On Super Bowl Sunday afternoon, hundreds of Uber drivers, outfitted against the chill in winter coats and hats, descended on a modest bandshell in Forest Park, Queens. They came to hear from the the Uber Drivers Network, a 4,000-strong Facebook group of workers, about how best to stand up to the company they work for, and they didn't seem to mind the cold. Some had been present at a similar gathering two years ago, when the bleachers were much more sparsely filled.
Organizer Abdul Diallo warmed up the crowd, shouting because he couldn't get a permit for a megaphone on such short notice. The meeting had come together in about 24 hours, after the group heard San Francisco drivers were planning a local strike linked to the game, which took place in nearby Santa Clara, California.
“Uber didn’t have any ads until Lyft came to town,” Diallo called out from the edge of the stage. “It was you who did the work for them for free. We called our friends and relatives and told them to join this company, and this is the exact thing we can do to bring them down.”
The drivers cheered.
“If we can build them up, we can destroy them, too."
More cheers. Workers held signs that read, “We made Uber millions. Uber wants to make us homeless,” and “NO DRIVERS = NO UBER. It’s that simple…”
The bandshell and parking lot in Forest Park, Queens on Super Bowl Sunday afternoon.
The turnout in Forest Park was the largest in the history of Uber, according to organizers, following record protests in New York last week and San Francisco last weekend. The surge (as it were) of organization has been attributed to an increase in the total driver base, anger over recent rate cuts by Uber HQ, and momentum built up from other on-demand organization efforts. Union reps and local legislators are taking note.
But even as strikers gain traction, and tensions with management rise, drivers have yet to form a sizable union or independent worker center. One reason for this is structural: drivers are locked into a software-based platform where organizing is virtually impossible, with built-in financial rewards for scabs (that is, workers who break ranks to work during a strike) and no channels for horizontal communication between workers. It's the classic union-busting playbook in action — only it's the architecture of the workplace.
In San Francisco on Sunday, Uber offered drivers a $40/hour fare guarantee for the two hours before and after the Super Bowl to ensure a steady supply of rides. The company had paid a lot (some reports estimate as much as $500,000) for exclusive rights as the official transit provider for the event, and it was an investment they took measures to protect.
One driver, Michael, who had heard some drivers might be striking around the game, said he drove the two hours from Sacramento to San Francisco solely to take advantage of potential Super Bowl income. "I came here to make a buck, not make a point,” he told BuzzFeed News, when asked if he was planning on striking. An Uber spokesperson confirmed there was little disruption to service throughout the day, attributing surge pricing in the hours after the game to increased demand.
This is one of the biggest challenges for would-be agitators inside Uber: Surge pricing, in which workers are paid higher rates when there’s a shortage of drivers on the road (as determined by an algorithm), financially incentivizes workers to break ranks and offer their services.
Historically, and in other industries, when workers strike, employers have had to take on the logistical challenge of employing a new workforce willing to cross a picket line, putting time and resources into finding new bodies and offering dramatically higher pay. If the strike is a wildcat or comes as a surprise — like Sunday’s Super Bowl action — that challenge can be significant.
With Uber, though, the app’s network of drivers (which includes part-timers) can be alerted right away, via text or email, of higher rates or guaranteed fares on offer (like Sunday’s $40/hr in San Francisco). And as knowledge of strikes doesn’t necessarily reach the entire driver base — in New York, Uber has a fleet of 35,000 drivers — many don’t even take on the question of whether they are breaking ranks by working.
Others chase the surge, actively checking online postings during protests or loosely coordinated strikes, in the hopes of picking up higher fares, drivers say. During big events, like New Year’s Eve or the Super Bowl, this seems normal (though customers cry price-gouging). During a strike, conscious surge-chasing demonstrates a workforce divided or out of step.
Which speaks to the other central challenge to drivers attempting to organize: communication. While Uber corporate transmits information rapidly and easily to workers who use the app, drivers have no central dispatch (whether a physical location or a radio network) to communicate with one another. In a network that's diffuse and digitally managed, there’s no physical picket line to cross, and none of the shame of looking your fellow proletariat in the eye as you do it. (Though New York drivers have approximated this tactic by focusing on airport pick-ups.)
