Long Island City — Just days before Uber’s expected debut on the stock market at a conservative but still-astronomical $114 to $128 billion valuation, the anger among rideshare drivers boiled over into an international day of action.
In at least 20 cities around the world, Uber drivers with few employment protections and no real way to contact one another came together on Wednesday to demand fairer conditions. That action on this scale could be coordinated at all is, on its own, an astounding achievement. A grand expression of frustration can be cathartic in its own way, but at times the balkanized pockets of organisers appeared to be rowing in opposite directions—nowhere more starkly than in the company’s largest market: New York City.
Ask rideshare drivers anywhere, and they’ll likely name the same problems: low pay made lower through vehicle expenses and upkeep, deactivations without recourse, and a higher and higher share of their rides being gobbled up as commission fees. But ask about the best strategy to improve their working conditions, and the answers will probably be less consistent.
In three cities in Australia, a handful of drivers delivered a letter expressing “concern about the lack of rights and standards that apply to transport workers in the gig economy” to Uber Greenlight hubs. In Los Angeles, one of the best organised and most militant groups, Rideshare Drivers United, called a 24-hour strike for its estimated 4,200 members. Philadelphia Drivers United responsibly split the difference, opting to hold a rally but not call a strike, as many of its constituent members were “one missed day of work away from vehicle repossession or missed medications.” Unfocused, maybe, but not openly hostile towards one another.
New York, however, had the dubious honour of being the only city to host competing rallies between labour groups — the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG) and the New York Taxi Drivers Alliance (NYTWA)—which took turns to protest in front of an Uber hub in Long Island City, Queens, rather than join together.
“As New York drivers we’re standing in solidarity with drivers all across the country,” Aaron Smith, the IDG’s director of organising, told me — apparently referring to every local grassroots group except the NYTWA.
Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of NYTWA, believed the majority of her organisation’s 10,000 members shut off their apps during their declared strike hours today, and took credit for an alleged 2.2x driver surge meant to encourage to get drivers out on the road. Citing just a 500-car dip from last week’s numbers, Uber denied the strike’s efficacy, and in fact refused to attribute the change to labour activity. Whether the strike had a meaningful impact on Uber’s business this morning or not, at least three hashtags associated with the strike on Twitter were trending across the city. Little to none of that visibility can be chalked up to the IDG, which did not strike today.
“We’ll continue to make sure that driving is a career and it’s a path to the middle class and not a path to the poverty wages that these companies want you to live in,” Brendan Sexton, the IDG’s executive director, addressed a crowd of approximately 150 drivers clad in complementary union t-shirts. The IDG, formed almost three years ago to the day, are a divisive organisation to say the least.
Formed through an arrangement between the International Association of Machinists, drivers, and Uber itself, the IDG are the only union recognised by the ridesharing platform. But their recognition hinged on signing an agreement with a no-strike clause and refusal to criticise systemic problems on the app. It’s branded them among sceptics—like the NYTWA—as Uber lackeys.
“They are paid by Uber,” Desai told me, when asked why the rallies were not coordinated. “They are a sham company union which goes against every single principle that people like us believe in, because we’re supposed to be working for the interests of the workers. We’re not supposed to be taking money from the bosses.” “We’re built by drivers and we work for drivers,” Sexton shot back. “That other group they represent, I think, medallion owners, or yellow cabs or something,” he bristled, adding incorrectly that the NYTWA “don’t really do app-based drivers yet.” The NYTWA did indeed get its start representing cabbies; no rideshare companies existed when it was founded, in 1998.
Sexton did confirm however, that the IDG does still receive money from Uber. “Like every other union contract there are contributions from the employer. Most of our funding—over 75 per cent—comes from grants, member contributions, donations, and contributions from the Machinists Union.” During Desai’s address to the media at 1 p.m. today, members of Sexton’s guild hung back with banners and whistles, sporadically interrupting speeches.
Of course, the stories from drivers in either organisation are nearly identical. “After a while, learning the kind of expenses I accumulate I was like ‘Oh, I’m making almost nothing,’” IDG member Jacky Lin told me. “Gas I’ll spend like $1,000. Insurance I’ll spend like $300. Car payments, another couple hundred.” He estimates that, with those various deductions, he takes home a little over $1,000 per month. “Lucky for me I was living at home,” Lin said, “but if it wasn’t for that I don’t think I’d be able to survive.”
Holding two printed-out sheets before a gaggle of reporters at an earlier event in front of the iconic Charging Bull statue, Inder Parmar, a NYTWA member, claimed his earnings had shrunk from $53 an hour when he began driving for Uber to just over $13 an hour now. In reference to the rash of suicides that took the lives of seven for-hire drivers, he said, “if my kids and my family didn’t support me, I would be one of the dead drivers.”
The divide between the two labour groups is largely idealogical: a hardline approach versus one that’s open to meeting the boss halfway. When I asked Lin why he’d opted to join a group that wasn’t willing (or able) to strike, a nearby staffer interrupted, noting that “obviously, if you’re at a rally, you’re not working. So if you want to call it a strike, it really doesn’t make any kind of difference.” And yet what led the spark of protest to travel from Los Angeles to multiple continents arguably wasn’t “not working,” it was the threat of a strike, and all the weight that suggests.
“We know we got to them. That’s the triumph,” Desai told reporters gathered in Queens. “We got into their heads. We messed with them. We punched back, and we showed them that we’re not afraid.”
Both groups were adamant that today’s action was just the beginning, which even Uber itself seems keenly aware of. “As we aim to reduce Driver incentives to improve our financial performance, we expect Driver dissatisfaction will generally increase,” the company wrote in its S-1 filing, setting the stage for increasingly widespread outrage. But it’s also the beginning of some very difficult coalition-building for these various national and international groups to agree on and pursue unified demands—or risk losing their own momentum to conflict and confusion.