Bhairavi Desai of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance protests Uber and its investors by the Wall Street charging bull
Image: Getty

On Wednesday, drivers for Uber, Lyft, and lesser-known services like Via and Juno will sign out of their apps and stop picking up passengers as part of a global strike against these companies’ abysmal treatment of drivers. The duration of these strikes will vary from city to city, and workers in Los Angeles, London, New York, and other cities across the globe are each bringing their own demands to their digital dispatchers—higher pay, better benefits, no more driver deactivations.

This is not the first collective action against Uber and Lyft: Drivers in Los Angeles went on strike in March, and in New York, #deleteUber trended in 2017, after Uber drivers were accused of crossing the picket lines at John F. Kennedy airport, where taxi drivers had gone on strike to protest Trump’s immigration ban. But the size and scale of Wednesday’s action suggests that labor organizing—especially in the tech industry, and especially among people classified as temporary workers or independent contractors—isn’t slowing down. It’s one example of how gig-economy workers can hit companies in Silicon Valley where it hurts: by cutting off access to their easily disposable workforce.

The Uber and Lyft strike comes just a few days before Uber’s much anticipated IPO, which is expected to earn a $90 billion valuation. In New York, drivers went on strike for two hours during the morning rush hour. Jezebel spoke to Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which counts app drivers as well as yellow cab drivers as members, ahead of the strike to talk about what lessons Wednesday’s strike holds for the broader labor movement.

JEZEBEL: What are drivers hoping to win in this strike?

BHAIRAVI DESAI: Well, first of all, it’s to upend a business model that has unleashed so much poverty across the driver workforce. Driving was once considered a full-time job where you could earn a family-sustaining income. You still worked really long hours and it’s a very dangerous job, but as a movement, we were on our way to winning significant protections for drivers. And then these companies came in with a business model that’s aimed at turning a full-time job into a part-time gig; where it used to be two drivers could make a living off one car, now one driver barely can make a living off one car.

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We want to send Uber and its Wall Street investors a message that we’re going to keep up our agitation and strikes until the business model recognizes its fundamental flaws. So concretely, we want drivers to come out of poverty and to win job security.

As ubiquitous as Uber and Lyft are, I think a lot of people don’t know about the conditions drivers are working under. In the beginning, the pitch from Uber and Lyft was that drivers could really be their own boss and be in charge of their own schedule, but now, as you’re saying, it’s harder and harder for people working the same hours to make a living. Could you talk about why that is?

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There is a JP Morgan Chase report which found that drivers’ incomes were cut in half in 2017 compared to what they earned in 2013. Every time we’ve demanded better pay, Uber and Lyft respond with, ‘Well, this income is meant to be supplemental.’ I mean, and that’s in their justification—they justify their poverty pay by saying, ‘Well, you should really be working multiple jobs, and this should just be one of them on the side.’ Meanwhile, especially in a place like New York, 60 percent of drivers work full-time. This is their only job. Across the country, drivers are solely responsible for the costs for the vehicle and they take all of the risks and they reap none of the rewards. So even when the price of rides goes up, that money doesn’t trickle down to the driver. If you had an accident, or if you have a medical emergency and you lose time from work, there’s no real compensation. Meanwhile, while studies have found that drivers not only earn half of what they used to, but that also the vast majority barely make minimum wage, Uber is vying for a $90 billion valuation. You know, I just, I don’t know... we used to call Uber Walmart on wheels, but Walmart seems like Uber-lite at this point.

In terms of how they treat their workers, you mean?

Well, in terms of how much support they have gotten from the political structure and investors, despite how dismal the working conditions are. It’s like, what are you contributing to society when you just lead masses of people to poverty?

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Uber really, really, really doesn’t want to call drivers their employees, calling them names like “driver-partners” instead. This is an ongoing legal battle state by state—I know New York, for example, ruled drivers are Uber’s employees in 2017. What’s next for app drivers? Is it enough to win better pay, or do they want to be recognized as employees as well?

So New York made that ruling in terms of unemployment insurance, and that case was brought by one of our members, who was found to be unemployed by the Department of Labor because he was earning poverty wages. But to even get to that ruling, we first had to sue our governor because he was basically trying to hold up Uber drivers’ claims. The Department of Labor told one of our members that his case—and the case of every Uber driver—was under executive review. At the same time, the governor was also looking to expedite a deregulation bill in New York state, which would have given Uber explicit exemption from the state’s taxi and for-hire vehicle laws. So Uber has always been clear that they see drivers as expendable, that they see drivers as liabilities, that they see drivers’ poverty and even their suicides as, you know, collateral damage.

