Fed up with Uber’s wage theft and arbitrary firings, the company’s app-based operators organized and fought back. On May 8, two days ahead of Uber’s Wall Street debut, drivers in cities across the U.S., and in many of the 63 other countries where Uber operates, refused to work. Support rallies across the globe were often joined by members of other unions.
The result? Only half the shares anticipated were bought, and Uber raised only half of the predicted ten billion dollars. Stocks sold at $37 per share even though the offering price was $45. Share prices have still not recovered.
In fact, Uber has never shown a profit because income is sucked up by owners and executives. Its declared value of $90 billion is based on its potential to make profits. In order to pay dividends, management now plans to slash wages for three million drivers.
Pay cuts, abuse and tax dodging. Uber was built on skirting labor laws and forcing out competitors. It pays no payroll taxes. It claims workers are independent contractors and that Uber only provides a software app for passengers and drivers to arrange rides. But Uber’s 80,000 drivers constitute the largest private workforce in New York City!
Uber can “deactivate” a driver, arbitrarily change rates or cut the driver’s share — all with no warning. It keeps 30 percent of each passenger fare and fines drivers for rider complaints. There is no grievance process. Until recently, the company confiscated tips intended for drivers. There are no health or retirement benefits or paid leave. Drivers are responsible for the cost of vehicles, gas, and insurance. They work very long hours — many sleeping in their cars to get more riders. This is the life of a “gig” worker.
A history of organizing. Some say gig workers cannot be organized. In fact, for-hire drivers have been organizing and winning victories for years. In 2016 Uber cut fare prices 15 percent and raised its commission to 25 percent. Drivers in New York struck against this speed-up and wage cut. A year later Uber lost rides because of an online #deleteUber campaign started by ride-hail drivers and immigrant rights activists. When cabbies refused calls at JFK airport to protest Trump’s Muslim ban, Uber tried to force its drivers, mostly immigrants, to work anyway. Many refused.
More recently, when the number of Uber drivers in New York City reached 80,000, competition for riders cut the earnings of cabbies as well. Ride-hail groups of both cab and app-based operators, like New York Taxi Driver Alliance, convinced the city to ban any new gig-driven vehicles on the streets. This January, a successful social media, post card and street rally campaign won New York City drivers a minimum wage of $17.25 per hour.
The organizing continues. The May strike alerted the public to the abusive conditions faced by drivers in large cities from London to Melbourne. Now, some passengers join in complaints and add in their own issues about Uber’s mistreatment.
Ride-hail companies claim the gig economy is a new tech innovation. In fact, gig work is an expansion of the cottage industry piece-work jobs of the past, organized to isolate individual workers, avoid unionization and ignore labor rights.
Striking drivers dealt a costly blow to Uber’s bottom line. They proved gig workers can and will band together and fight, and get public support at the same time.
Strikers’ chants of “driver power, union power” should resonate throughout the entire house of labor.