By the time the New York Stock Exchange closes on Thursday, Uber—which will float its initial public offering that day—could raise $10 billion from investors across the world. Uber drivers—who, according to a recent study, earn around $9.21 an hour—won’t be so lucky.
The day before, in anticipation of the ride-sharing and technology company’s stock market debut, thousands of Uber drivers (and those with other ride-share platforms) in at least eight U.S. cities—including New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago—will switch off their apps and go on strike. The Wednesday protest, according to driver advocates, is meant to highlight the company’s low wages and bad labor practices, which have, in recent years, forced workers into homelessness, and, in some cases, even driven them to suicide. Demands vary from city to city, but include caps on the commission that Uber takes from drivers—which can take as much as 70 percent on some fares—more transparency on pricing, and an end to Uber’s practice of arbitrarily suspending drivers from the application, in effect firing them. The job action, in a sector loosely described as the “gig economy,” is the latest in a wave of strikes—the largest the country has seen since 1986—with unrest across diverse workforces including public school teachers in West Virginia, Marriott hotel workers on the West Coast, and most recently, grocery store clerks in New England.
“This strike is an immediate response to the cuts Uber has made in light of its IPO,” said Ben Dolber, an organizer with Rideshare Drivers United in Los Angeles, one of the organizations leading Wednesday’s strike. In April, Uber admitted to lowering fares and wages to prepare for its public debut. (“We expect driver dissatisfaction will generally increase,” the company’s SEC filing stated.) “Drivers are really at the brink,” Dolber said. “The amount of frustration indicates to me that the strike is going to be very successful.”
In 2018, Uber registered over 3 million drivers across 600 cities worldwide, and has an active monthly ridership of 75 million. This March, Uber notified Los Angeles drivers it would slash pay 25 percent, from 80 cents to 60 cents per mile. In response, thousands of workers across the city declared a 25-hour strike, inspiring drivers across the country. “The success of our strike in March resonated [with workers] nationally and internationally,” said Dolber. “We had drivers contacting us from across the country.”
In April, thousands of drivers in Argentina went on strike, blaring horns and marching through the streets of downtown Buenos Aires. This Wednesday, drivers from Costa Rica to Scotland to Kenya will also strike, possibly making this one of the largest days of collective worker action in history.
Uber’s business model is no secret. Like other gig economy giants, the company keeps costs low by using contract workers rather than employees. This distinction means that drivers do not receive employment benefits like health insurance, overtime pay, vacation days and sick days—all of which would cost a traditional employer this size millions of dollars. They are exempt from minimum wage laws, and cannot form independently recognized unions or negotiate their contracts. Some drivers report making as little as $3.75 an hour, and after they account for the costs of gas, oil changes, and car insurance—and other expenses that riders have come to expect like water bottles, breath mints, cell phone chargers, and seat covers—many are taking on more and more credit card debt. Nearly 20 percent of Uber drivers in Los Angeles report needing government assistance to make ends meet.
One of these drivers is Karim Bayumy, who lives in Orange County, California. Bayumy, 40, has been driving for Uber in Los Angeles since 2015. “A lot of us are definitely on food stamps or other government assistance. All of the money I make goes to bills and car maintenance and gas,” he told The New Republic. Bayumy used to be able to support his wife and two children, but recently he’s seen a “huge drop” in his paycheck. “A company that is trying to pay drivers 60 cents a mile in 2019 when gas prices are over $4 a gallon is extremely abusive.”
Bayumy will head to Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday to picket with hundreds of other drivers. He said he doesn’t know a single driver who won’t participate in the strike. “I did a ride yesterday where the rider paid $8.60, and my pay was $2.56. When you’re the driver and see that, it makes your blood boil.”
After many years of work by organizers, New York City legislators passed a law in December requiring Uber to pay the city’s 70,000 ride-share drivers at least $17.22 an hour after expenses. The ride-sharing apps Lyft and Juno filed lawsuits stating that this would put them at a competitive disadvantage with Uber, which has a larger share of the market. But now other cities like Los Angeles—particularly reliant on ride apps due to its sprawling expanses and the lack of viable public transportation options—are demanding Uber match its New York City wage.
A recent study illustrated the toll that Uber and Lyft have taken on their Los Angeles workforce, who are overwhelmingly men of color. Lucero Herrera, a researcher at UCLA’s Labor Center and one of the report’s authors, told The New Republic that she has spoken to many Uber drivers in the city who live out of their cars and have amassed large amounts of debt working for the company, essentially locking themselves into their jobs. Forty-seven percent of drivers in the city said they consistently earn less than they expected. This is especially tough when ride-hail work is not just a “gig” but the primary source of income, as it is for two-thirds of drivers. Yet given the “freelance” nature of Uber’s workforce, organizing drivers to stand up en masse is no simple task. “Organizing in a sector that doesn’t have a physical space where the drivers can interact with each other is very hard,” said Herrera. “It’s pretty remarkable they’ve built this network across the world.”
“The strike has the potential to be quite huge,” Alexandrea Ravenelle, the author of Hustle and Gig, told The New Republic. “[Uber drivers] are not given the same protections as other workers when it comes to having the opportunity to strike. They’re viewed as competitors with each other.” Ravenelle said that the gig economy has revived labor practices in the United States characteristic of the early 1900s, with few protections against union busting, workplace injuries, and other abuses that take place on the job. “I hope with this strike, drivers are able to make investors consider their labor practices before they buy Uber’s stock.”