Picket near Penn Station in 2007
Image: AP

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Oh, wow.

In the S1 filing, Uber mentions [driver] suicides to say—they’re letting the investors know that one of Uber’s liabilities is that the company also gets bad press when there have been suicides. As if the collateral damage here is their bad press. 

It’s so dystopian.

Oh my god. It is so dystopian. You know, the thing is, when Uber started, they did use fancy speak; they called drivers “partners”; they packaged themselves a social justice mission. It was like, pre-resistance warriors. [laughs]

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Because they were touting the benefits of being your own boss and stuff like that?

Or more like, they said they would fix the historical problems in the taxi industry. They’ve been really savvy on social media. They would even give funding to local non-profits. And so they packaged themselves as members of the 99 percent. [laughs] Meanwhile, they’re financed by Wall Street and all along, were looking for the highest valuation in recent history. So I think that packaging backfired. There were people who had faith in them, who thought that this was going to be a socially conscious company.

And we really had to fight that. They presented themselves as innovators and visionaries with this progressive bent and so even in the labor circles, we had to fight through this wall of support that was built around them. In the beginning, it was harder because they would offer bonuses to drivers to sign up. In the summer of 2015, Uber defeated an effort to cap the number of [for-hire] vehicles [in New York City]. Then in February 2016, they decided to cut drivers’ rates. They said drivers would earn less per fare, but they would be getting more passengers—in other words, drivers would work more for less. Every driver knew that, and that was really the beginning of the race to the bottom for the drivers in New York City.

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The word “partner” is also so slippery, because these decisions clearly weren’t made with drivers’ input. So they’re being sidelined by however Uber decides to tweak their business model.

Uber has been saying that they expect driver dissatisfaction to grow, as they end the incentive programs and cut driver pay. They’ve also touted that they’re [switching] to driverless cars. After Lyft’s IPO, analysts said Lyft needs to move more into driverless cars. For both the architects of Uber and Lyft, and for their Wall Street investors, drivers have always been seen as a liability that they can’t wait to replace.

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In New York City, they’ve signed up like, 85,000 drivers. What would it mean to release a workforce for 85,000 back into the economy? The only reason they’d do it is because they could make more of a profit if they take the driver out of the front seat. Travis Kalanick once said the only thing that costs him any money is that guy in the front seat.

I wanted to ask why the NYTWA is standing with app drivers and how you see the taxi drivers’ fight aligned with Uber and Lyft drivers’ fight.

The Taxi Workers Alliance was founded by yellow cab drivers. But as our yellow cab members started driving for Uber and Lyft over the last five years, they kept their union membership. We see ourselves as a good old traditional, industrial union. We’re looking to create good jobs in the industry that we represent. You have to take on the biggest company in that industry because they set the standard. Back in 1998 when we first started, the name “taxi” meant only yellow cabs. But whether you drive a yellow cab or a green cab, or for Uber or Lyft, you’re a taxi driver. You’re certainly not a tech worker.

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Albany, NY in 2016
Image: AP

Drivers typically work alone; they might not interact with a ton of other drivers in a day or have a common office space. How do you overcome that barrier when you’re organizing? Were there other examples of gig-economy workers organizing that you could point to and say, “This worked.”

We’ve been organizing taxi drivers for 23 years, so we know examples of taxi driver organizing that have been successful and there really is no difference as far as organizing is concerned. Ten years ago, word of our strikes would spread among drivers at red lights, where they would pass flyers to each other. Now word passes even faster because drivers take a photo of the flyer and send it immediately to their WhatsApp groups or post it on Facebook.

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Workers intuitively know that strikes are the hardest decisions they take but also the most powerful. We certainly flexed that muscle with yellow cab drivers throughout the years. And the Tech Workers Coalition was so inspiring. When workers go out on strike, it’s always the same set of issues. As much as it’s about the economics of poverty and exploitation, it’s also about the indignities. We saw through both the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter a collective sense of people, especially poor people, being fed up. And there is really is something visceral about working for a company that has worked so far to create a glossy image for itself, when you know all of the cruelty that is behind the scenes.

I know these tech companies can sometimes feel like they’re untouchable and they sort of get to decide their next move unilaterally—how do you then keep perspective and where do you see this organizing heading?

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I’m really hopeful about the future. We went public with the news of our strike in New York City five days ago, and the response we’ve gotten from drivers has been so promising. I’m an old fashioned organizer, I believe that power fundamentally lies in the workers, and the thing that gives me hope and promise is when workers rise up. It doesn’t depend on how the company responds. Ultimately, it’s all about how the workers stand up for themselves and so, I just, I think our victory is inevitable. I really believe that.