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Uber, Lyft strike: Drivers walkout to protest low pay

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Demands for better pay come as companies hold billion-dollar IPOs.

Ronit Belson from the Bay Area catches her UberX driver Dan Pedrovic as UberX begins making passenger pickups at Los Angeles International Airport on January 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. LAX will be the center of a protest against Uber and Lyft by drivers complaining of low wages.
LA Times via Getty Images

A coalition of labor organizations and Uber and Lyft drivers participated in a global strike May 8, protesting unfair wages and exploitative pay policies from the ride-hailing giants. The action was timed to coincide with Uber’s expected blockbuster $90 billion initial public offering later this week.

Drivers in at least 10 U.S. cities took part in the strike, promoted with hashtags like #StrikeUberLyft and #AppsOffMay8, including New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, in solidarity with strikers around the world in Melbourne and Sydney, Montreal, London and other UK cities. Most drivers planned to log off between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. local times, during the morning commute. Reports suggest the number of protesters didn’t significantly disrupt traffic or service on either app.

Due to the decentralized nature of the protests, which were organized by different groups in each city, demands, and additional actions, varied. In San Francisco, drivers protested protest outside Uber’s headquarters, followed by a 12-hour app shutoff, while LA drivers planned to stop working for an entire day. In Washington, D.C., drivers and supporters drove through Reagan National Airport honking their horns.

While the strikers represented a small fraction of the workforce of both companies, this was far from a symbolic action. According to a representative from the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which lead the worker action in that city, a “vast majority” of their roughly 10,000 members who drive for Uber and Lyft in the city participated in the temporary strike and/or joining protests at Uber’s Queens headquarters.

Driver and strike organizer Nicole Moore speaks during a one-day strike against Uber and Lyft in front of an Uber office on Marine Avenue in Redondo Beach on Monday, Mar 25, 2019. Over 200 drivers marched with signs and protested a then-recent 25 percent deduction in pay for Uber drivers.
MediaNews Group via Getty Images

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 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 noted, 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?

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 ridehailing 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.”