Uber drivers protest outside of Uber's office in Santa Monica, California in 2014.
Uber drivers have long protested working conditions. Here, drivers demonstrate outside Uber's Santa Monica office in 2014. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

As Uber and Lyft prepare for IPOs, Los Angeles ride-share drivers turned off their apps Monday to fight for higher wages and fairer treatment.

Updated: March 26, 2019

For 25 hours Monday, hundreds of Los Angeles ride-share drivers turned off their apps in protest of low wages. Though both Uber and Lyft drivers participated in the movement, members of the L.A. organizing group Rideshare Drivers United said the strike was catalyzed by Uber’s recent decision to reduce per-mile pay in Los Angeles County and parts of Orange County by 25 percent.

The timing of the strike was bad news for the ride-hail companies: Both are preparing for an IPO, with Lyft’s public offering expected to open at a $23 billion valuation as soon as Friday. But among ride-hail drivers across the country, frustration has been mounting for awhile—and with it, organizing momentum. After New York City successfully passed a ride-hail driver minimum wage of $17.22 per hour last year, more drivers across the country have been asking: Why not us?

"The driving experience in general has been getting worse and worse over time,” said Karim Bayumi, a driver and an organizer with Rideshare Drivers United with whom CityLab connected over phone through the organization’s press team. When asked which ride-hail company he worked for, Bayumi scoffed. “I do both, Uber and Lyft,” he said. “But technically I’m not ‘working’ for them, according to them.”

Instead, Uber and Lyft drivers are considered independent contractors, who use the company’s apps to connect with customers. That classification gives them the flexibility to work when they want, Uber and Lyft have argued; but it also exempts them from getting paid time-off and benefits, and makes forming a union and holding traditional strikes tricky.

Instead, ride-share drivers in many cities have banded together online and within informal organizing groups. Rideshare Drivers United has been organizing in Los Angeles since 2017, when it held two strikes at Los Angeles International Airport to protest a driver pay cut. In January, the group rallied at Governor Gavin Newsom’s office in Los Angeles, presenting him with their rideshare drivers’ Bill of Rights. Now, the group has 3,000 active members—in a city with an estimated 30,000 people driving for ride-share companies full-time—and Bayumi says more join the coalition each day. In New York City, the Independent Drivers’ Guild advocates for the 70,000 ride-hail drivers in New York City, as an affiliate of the Machinists Union.

Organizers with Rideshare Drivers United started planning Monday’s action two weeks ago, responding to Uber’s decision to reduce per-mile fares from 80 cents to 60 cents—months after the company raised rates from 60 to 80 in September 2018. Uber says it’s now reversing the move to put its fares more in line with other ride-share companies, and that it expects the net effect of this 25 percent cut will mean that average driver earnings will return to the same level as before the September increase. Uber also noted that it increased its per-minute rate again on March 11. Lyft, meanwhile, has not changed driver rates in the city of L.A. for 12 months.

Uber drivers and riders in Mexico at a protest in 2016. A sign reads: "Uber, fair pay to my 5 stars service.” (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

Though the strike was galvanized around Uber’s pay cut, it’s not the only thing drivers for both companies are protesting. Rideshare Drivers United has also demanded that the state cap ride-share company commission at 10 percent for each fare, according to ABC 7.

“If they reverse that pay cut, it’s not going to make everything okay,” said Bayumi. “But it’s going to definitely be better than right now, because that’s just not realistic.” He noted that with Uber’s commission fees and personal gas expenses, drivers are now barely making $40 on a 50-mile trip. “Taxis were getting more than that in the ‘70s,” he said.

But another underlying concern is that, as more and more drivers join the platforms, some drivers are making less and having to work longer. “With the rates being so low, the only way to survive is to be constantly chasing surges,” Bayumi said, referring to rides taken during certain high-demand times that earn drivers higher rates. Many riders in L.A. don’t tip, he says.

Lyft says that most of their drivers use the platform as a temporary source of extra money, and that flexibility is key to the platform users’ success. “In fact, 91% drive fewer than 20 hours a week and many use Lyft as a supplemental option in addition to full-time work,” said a spokesperson for Lyft. “We are always open to conversations around how we can make Lyft better for drivers, but what we hear from the majority is that this is a flexible option that works for them."

But because these platforms experience such frequent turnover, Bayumi says, there’s an incentive to reward new drivers with new driver promotions, and fewer for long-term drivers. “That’s another reason that they treat drivers with a bit of disregard,” he said: “Because the way they’re thinking about it is, it’s okay if we lose some.”

To reduce this surplus—in addition to un-clogging the streets and returning business to taxi drivers—New York City has attempted to tamp down on the number of drivers on the streets at a time, instituting a year-long cap on vehicle licenses for new ride-hail drivers last August, at the same time it passed its minimum wage rules. The cap was framed as a temporary one, set to be enforced for 12 months as the city completed a study of the effects of ride-hail on the city. But in February, fearing New York City mayor Bill de Blasio would make it permanent, Uber filed a lawsuit in the hopes of overturning the cap in advance of its expiration. Especially with a new minimum wage in place, Uber said, it wanted new drivers to be able to take advantage of the raise. The suit is still ongoing.

