Opinion
Susie Cagle

To get a fair share, sharing-economy workers must unionize

Uber’s disruption of taxi industry is welcome but won’t succeed without treating drivers more fairly

June 27, 2014 12:00AM ET

As he drives around San Francisco for Uber, the startup company that uses mobile apps to connect passengers with drivers for hire, Ramzi Reguii tells me about his job. He loves the flexible hours, he’s so glad to have this opportunity, he’s even impressed with Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick’s corporate vision.

Then he tells me that Uber changes its commission rates at a moment’s notice, cutting into drivers’ incomes, that the company doesn’t insure drivers when they’re doing what he is right now — looking for a fare.

“It’s just snowballing,” he says. “The public won’t do anything, the regulators won’t do anything. The only way it can be changed is by uniting the drivers together.”

Reguii recently launched the Drivers Network, a loose-knit union of drivers for Uber and Lyft (another car service) that currently boasts more than 1,000 members. “Travis Kalanick came up with an idea to change an industry that longed to be changed,” he tells me. “Guess what? This is the same thing.”

Uber’s disruption of the cab industry has been welcomed by nearly everyone except those who rely on the cab industry for their livelihoods. It’s arguably made on-demand car rides easier, cleaner, safer, more accessible and, in some cases, even cheaper.

Indeed, such disruption is overdue. The high prices of regulated taxi medallions have kept a small number of bosses in control, while drivers pay high gate fees in order to access their cars and wages. Uber is right that the traditional system is not well suited to drivers’ or customers’ needs.

But the new boss is not so different from the old boss. Uber’s revolution is not actually its technology but its market power. It has disrupted the cab industry in ways so many others can only dream of by leveraging the labor of thousands of workers who are exceptionally underprotected. That it did so at the expense of a flawed business is cold comfort to drivers like Reguii.

Only four years after the service debuted in San Francisco, Uber drivers nationwide are getting organized and demanding better treatment. And this could have huge implications for the trajectory of the peer-to-peer economy. As work changes, so will the ways workers seek to protect themselves and their livelihood.

Uber has hit the taxi industry head on.
Susie Cagle

In 2010, when Uber was barely getting its footing in San Francisco, cabbies nationwide were already knee-deep in their own attempts to disrupt the taxi industry. In the fall of 2011, the National Taxi Workers Alliance officially affiliated with the AFL-CIO — the first such contract the country’s largest labor union had forged in nearly 50 years.  

“We were just getting somewhere with taxi drivers,” says organizer and labor researcher Veena Dubal, who works with the NTWA. “The taxi industry has always been at the cutting edge of problematic shifts in work.”

In San Francisco, many cabs now sit in parking lots at peak times, and taxi drivers in Uber’s major markets report making significantly less than they were just a year ago. One cab company president said he’d be surprised if the local industry survived the next 18 months under current conditions.

Uber calls its drivers ‘partners,’ but the relationship is hardly a partnership.

Yet Uber is creating new jobs — pretty good ones, by drivers’ own accounts. 

“A lot of immigrant drivers embrace their independent contractor identity,” says Dubal. “I think this is why Uber and Lyft are so much more appealing on an individual level, even though it's worse from a regulatory standpoint.”

Many cabbies are moonlighting for Uber, or quitting their old jobs altogether. But they’re finding that their new positions are more precarious than they’d first imagined.

A comparison of Uber drivers and taxi drivers.
Susie Cagle

Uber calls its drivers “partners,” but the relationship is hardly a partnership. While drivers have some of the trappings of power — they can rate their riders, they can set their own hours — they are still very much on unequal footing.

Drivers bear the brunt of larger customer service issues, such as when Uber increases prices during high-demand “surge” periods. Riders leave their drivers ratings based on whatever they might feel like. There’s no control for discrimination. Drivers are automatically “deactivated” — fired — if they receive average ratings of less than 4.6 stars out of 5, but Uber doesn’t tell riders that they essentially control their drivers’ employment.

Regardless of their own local knowledge, drivers say they are required to use GPS or ask their passengers to direct them. Even while they are left to pay for their own insurance, maintain their own vehicles and schedule their own work, Uber strips drivers of their agency, right down to their own knowledge of their cities.

Uber exerts control, but it does not take responsibility for the workers from which it profits. It even openly resents them.

At a tech conference last month, Kalanick hinted at a cheaper, worker-free future made possible by self-driving vehicles that would eliminate the real expense of Uber: “the other dude in the car.” 

Those other dudes heard Kalanick loud and clear.

In Seattle, Los Angeles and other cities, Uber drivers are organizing with the local Teamsters to form the App-Based Drivers Association. In San Diego, Lyft and Uber drivers have reached out to their competition at United Taxi Workers for help. And a class-action lawsuit seeks to redefine Uber drivers as employees.

In the twilight of traditional organized labor power, we’ve seen unlikely grassroots organizing efforts pop up at Walmart and fast-food restaurants nationwide. But Ramzi Reguii is adamant about creating a new kind of worker network completely outside of old union institutions and without member fees. His Drivers Network has grown simply by word of mouth. Uber drivers didn’t have official physical or virtual meeting places, so they created their own on closed email lists and Facebook.

So far, they’re getting results. When Uber told San Francisco luxury black-car drivers that they would be required to purchase new vehicles or face price cuts, the Drivers Network sprang into action. It organized a protest of about 200 drivers and made concrete demands. Uber backed down.

Reguii says he was inspired by his participation in the Arab Spring in his home country of Tunisia.

“We walked out into the streets. It was as simple as that,” he says. “I want my movement to be just as simple as that.”

Uber has begun feeling heat from labor protests.
Susie Cagle

Reguii’s fight will, of course, not be as simple as that. Post-recession piecemeal work is here to stay, and many Uber “partners,” Taskrabbit “taskers” and other peer-to-peer-economy workers say they’re just happy to have some income at all. Why risk it?

“We're seeing freelancers connecting and engaging with each other in ways we couldn't have imagined even a few years ago,” says Dan Lavoie, the director of strategy at the Freelancers Union. But Reguii’s network isn’t a co-working space, a weekly gossip meet-up or a group buying club for health insurance. In that way, it represents an old-fashioned attempt to leverage the power of workers. If Uber drivers can collectively organize in a new grassroots way, it could present a new paradigm of unionizing for a new age of freelance work, and an example to independent workers in other industries.

Organized labor was on the steady decline even before the rise of the “gig economy.” But just like entrenched taxi companies, old unions have problems of their own. They’re longing for disruption.

The market has already redefined “job.” It’s time the workers redefined “union.” 

Editor's note: A previous version of this article misidentified the taxi-driver union that San Diego-area Uber and Lyft drivers are working with. We regret the error.

Susie Cagle is a journalist and illustrator in Oakland, California. She has reported on politics and technology recently for the Guardian, Medium, Wired.com and other publications.

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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