Finally, on-demand workers face a different set of calculations when considering a strike from full-time employees. While 1099ers get fewer benefits, the much-touted flexibility of independent contracting can lead to a workforce of more casual, less loyal workers. It's harder to find a new job when the one steel mill in town is underpaying you than it is when you can literally just open another app (say Lyft, Gett, or Via). And with other gigs or gig-economy employers available, drivers may be less invested in reforming a single company.
But there’s evidence that's changing. Between Facebook groups, Twitter, and still-in-development driver-owned apps, more Uber workers than ever before are taking part in collective action. Uber Drivers United in San Francisco have been using a secret Viber group to communicate during labor actions, and the Uber Drivers Network in New York is attempting to build an independent database of drivers to stay in touch with one another.
They’re also signing union cards.
“Yesterday, we gave out over 800,” said Diallo last Tuesday. “We have about 700 signed, and we expect more to be mailed in. In order to get recognition by the City Council, we need about 1,500 to 2,000.”
While the City Council can’t independently recognize a union, it can write legislation similar to that recently passed in Seattle, granting Uber drivers the right to unionize. The Uber Drivers Network has been working with the Amalgamated Transit Union in New York to get legislators on board for about 6 months. (The International Brotherhood of Electric Workers has also been courting drivers.)
Council members have indicated they’re open to the idea, but want evidence of driver support, Diallo said. He expects the network will reach the numbers they need — in the low thousands — by the end of next week.
Hours after the New York Super Bowl protest, which ended at 4 am on Monday, organizers wrote on Facebook that they “assume” they cost Uber substantial business — while still bemoaning the “hungry greedy animals” who chased surge prices during the strike. But as Uber will have it, there was no effect on the service at all, in either city. (The company attributed surge pricing to increased demand, rather than striking drivers.)
In fact, according to the company, drivers performed a record-breaking near-200,000 trips on Sunday in New York. At midnight on Monday, drivers were greeted with a thank-you text from Uber: “Today broke the record for most trips ever on a Sunday. Thanks to you, our driver-partners, hundreds of thousands of people moved around NYC this weekend.”
Not all drivers present at Sunday’s Forest Park meeting were convinced by the Uber Drivers Network’s strike tactics. The group had made a concerted effort to draw non-believers and outsiders, distributing 15,000 flyers by hand to drivers at parking lots and airports until 2 a.m. the day of the meeting, they said, so this was expected.
Shawn Bandhu, a driver who came out of curiosity after he was handed a flyer at La Guardia, said he thought the organizers needed to offer alternatives to drivers they asked to strike, since many were supporting families (he has 4-year-old son himself) without other means of income.
“If there were a strike fund, I would absolutely support it,” he said. “But if you have these payments — insurance, a lease — and a month goes by and they can’t make them, you’ve destroyed that person’s life, their credit, their livelihood.”
Deron Sobers, a yellow cab and black car driver who signed up with Uber in October of 2014 (as well as Lyft), accepted a ride request from this reporter to Forest Hills on Sunday, and said he hadn’t heard of the network meeting. He said he wasn’t interested in sticking around for it and called talk of a strike and unionization “nonsense” because workers are classified as independent contractors, instead of employees.
“Uber is in the business of making money,” he said. “If Uber is the only thing you’re doing, you’re screwed.”
Then again, he said, if the drivers successfully organize a union, with the help of the City Council, or negotiate a fare increase, he would get on board: “If it were more profitable to be an employee, I would consider being that. I go to the highest bidder.”
Ali Aliouhe, who has been driving for Uber for more than four years and attended the Queens meeting, said that at first Uber “offered an alternative to the abuse we used to experience from [the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission],” and that he encouraged other drivers to join the app. “But once we came to them, they cut the prices,” he said, and it was “back to the starting point.”
Aliouhe said he was confident that the same word of mouth that brought about Uber’s rise could bring about its fall — or at least organize enough drivers to bring the company to the negotiating table.
“These are educated people who know how to fight for our rights,” he said. “I strongly believe this movement will grow.”
Sobers, who drives for Lyft, black car, and yellow cab services, depending on where the money is, said he has no illusions that any of the ride-hailing companies or businesses have workers’ interests at heart.
“Don’t get it twisted. If they come out with a self-driving car, Uber’s going to jump on that,” he said.
— Caroline O'Donovan contributed to this article.