking home less than $10 an hour before expenses, he supplements 30 to 40 hours of ride-hailing gigs with a 40-hour-a-week position as a personal chauffeur.
“Everybody working a regular job gets a raise each year,” he says. “With Uber, you make 5 or 10 percent less each year.”
A long history of labor and pay issues
According to Harry Campbell, who extensively covers the industry as the Rideshare Guy, Uber’s recent 25 percent cut of the per mile rate for drivers in Los Angeles was the catalyst for the first such strike on March 25. Led by Rideshare Drivers United, the strike generated lots of media attention days before Lyft’s IPO.
“From my perspective, it wasn’t just the 25 percent rate cut but rather a build up of driver frustration for months and the looming IPOs for both Uber and Lyft,” Campbell wrote in a statement to the press. “The rate cut was just the final straw.”
Representatives from both ride-hailing companies claim drivers are treated well, and the freedom and flexibility they offer are big selling points. According to a statement yesterday from Uber, in response to questions about the strike, “drivers are at the heart of our service─we can’t succeed without them─and thousands of people come into work at Uber every day focused on how to make their experience better, on and off the road. Whether it’s more consistent earnings, stronger insurance protections or fully-funded four-year degrees for drivers or their families, we’ll continue working to improve the experience for and with drivers.”
However, as the Verge’s Andrew Hawkins notes, Uber’s own filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, ahead of the IPO, notes that driver dissatisfaction is likely to increase as the company seeks to reduce the amount of money it spends on driver incentives.
“Driver satisfaction is low, and the situation is only going to get worse,” Campbell told Curbed. “This is going to be risky for the companies going forward.”
What do striking drivers want to happen next?
Campbell doesn’t expect serious service disruptions in the major cities, and it’ll also be a challenge to tell if surge pricing Wednesday is a result of a walkout or more typical demand drivers. In Los Angeles, for example there are 50,000 total drivers, and a majority don’t operate on a typical Wednesday. He predicts 500 to 1,000 strikers in LA, hundreds in smaller cities, and perhaps thousands total across the country.
I stand with Uber and Lyft drivers striking in LA. One job should be enough to make a decent living in America, especially for those working for multibillion-dollar companies. Drivers must be paid the wages they deserve. #StrikeUberLyft https://t.co/uyp8E0VkyR
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) March 25, 2019
The larger issue of political awareness may be the biggest immediate impact of the strike. With politicians including Bernie Sanders lending support to strikers, media poised to cover drivers actions, and other transportation groups such as the Amalgamated Transit Union showing solidarity, the issue has gotten more attention. If rider groups can coordinate demands and tactics going forward—a challenge with such a decentralized workforce—they may be more effective putting pressure on the ride-hailing companies. In New York City, a recent campaign by the Independent Drivers Guild secured a $26.51 per hour minimum wage for ridehaling drivers, before expenses, perhaps setting a precedent for additional action.
Parmar says the IPO only underscores that the rich get rich as the poor get more poor. He hopes that political leaders or the labor department take a look at these companies and help drivers like him get a fair wage.
“Uber is exploiting drivers like owners exploited factory workers in the early 1900s,” he says. “I hope somebody in the government wakes up and sees what’s happening with these 3 million drivers.”