Why Uber and Lyft Drivers Are Striking

AP Photo/Richard Vogel


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Uber and Lyft drivers plan to protest and picket this week. From companies, they want better wages and working conditions. From cities, they want regulations.

In several cities in the U.S. and beyond, drivers for the ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft will turn off their apps, get out of their cars, or hit the picket line on Wednesday. The protests are timed to draw attention to driver pay and work conditions in advance of Uber’s anticipated public filing this week.

In San Francisco, drivers will walk to Uber’s headquarters at noon, and turn off their apps until midnight. In Los Angeles, drivers plan to picket outside Los Angeles International Airport, one of the city’s highest-demand areas. They’ll join drivers in San Diego and Boston in abstaining from driving for 24 hours. In Atlanta, they’ll visit Uber and Lyft support hubs, recruiting new driver-organizers for their burgeoning Georgia-wide movement. In Chicago, drivers will stand outside City Hall, putting pressure on incoming mayor Lori Lightfoot to follow through on her campaign promises to limit the power of the ride-hailing companies. And in New York City and London—the two largest markets for Uber—drivers will get off the roads between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., in solidarity. (Traditional taxi services in these cities aren’t involved.)

Drivers have coordinated this day of action across a handful of organizing groups, such as L.A.’s Rideshare Drivers United and Gig Workers Rising. Their tactics, strategies, and demands differ in each city. But together, they’re asking for higher (and more transparent) wages, fewer cars on the road, and a place at the negotiating table. Since drivers are independent contractors, a ride-hailing strike is different from other labor uprisings: Organizers aren’t just targeting corporate leaders: They’re looking to policymakers, who could hold those companies accountable for improving conditions.

“As the whole world watches Uber’s IPO, the driver-members of PDU and PLA are instead watching their legislators,” driver-organizers from the Philadelphia Drivers Union and the Philadelphia Limousine Association wrote in their demands.

The more cities join in, “the more likely the municipalities will actually give us legislation,” Barbara Lloyd, an organizer with Chicago Rideshare Advocates, who are asking the new mayor for a local driver cap and a ban on drivers with out-of-state plates. “Because the companies aren’t going to do anything.”

For Uber and Lyft, the timing of this showdown with their worker-contractors couldn’t be worse. Lyft just went public last month, valued at $24 billion, and is reporting its first-quarter earnings this week. On Friday, Uber is planning to IPO, too, seeking a $100 billion valuation. In its filing, Uber acknowledged the danger that driver uprisings could pose.

“Driver dissatisfaction has in the past resulted in protests by Drivers,” reads its S-1, in which Uber referenced protests in India, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. “Such protests have resulted, and any future protests may result, in interruptions to our business.”

That vulnerability makes this the perfect time to strike, organizers say. “What we know from Uber and Lyft is that when drivers band together and take action, they get scared,” said Brian Dolber, an organizer with L.A.’s driver labor group, Rideshare Drivers United. “Both companies are in a race to the bottom to try to impress their investors, and it’s squeezing everyone to the point that we don’t have any other choice but to organize and take action.”

The strike represents the culmination of many months—and in some cities, years—of organizing. Ride-hailing drivers are classified as 1099 workers, not employees, making them ineligible for benefits and paid time off. They’re also legally barred from forming traditional unions. It’s what makes gig work so flexible, companies argue. (And what keeps them from losing even more money. From Uber’s S-1: “Our business would be adversely affected if Drivers were classified as employees instead of independent contractors.”)

That hasn’t stopped drivers from coming together. The most recent U.S. strike came in March, when hundreds of L.A. ride-hail drivers turned off their apps for 25 hours to protest Uber’s decision to lower per-mile rates by 25 percent, from 80 cents to 60 cents (after raising them the same amount in September.) Organized by Rideshare Drivers United, the strike came at the heels of Lyft’s public offering—and after drivers there saw New York City’s Independent Drivers’ Guild, which represents the city’s 70,000 app-based drivers, help pass the first ride-hail minimum wage in the country.

