SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – Just days ahead of Silicon Valley’s most hyped mega-IPO, a group of a several hundred Uber drivers gathered in front of the company’s San Francisco headquarters and took over the street in a protest demanding fair pay, benefits, and greater transparency from the rideshare giant.
Friday (Saturday in Australia) is set to be the biggest day in Uber’s history: The company is going public and listing on the New York Stock Exchange in one of the biggest IPOs in American history. It’s by far the biggest IPO this year—a year full of Silicon Valley companies hitting the stock market. Even though the company lost over $US1 ($1) billion last quarter, its executives, engineers, and investors—including Saudi royalty—will rake in fortunes from the IPO.
But Uber drivers around the country and around the world say their own pay is falling despite working longer hours and that the company should be giving them more.
“Uber has been cutting my wages in the last two years,” Derrick Baker, a driver in Northern California, told Gizmodo at Wednesday’s strike. “Be it full time or part time, bad rates are bad rates. So we’re here at HQ asking for a living wage.”
A 2018 study found that pay for drivers of companies like Uber and Lyft had fallen 53 per cent since 2013 as a glut of new drivers joined the market. In the Bay Area, home to Uber and Silicon Valley itself, some drivers are struggling mightily to make a living. A number of drivers reportedly commute from hours away and sleep in parking lots in order to make the numbers add up.
American Uber drivers have been increasingly organised in recent years. Bringing gig workers together is a uniquely 21st-century challenge: There is no central workplace, no normal way to communicate, commiserate, and challenge management. But places like airport parking lots and Facebook groups have been fertile ground for conversations to get drivers involved.
Uber has never once sat down with the organising drivers to discuss their grievances. Last year, drivers hand-delivered a letter complaining about the company’s lack of transparency. An Uber security guard body slammed the driver with the petition outside of the company’s headquarters where Wednesday’s protest took place.
It was a sunny day in San Francisco on Wednesday when the drivers, journalists, cops, and labour organisers crowded Market Street in front of Uber’s headquarters. A brass band supporting the strike played for over an hour while workers chanted, gave speeches, and talked to journalists. It was peaceful, joyous even at times, and was a successful bid by the drivers to get a spotlight on their grievances.
A few Uber corporate employees rushed by the noon-time protest to grab lunch while many more stuck it out in the office. A few dozen watched the protest unfold from the building’s balcony, vaping and observing but not saying much.
Among those back on the street was Gordon Mar, a San Francisco city supervisor who has been raising red flags about the divide between the city’s booming tech sector and its working class.
“If you’re an Uber driver, you’re struggling to get by working 70, 80, or even 90 hours a week,” Mar said on Wednesday while standing in the middle of Market Street with drivers and other protesters in front Uber’s HQ. “We are here today because we stand in solidarity with the Uber drivers. “
Mar has been in recent talks with the city’s tech giants about how to deal with the influx of wealth occurring due to what he calls an “earthquake of IPOs” that threaten to exacerbate an already wide wealth gap in San Francisco and around Silicon Valley.
Wednesday’s worldwide strike, which also included drivers from competing ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Juno, percolated into the national political ether, gaining support from 2020 Democratic presidential candidates including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker, Representatives Tim Ryan and Eric Swalwell, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have previously supported the efforts of Uber drivers to earn a living wage.
In 2011, San Francisco began offering myriad tax breaks hoping to lure tech companies into the city. To deal with the consequences of so much wealth in one place, Mar proposes to restore tax rates to their previous levels of a 1.5 per cent payroll tax rate.
The San Francisco protest was held in concert with a handful of actions around the country and around the world. The scene at the San Francisco protest was considerably bigger than a similar action by drivers targeting Lyft before that company’s IPO in March.
As Wednesday’s strike was ongoing, Uber apparently tried to incentivise both drivers and riders to cross the picket line and do business with them anyway. Drivers reported the company was offering them bonuses while some riders say they saw discount coupons luring them to hire a ride.