Evelyn Hockstein / Polaris

Uber drivers must listen to Diplo and like it

Uber’s success is entirely based on controlling and exploiting its drivers

December 2, 2014 2:00AM ET

Last week the car-sharing app Uber began offering users the chance to ride with celebrity artists-turned-drivers like Diplo and Matt & Kim to promote its new partnership with the digital music service Spotify. Uber’s newest initiative will, according to the company, allow customers “to control the soundtrack from the backseat” and make it “your show.”

Though the development may be an extra convenience for customers, it underscores how Uber’s business model ignores the needs of its drivers, depriving them of their musical preferences during their long, poorly compensated shifts.

Now with just a few clicks on their Uber app, riders around the world will soon be able to change the music and pump up the volume without having to say a word to the human being driving two feet in front of them.

The sudden imposition of the Spotify partnership shows just how little power Uber drivers have over their own work — a reality that flies in the face of the small business partner relationship Uber claims to have with its drivers. Though he doesn’t seem particularly concerned by it, Tech Crunch journalist John Constine notes that Uber’s surprise rollout may result in more canceled rides, a cost that drivers will have to eat themselves:

Until then, perhaps the worst part of the integration is that not all drivers have it, and you won’t know if your driver does until they confirm you ride. That could lead passengers to cancel on drivers without Spotify if they were really hoping to rock out. This problem will solve itself with time, though.

But let’s pretend Uber did care enough to help their drivers integrate this new system smoothly — a sensitivity that Uber executives rarely seem to exhibit. Such generosity would not change the fact that Uber’s executives in Silicon Valley have designed a ruthlessly efficient automated system to silence and control its workforce.

Uber drivers live in perpetual fear of being “deactivated” for failing to maintain a high enough average satisfaction rating (generally anything below a 4.7 out of 5). Like waitresses in the restaurant industry at the mercy of their customer’s tipping proclivities, drivers are forced to engage in emotional labor, putting up with poor treatment and harassment to maintain impeccable ratings. Through this remote surveillance system, drivers are implicitly forced, for example, to police themselves when talking about their experience with Uber so as not to upset their powerful riders.

But the customers are not the only ones deciding drivers’ fates. Uber’s management team in Silicon Valley skims 20 percent off every ride and often slashes fares whenever it feel like it in order to undercut traditional taxi competitors and to maintain market share against its fierce rival Lyft.

For a company valued at $18 billion, the 20 percent cut Uber takes from its workers is ludicrous.

As Avi Asher-Schapiro explains in Jacobin, this completely top-down decision-making process stems from the fact that Uber drivers are classified as independent contractors, not employees of Uber, putting workers into competition with one another and making collective action difficult. When Uber drivers have had the courage to speak out individually, management has hit them hard.

Last August, for example, Uber driver Christopher J. Ortiz received a deactivation notice from Uber for tweeting, according to Uber operations manager John Hamby, “hateful statements” about the company through social media. Ortiz tweeted, “Driving for Uber, not much safer than driving a taxi” — a comment he made linking to a Pando Daily article describing a rash of gunpoint robberies of Uber drivers since the company’s launch.

If Uber monitors its drivers’ Twitter accounts so closely that they cannot even tweet about fellow drivers’ being held at gunpoint, what hope do they have of asking for better working conditions, whether about objecting to the new Spotify partnership or top-down fare cuts?

As this harsh reality has become more apparent, Uber drivers across the country have begun mobilizing collectively. In Los Angeles, Seattle, London and San Francisco, workers have formed drivers’ associations. Most strikingly, in New York, Uber premium drivers successfully leveraged the possibility of a strike to force Uber to back down from its threat to deactivate them for not wanting to pick up lower-rate UberX customers.

So does Uber’s management really deserve the power it has? It runs an app that connects passengers to drivers and raises capital to expand its model around the world. Much of this could be done without it — and far cheaper. For a company valued at $18 billion, the 20 percent cut Uber takes from its workers is ludicrous, as is its complete discretion over fare rates, which determine how long Uber drivers, not executives, have to spend out on the road.

As one Uber driver said to Buzzfeed, “Uber is not a company. It’s an application. The value of Uber, it’s our value. We are Uber. ” But trapped between customers and those calling the shots at Uber, drivers are just sitting along for the ride. Hopefully, the people they pick up will turn on something from the backseat other than Diplo.

George Joseph is an education and labor reporter based in New York City. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin and Feministing.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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