“We’re modeling our activism behind New York’s efforts,” said Sinakhoa Keodara, a driver and an organizer with Rideshare Drivers United. Though Lyft challenged the raise, a judge denied the company’s lawsuit, and drivers in New York City are now being paid $28 an hour, or $17.22 an hour after expenses.

“If they claim that this is going to break them in order to pay $28 an hour as a base, then we would expect to see them shutting down business in New York, and that’s not happening,” said Dolber.

For almost everyone, pay is the biggest single concern. “Between gas and car payments and insurance, it costs me $50 to walk out the door,” said Lloyd. “I’m paying money to work for them.” She lives with a family member, and has had to cut back on hours because of a bad hip. The hours she does work, Lloyd says, aren’t making her as much as she used to: After Uber launched a flat surge, she says per-mile pay went from $1.75 to 63 cents.

“Every time we think they cannot cut our money any further and they can’t hurt us any further, they figure out another way of hurting us,” she said.

Research out of the Economic Policy Institute last year suggested that, after Uber’s commission, fees, and vehicle expenses—and accounting for personal health insurance coverage—Uber drivers earned the equivalent of $9.21 in hourly wages.

Philadelphia drivers are asking for a $20 minimum wage after expenses, higher even than New York City’s. Such a raise would additionally serve to limit the number of cars on the road, activists there argue, cutting down on congestion and competition. During drivers’ rally at an Uber “greenlight hub” on Wednesday at noon, they’ll also demand a place for drivers on the deactivation hearing board (to prevent drivers from being booted from the platform unfairly), bargaining rights over changes to Uber’s Terms of Service, and an 80-20 split of gross passenger receipts.

In Chicago, drivers are pushing for a driver cap limiting the number of new drivers on the roads. It would be a twist on New York City’s pilot car cap, which for one year limits the number of new vehicle licenses it will approve. (Uber is suing the city to get rid of it, arguing that it’s anticompetitive and that measures like congestion pricing would be a better solution to the crush of cars.)

“They say they don’t want a driver cap because it’s a free market, and the poorer neighborhoods will get hurt,” said Lloyd: With fewer drivers on the road, companies say drivers will choose to forego covering parts of the city that lack other transit options, and that are sometimes less lucrative. “But they do all the incentives in the wealthy neighborhoods,” she said. “In the morning, all the incentives are in Lincoln Park, not in Roseland.”

Chicago is also asking for a ban on out-of-state drivers who have crossed the border to Illinois to get a piece of Chicago’s market. If the city stopped accepting these new drivers, ”then they’d have to treat the drivers they already have with respect,” she said.

With Wednesday’s protest, Chicago Rideshare Advocates are seizing the opportunity that opened up when Mayor Rahm Emmanuel—whose brother has famously invested heavily in Uber—chose not to run for re-election. “We have a brand new mayor that goes into office at the end of this month,” said Lloyd. “She had promised us that she’d deal with regulation and look into doing what New York did within her first 100 days.”

Chicago drivers are ready to hold her to that. But because of these shifting political dynamics, they’re are also toeing a fine line. “We want to put the pressure on, but not to make so much of a stink that everyone hates us,” she said.

Georgia organizers are being careful with their rhetoric, too—avoiding the word “union” helps the cause with drivers in the South, said Austin Gates, a driver and an organizer with Rideshare Drivers United Georgia. It’s better to “tell people, ‘Let’s get together and get our voices heard as drivers,’” he says, “which is another way of saying ‘unionize.’”

Unlike Chicago or New York City, Georgia isn’t pushing for a car or driver cap, and Gates says he’s not hopeful that any city would be able to pass a ride-hail minimum wage without preemption by conservative state legislators: “Other driver-organizers were asking, ‘What regulations does your state have in place for drivers?’ [I said,] ‘I don’t think you understand: We don’t have any.’” Wednesday’s efforts will instead focus on recruiting people into Georgia’s younger group. “What we’re doing is building from the ground-up a grassroots driver’s organization,” Gates said.

