Uber Drivers Protest Rejection Of Labor Law That Would Extend Protections To Millions

Nov 6, 2019
Originally published on November 6, 2019 7:50 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Uber drivers showed up at the homes of the company's big investors today, but they weren't picking up passengers. The drivers were there to protest how the ride-hailing company has made a few people incredibly rich, while some drivers struggle to make a living wage.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Uber, Uber, you're no good.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Pay your drivers like you should.

CHANG: NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond was there, and she joins us now. Hey, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what did it look like out there today?

BOND: Well, drivers were out protesting Uber investors. There were a couple dozen at a Google office in San Francisco, where I caught up with them. Google has an investment arm that was an early backer of Uber. They were also at the home of Bill Gurley, a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, and at one of the Uber co-founder's mansions in Beverly Hills.

CHANG: Oh, they were all over the place.

BOND: All over the place. And what they say is they want these protests to highlight this big gap they see between these investors, who've reaped huge profits from Uber, and the drivers who actually make up Uber's labor force. And many of them feel they've been left behind as the company has gotten bigger and bigger.

I spoke with Jeff Perry. He's been driving for Uber and rival Lyft for almost four years. And he drove down from Sacramento to San Francisco with a homemade sign.

JEFF PERRY: Yeah, so it says, value stolen does not equal value added. And that's very true. You know, what they've done is they've stolen my value, and they've stolen a million other Uber drivers' value by underpaying us, undercutting us.

CHANG: They've stolen my value. What is at the heart of that sentiment?

BOND: Well, he says there's just too big of a gap between what he earns and the money that Uber's early investors are making. And today is the first day that early Uber investors and employees can sell their stock in the company since the - since it went public back in May. These early investors are expected to do really well. They got into Uber at a really low price, and now they're able to cash out.

And Perry says that's unfair 'cause drivers like him have seen their income go down. He says when he first started driving, he was making around $1,500 a week. But now...

PERRY: Now there's no way - I mean, I can't drive enough to actually get that number.

BOND: He says that's because Uber has cut the rates it pays drivers. His expenses have gone up. And there's just so many more drivers on the road now. And that might be good for Uber, but it's made things really hard for individual drivers.

CHANG: So what are the drivers specifically asking for?

BOND: They say they want better treatment from Uber and the other gig economy companies. They say, look; you know, we are the ones who make your business possible, and you should be treating us like employees. And remember, up until now, Uber and some of these other companies - they consider their drivers independent contractors.

CHANG: Right.

BOND: That costs them - it costs them a lot less, right? They don't have to pay for benefits like overtime or workers' comp or a guaranteed minimum wage. And the drivers have been protesting about this, and it's worked. California passed a law that could force these companies to treat workers as employees. Drivers say that getting that law passed was a really big first step, but now they are up to their next fight, which is turning those promises into reality.

CHANG: OK. So how has Uber been responding to all of this so far?

BOND: They've pushed back really strongly at the idea that this law will apply to them and means they have to treat their drivers as employees. They said they'll challenge it in court. And you know, these companies are also going to take the fight to voters here in California. Uber and Lyft and a food delivery app called DoorDash are funding a ballot initiative. They're spending $90 million on this ballot initiative that would give drivers some benefits but exempt the companies from the new labor law. That was unveiled just last week.

The drivers are really unhappy about it. But the companies are going to fight back hard because ultimately, it would cost them a lot more if they had to count these drivers as employees. And remember, both Uber and Lyft are still losing a lot of money.

CHANG: That's NPR's Shannon Bond. Thanks, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.