Uber Drivers and Others in the Gig Economy Take a Stand

Uber Drivers and Others in the Gig Economy Take a Stand

An Uber driver cruising through a night-life district in Tampa, Fla., his car adorned with messages protesting Uber’s policies. CreditLuke Johnson for The New York Times

Last September, Dallas-area drivers for UberBlack, the company’s high-end car service, received an email informing them that they would be expected to start picking up passengers on UberX, its low-cost option.

The next day, when the policy was scheduled to go into effect, dozens of drivers caravaned to Uber’s office in downtown Dallas and planted themselves outside until company officials met with them. Many had taken out loans to buy luxury vehicles that cost upward of $35,000, and worried that the modest per-mile rate for UberX passengers would barely cover gas and wear and tear, to say nothing of their car payments.

The standoff stretched across nearly three more tense days until Uber allowed them to opt out of the policy. “They thought we were just going to give up, walk away,” said Kirubel Kebede, a leader of the group. “But we said, ‘No, this is our livelihood.’”

In the rapid growth of the online gig economy, many workers have felt squeezed and at times dehumanized by a business structure that promises independence but often leaves them at the mercy of increasingly powerful companies. Some are beginning to band together in search of leverage and to secure what they see as fairer treatment from the platforms that make the work possible.


Ryan Valentine, a former driver for Uber in Tampa, Fla., marked his vehicle with messages expressing his dissatisfaction with the company before a recent protest.CreditLuke Johnson for The New York Times
“We started realizing we’re not contractors, we’re more like employees,” said Berhane Alemayoh, one of the UberBlack drivers in Dallas. “They tell us what kind of car to drive. They kick you out if a customer accused you of not having a clean car. They started to tighten the rope. Gradually, we can’t breathe any more.”

Perhaps the most prominent effort was a measure to give ride-hailing drivers the right to unionize in Seattle, which was approved by the City Council in December.

But while many campaigns by alienated workers have shunned this more traditional labor-organizing approach, they have highlighted a basis for advancing the interests of gig economy workers collectively.

“There’s a sense of workplace identity and group consciousness despite the insistence from many of these platforms that they are simply open ‘marketplaces’ or ‘malls’ for digital labor,” said Mary L. Gray, a researcher at Microsoft Research and professor in the Media School at Indiana University who studies gig economy workers.

The efforts extend well beyond drivers for Uber and its prime competitor, Lyft. A group of couriers who find work on the platform Postmates is waging a campaign to create an “I’m done after this delivery” button because they worry that turning down jobs will affect how many future assignments they receive. (A Postmates official said turning down jobs had no effect on future work, but that the company was still sympathetic to the idea.)

The National Domestic Workers Alliance, which organizes nannies and housekeepers, recently produced what it calls the Good Work Code, which it has urged gig economy companies to adopt.

“They would be dispatched to a home that didn’t feel safe, but would be hesitant to exit themselves from that situation because it might affect their ratings,” said Palak Shah, the alliance official leading the effort, citing one of several issues that the Good Work Code is intended to address. A handful of firms, like Managed by Q, LeadGenius and CareLinx, have embraced the guidelines.

Similarly, a group of workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, where people post and accept piecework assignments, in 2014 developed extensive guidelines — including recommended pay and the need to provide timely responses to questions — for academics who use the platform for research purposes. More than 60 academics have signed on to date.

Though the so-called Turkers tend to value the flexibility and independence of freelancing and often reject the idea of a traditional union, many have also developed a kind of working-stiff identity. “I’ve heard them say Jeff Bezos is their boss — we’re workers here,” said Niloufar Salehi, a Stanford Ph.D. student who spent a year immersed in Turker forums to help the workers organize.

By contrast, sellers of goods on digital marketplaces like eBay and Etsy rarely think of themselves as employees. In their minds, they say, they are independent artisans and shopkeepers.

“Etsy is the place where the shop exists, where I pay rent,” said Sandie Russo, a longtime seller of hand-knit accessories and knitting patterns who once ran an online forum in which sellers helped one another address common problems. “It’s definitely that you’re an entrepreneur, not a worker.”