By the end of the month, he also expects to finalize a list of Georgia-specific demands, which will include more opportunities for in-person meetings with Uber and Lyft representatives.

Lyft has long convened a Driver Advisory Council, and Uber has started holding Driver Advisory Forums, which meet twice a year. But Gates says those venues have been ineffective. “We just want to make sure that we’re seriously trying to have a conversation with Uber and Lyft about issues, locally,” he said. On Wednesday, Gates expects 100 to 200 people to show up.

L.A.’s Rideshare Drivers United has also drafted a Rideshare Drivers’ Bill of Rights, outlining demands like a 10 percent commission cap for Uber and Lyft, greater wage and deactivation transparency, a vehicle cap, and better data-sharing practices with local authorities. They presented the document at California Governor Gavin Newsom’s office in January, and Dolber says they met with him again in March.

At the local level, Rideshare Drivers United organizer Keodara doesn’t have faith that Mayor Eric Garcetti will hold the companies to account.“He’s Lyft’s lapdog,” he said. “He doesn’t have a lot of power to pass those laws, so we’re working with the city council right now, and with the transportation committee.”

Anne Bahr, a spokesperson for Garcetti, told CityLab in an email that he “supports a fair wage and benefits for drivers, and respects the right of gig economy workers to organize.”

“The gig economy can be a powerful tool for Angelenos who need an extra boost to their income, or who need to make ends meet while they’re in between jobs,” she wrote. “But it is essential that workers who drive for ride-share full time earn a living wage.”

After L.A.’s March strike, Uber did not concede to Rideshare Drivers United’s demands, saying that the per-mile rate was only lowered to be more competitive with other companies’ rates, and that the cut would be made up by more frequent promotions.

Wednesday’s movement will be far more high profile, and the companies are treading very carefully. Uber has a loaded history with strikes, dating back to the company’s more volatile Travis Kalanick era. In 2017, the company allegedly encouraged drivers to breach a taxi striker picket line at New York City’s JFK airport, which had been formed in response to President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. A rider boycott campaign called #DeleteUber ensued, the ramifications of which the company is still dealing with.

Already, more bonuses have been allocated by both Uber and Lyft, in concert with their IPOs. Over the next few days, Uber will hand out a total of $300 million to 1.1 million qualifying drivers, Uber says, in sums of $100 to $100,000. Lyft, too, will give out cash bonuses to prolific drivers, with a maximum of $10,000.

And drivers in San Francisco saw an extra promotion in the Uber app for the week of the strike, which some saw as a tactic “to coax drivers from planned strikes,” according to a tweet from journalist Greg Bensinger.

Dolber told CityLab that drivers in L.A. are seeing similar offers for every day this week, except Friday.

“It shows how scared Uber is of drivers taking action,” he said—and also how low their pay is. “On Wednesday they are offering $10 for 20 consecutive trips, an extra 50 cents per ride. That’s not a living wage.”

Uber did not comment on the record on the promotion. “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,” said an Uber spokesperson, citing consistent earning, driver insurance plans, and a free online college program for some eligible drivers. Lyft did not respond to a request for comment.

While drivers have their apps turned off in places like the Bay Area, L.A., New York City, and London, driver-organizers are encouraging people to refrain from calling for rides.

“Though our pickets are going to be at LAX … the picket lines extend virtually beyond that,” Dolber said. On Twitter, San Francisco’s transit system encouraged people to take BART and MUNI, instead.

Driver conditions should matter to passengers, too, says Lloyd. “If you have the choice between feeding your kid or paying college tuition or keeping a roof over your head versus brake pads, you’re going to choose to feed your kid or keep the roof over your head.”

Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab.

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