Pasadena, Calif.—Drivers in California who work for the ridesharing apps Uber and Lyft held a 25-hour strike on March 25, protesting pay cuts. For Uber these cuts amounted to a 25% cut on March 11, and Lyft on Dec. 1 instituted a cut of 12%. Three hundred drivers and supporters rallied at the Uber hub in Redondo Beach, while in San Francisco a crowd gathered outside a hotel where Lyft was meeting with prospective investors. Drivers are independently organizing under the name Rideshare Drivers United (RSDU), which grew to more than 3,000 driver-members in the days leading up to the strike. The organizers are now consulting the membership on what demands to press for beyond reversing the pay cuts. Proposals include pay for the time and mileage spent driving toward a passenger, the ability to see the passenger’s destination in advance, group health insurance, and the creation of an independent and more transparent process to challenge driver deactivations.
Members in Los Angeles are already pushing for the same $17.22 minimum wage New York City drivers won through a series of strikes last year. (With downtime and expenses unpaid, actual hourly earnings are less than that.)
With respect to minimum wage, under state law the California Supreme Court has already classified rideshare drivers as employees, not contractors, because the “contractor” does the same business as the employer—transportation. In response, Lyft and Uber have claimed they are merely technology companies. Joss Cashon, an Uber driver, had an answer for them in Redondo Beach: “We can’t be independent contractors when we don’t negotiate our pay.” The state still has not yet enforced the Supreme Court’s April 2018 ruling against the apps, and a March 29 meeting between driver-representatives of RSDU and Governor Gavin Newsom so far hasn’t changed that.
The companies’ self-designations tend to reveal that as they release public stock—valuing their companies in billions of dollars even as trade filings say they have run on losses of up to $1 billion per year and may never be profitable—the companies and all their investors are pursuing the elusive holy grail of the self-driving sedan. Uber has abandoned its self-driving truck projects (perhaps correctly predicting the public would not abide 40 tons of steel and cargo being conveyed over the nation’s interstates as the first test for AI) as the company goes whole hog into an autonomous passenger car. Lyft is hoping to justify its lofty capitalization by getting to that windfall faster. A completely automated fleet would then mean that surplus labor would have to be extracted from a much smaller pool of workers who produce and maintain the various parts of that fleet. These workers, like all wage earners under capitalism, will be compensated at a rate lower than what that work will be worth.
It isn’t only Uber and Lyft drivers’ jobs that investment capital is excited to squeeze harder and eventually eliminate. A five-year fall in mass transit usage has been accelerated in no small part by the advent of ridesharing apps, and if that trend continues, this sector’s workforce could be in danger of shrinking. Instead of servicing a potential transit user’s “last mile” from a transit line and their doorway, an ideal the apps vigorously advertise, a study by the University of Kentucky showed that the apps remove more transit passengers than they add, as ride sharing more often replaces walking, biking, or a bus connection. Some municipalities have openly scrapped their local bus system in order to replace it with subsidized Lyft rides within city limits. Often, parents of minor schoolchildren illegally send these children alone in a rideshare instead of in a school bus, the vehicle designed and driver qualified for keeping them safe. In one of the most obvious attacks on transit systems, Uber rolled out a reduced fare for passengers that arranges for the driver to run “jitney”—in taxi parlance, a straight line down a main thoroughfare, making pickups and drop-offs along the way—in other words, a tiny transit bus.
Uber and Lyft might ultimately fail to expel all school transit and public transit jobs from the realm of social necessity. That is because the apps’ hyper-efficient focus on each individual, pair, or trio of riders adds more vehicles to the streets and highways, even while they like to claim the exact opposite. Traffic congestion in New York City has reached the point where voters will weigh in on capping the number of drivers Uber and Lyft can allow in Manhattan.
The practice of deadheading—moving while empty—exacerbates urban congestion, yet an Uber/Lyft driver cannot simply wait around at the previous destination hoping for an unlikely ride request. If that driver wants to earn more than $5-10 per hour, they have to drive back to where frequent calls can be expected to keep them in continuous service. In this way, the rideshare industry puts excessive burdens on air quality and the effort to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
Like any one of myriad threats against life on Earth, human degradation caused by dead-end, survival wage labor is just another “externality” off the balance sheets of capital. Sinakhone Keodara, quoted by NBC, said he sleeps in the car he rents directly from Lyft. “I don’t make enough to get out of my situation… I’m drowning in this gig economy.” That economy, itself a usurper of traditional employment, seems intent on its own withering away via automation. Meanwhile, workers who now move to restore labor safeguards and living wages to their “gigs” have never conceded a future possibility of dignified and freely associated work.
This author formerly drove school buses, public transit buses, and a car running Lyft rides.