Like the Etsy shopkeepers, many Uber drivers began their relationship with the company thinking of themselves as self-employed.

“There is that sense initially,” said Harry Campbell, a longtime Uber driver who runs a popular blog and podcast about ride-hailing. “But as time goes on, it wears off. You start to see that Uber does control a lot of aspects of the work.”

Unlike sellers on eBay or Etsy, Uber drivers cannot set the prices they charge. They are also constrained by the all-important rating system — maintain an average of around 4.6 out of 5 stars from customers in many cities or risk being deactivated — to behave a certain way, like not marketing other businesses to passengers.

The experience of the Dallas UberBlack drivers is telling. When Uber entered Dallas in 2012, many of the drivers were either independent hired-car operators or contractors for limousine companies who bought or leased their own cars.

“Some had their own business, they were fine with the business,” Mr. Alemayoh said. “They just used Uber as a complement.”

The drivers formed a tactical alliance with the company to help it gain the city’s approval, which local cab operators resisted. Mr. Alemayoh even sang Uber’s praises in testimony before the Houston City Council, after the company asked him to speak there as part of its expansion efforts. “I said it’s fair to drivers to have Uber,” he recalled. “I spoke on their behalf, they didn’t pay me.”

But the relationship began to sour in 2014, when the company decreed that drivers with cars made before 2008 would no longer be able to participate in UberBlack.

“We said, ‘You guys are affecting so many families,’” said Mr. Kebede, a leader of a group called the Association of Limousine Owners and Operators of Dallas Fort Worth, formed the previous year. Uber extended the grace period by several months in some cases but did not reverse the policy.

By the time Uber handed down its UberX directive in September, the drivers had long since recognized that they were at the company’s beck and call. Because of Uber’s popularity, almost all their other sources of business had dried up. And Uber had earned the imprimatur of the City Council, which made the drivers politically expendable, too.

So it was something of a surprise that the drivers’ association, which represents about 500 of the 2,000 to 3,000 black-car drivers it believes are active in the Dallas area, was able to push Uber not only to scale back the UberX change, but also to reinstate several of the drivers it had deactivated for pressuring fellow drivers as the showdown escalated.

Some continue to be deactivated for what they feel are arbitrary reasons, which Uber maintains are unrelated to the protest (“Drivers have the right to free expression and we respect that,” said a company representative). But to the extent that the Dallas drivers have been successful, one crucial advantage is that they were able to organize in person rather than depend exclusively on the Internet and social media.

That also helps explain the success of the campaign in Seattle, where Uber had previously reversed a rate cut after facing pressure from drivers. (Uber maintains that the reversal was unrelated.) “The drivers have gone out and talked to each other,” said Dawn Gearhart, a spokeswoman in the area for the Teamsters union, which provides support services to local drivers. “Every time they would call a meeting, a couple hundred people would show up.”

Since the beginning of the year, drivers in cities like New York and San Francisco have relied on a similar local focus to organize protests over rate cuts. Hundreds of drivers descended on Uber’s headquarters in Queens on Monday to demand that the old rates be restored.

In the Tampa area, drivers have protested cuts that brought rates down to 65 cents a mile from 95 cents as of early January, and from $1.20 as recently as last spring. Net earnings for drivers there can come perilously close to subminimum wage rates on a 15- to 20-minute trip in town once they factor in pickup and wait times and the cost of gas, depreciation and maintenance.

“We sometimes lower prices in a city to get more people using Uber,” said an Uber representative. “As we have always said, price cuts need to work for drivers. If they do not, we will roll them back.”

In response, the Tampa area drivers started a weekly logout of an hour or two during peak periods for weekend revelers. During that time, they write messages on their windows about what they consider unlivable wages. The group has grown rapidly to a network of 700 drivers who communicate via an app-based walkie-talkie service called Zello.

The Tampa drivers’ goal is to enlist Uber’s most politically valuable asset — legions of customers who have grown dependent on the service — to help send a message to Uber. Over time, they hope to extend the logouts to several hours, perhaps even a full day on the weekend.

“It’s a little blip on Uber’s radar,” said Josh Streeter, one of the leaders. “But then people might believe they have the power. That if they band together, they could pull off a bigger action.”