In response to driver, rider, and media criticism, Uber has doubled down on its driver-friendly image. It has rolled out and expanded an Uber Pro feature in 10 markets, which delivers promotions like free tuition to an online college program and focuses on rewarding long-time drivers; and the company recently added extra promotions for Los Angeles drivers.

“Drivers told us that they value promotion opportunities, so we’re introducing a new Quest promotion feature, while also changing the per minute, per mile, and minimum fare rates,” said an Uber spokesperson. “These changes will make rates comparable to where they were in September, while giving drivers more control over how they earn by allowing them to build a model that fits their schedule best.”

Lyft, often framed as Uber’s friendlier foe, also highlighted its driver-friendly status in its S-1 IPO prospectus, under the section “Why Lyft Wins.” But the company has also been called out as hypocritical by the Independent Drivers Guild and city council members, after Lyft filed a lawsuit in February fighting New York City’s ride-hail minimum wage.

“It is like a punch in the gut to us, the drivers who helped build this company, that Lyft stood in court suing to block higher wages at the same time as they moved toward an IPO at a $23 billion valuation,” said Lyft driver and Independent Drivers Guild member Tina Raveneau in a statement. Lyft argued that calculating the minimum wage based on how frequently cars are filled would advantage Uber, while resulting in higher fares and reducing service to low-trafficked areas—but it agreed to pay the increased wages while waiting for a court decision. On March 18, a judge denied Lyft's motion for an injunction, and a final written decision will be issued by April.

The toll of gig driving goes deeper than financial stress, however, drivers say. At least nine for-hire drivers have taken their lives in New York City in a little over a year. Many of them were yellow cab drivers, who likely paid at least $1 million for their official taxi medallions, and who told family members they had been steadily losing wages due to the flood of app-based drivers on the streets. But ride-share drivers have been affected, too. In October, a New York Uber driver died after jumping in front of a subway car. And just last week, a Lyft driver took his own life in the back of his car. He was worried about finances, an Independent Drivers Guild source confirmed.

“I want to say it’s a job, but it’s not a job—it’s more of a game that we’re playing, and they’re playing with us,” said Bayumi.

Being on call through a connected device is psychologically taxing, says Alex Rosenblat, a tech ethnographer and the author of Uberland. “Gig economy Uber/Lyft jobs are the kind you can login and logout of at will, technically, but in practice drivers get lots of notices to login when premium or incentive pricing is in effect,” she said in an email. “If the base rates are lowered, dependent earners are more reliant on the scheduling demands of premium wage offers, which can effectively recreate the conditions of on-call shift work.”

Bayumi agreed. “Sometimes people feel like they’re losing their mind.” Some drivers have driven so long they’ve fallen asleep on the road; others deal with harassment from passengers. “I believe there’s going to be a new profession of ride-share therapy pretty soon,” he said.

Already, that field is emerging. To combat the growing mental health crisis, drivers in New York have formed support groups where they meet with a therapist and discuss experiences with violence and harassment. Bayumi says Rideshare Drivers United serves a similar role in L.A. At frequent orientation meetings for new members, drivers share stories from the road. “It’s like a venting session where everyone tells their story and lets it out,” he said. “You can see the relief—they can see that other drivers in the room are feeling their pain and can relate to their story as well.”

Strikes like this also allow drivers to feel heard, and strengthen coalitions across platforms, and across cities. On Monday, San Francisco drivers protested in solidarity, outside a hotel where Lyft investors planned to meet in advance of the company’s IPO.

But without unions or employee status, it is hard for drivers to affect systemic change, says Rosenblat, even if the companies respond to their demands. (As of Monday night, Uber had not contacted Rideshare Drivers United. Uber did not comment to CityLab on whether they had reached out.)

“The ridehail companies have been trying to build trust and goodwill with drivers, often by designing features that they like, such as Uber’s destination filter. But none of these features changing are the result of a collective bargaining process,” Rosenblat said in an email. “There is no guarantee that the improvements drivers experience in the short term will be there in the longer term.” Rates can be raised one month and cut a few months later—indeed, that’s what Uber did this year.

“It’s a workplace where your livelihood is subjected to constant experiments, including on pay,” she continued. “The absence of bargaining power becomes particularly evident at moments of strike, but the underlying issue is that the ridehail companies have unilateral power to implement changes that affect pay, which they perennially do.”

Ultimately, pushing policymakers to regulate the ride-hail companies is more central to Rideshare Drivers United’s plans than asking either Uber or Lyft to reform themselves. In New York City, ride-hail driver pay rules were pushed through with the support of city council member Brad Lander, council speaker Corey Johnson, and Mayor de Blasio; bolstering advocacy and policy-making efforts from the Independent Drivers Guild and the Taxi & Limousine Commission. Already, presidential hopeful and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has tweeted in support of the L.A. drivers’ movement, and drivers hope California lawmakers will start paying attention, too.

“We are the core of that business,” said Bayumi. “If they don’t have the drivers, who’s going to give all these rides? It’s not fair. It has to change.”

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