SAN FRANCISCO, California — Outside of Uber's headquarters, drivers frustrated with some of the on-demand ride company's practices gathered Wednesday to protest for what they believe are their rights as partners of the firm. They were joined in Los Angeles by drivers protesting outside local Uber offices, including a strong representation from members of the California App-Based Drivers Association (CADA).
In New York and London, Uber drivers networks encouraged drivers to go on a work strike in solidarity with the protesters. According to reports from the London Uber drivers network, in many locations there were no UberX cars available throughout the day.
The complaints, much like those of New York drivers in protests this past summer, were concerned with the now-permanent fare cuts that made UberX rides cheaper than a taxi in their respective cities, as well as the company's no-tip policy and the commission the company makes off each fare.
"UberX is said to include a 20% tip," an UberX driver and speaker yelled to the crowd. "Uber is charging a commission on those tips, this is tip theft. That's illegal. Uber black cars are not even allowed to accept tips. We're service workers, we work on tips. Uber kept prices artificially low by asking drivers not to tip."
But the list of demands from the organizers of the protest addressed more than simple differences in income between what drivers make now and how much they made before the fare cuts. Many of the demands dealt with the overall treatment and protection of both drivers and their passengers.
In addition to demanding that Uber lower its commission to 15% — "drivers bear the costs of this multi-billion dollar company," the list of demands reads — and return to 2013 fares, the drivers demanded that the company stop changing the approved vehicle list for Uber's luxury car service Uber Black. They also demanded that Uber: create an in-app feature that allows customers to tip; provide job security for those who participate in its car financing program; develop a system of recourse for drivers are facing deactivation; improve background checks; require comments from passengers who give drivers less than a five-star rating; provide job security for drivers who invest in wheelchair accessible vehicles; and provide coverage under Uber's insurance in the case of accident.
"This goes beyond securing the rights of drivers as independent contractors," one UberX driver, who was one of the speakers at the protest and did not wish to be named, told BuzzFeed News.
"They've dropped fares so low that it's not worth it anymore," the driver said. "Drivers are driving around frustrated and who are they taking it out on? It endangers passengers."
L.A.-based UberX Driver and CADA representative Ayda Valilar said she has to work 100 hours a week to make the same amount she once did.
"When I started it was $2.50 a mile and now it's $1.10 a mile in LA," Valilar told BuzzFeed News. "We can't maintain our cars, we become like taxi car drivers, basically. Everything people didn't want, we're becoming. We're not even making minimum wage. I personally work 100 hours a week. It's very dangerous. I know many people who have crashed just because they were working so many hours just to make ends meet. The hours that people work has to be regulated. Not everyone is reasonable enough to say I really can't take it anymore this week, I can't drive."
Uber, however, refutes these statements. The company contends that in an hour, a driver can make an average of $25.79, and that the no-tip policy actually brings more riders to the platform. "Riders choose Uber for a seamless experience — no cash, no math, no hassle. More riders means more money in drivers' pockets," a leaflet handed out by an Uber spokesperson to BuzzFeed News reads. Uber reported that in the past week there were more trips than in all of 2012.
Denny Bailey, an UberX driver who didn't attend the protest, said the concerns these drivers have are legitimate, but that their energy could be spent elsewhere.
"I don't think Uber has done anything wrong," Bailey told BuzzFeed News when reached by phone.
"There are things that maybe they can do better, but it's pretty good. We're all testing the waters. There are legitimate complaints but [Uber has] addressed them in the past. It's a tricky balancing act — it's the driver versus the consumers. It sounds bad on the surface, 'Oh well, we were making $45 an hour, now it's $38 an hour.' To say they're inhibiting our ability to earn money or whatever is not necessarily true. I did think there's a point that lowering the fares will be detrimental...but again the market will balance itself out."
Drivers gather outside of the Uber headquarters in San Francisco.
In New York, many drivers continue to fight to make Uber change its policies rather than leave the company because they say they understand Uber is the industry leader and its policies impact the taxi industry as a whole. In San Francisco, however, several of the drivers BuzzFeed News spoke with indicated that they planned to leave Uber and continue to fight for the rights of drivers because Uber's policies illustrate many of the problems with the tech industry as a whole.
"Companies like Uber have created this two-tier system," an UberX driver and speaker told BuzzFeed News. "On top, you have the white collar workers who sit in their ivory towers and are well compensated and have good benefits, and on the bottom you have the frontline workers with lower pay and no benefits and are seen as a cost."
But the UberX driver did admit that many Uber drivers took pride in being independent contractors, as it affords them the flexibility and autonomy of owning their own businesses.
In a statement provided to BuzzFeed News, Uber argued just that.
"Four years ago, the only choice for drivers was to start the day more than $100 in the hole to rent a taxi – today, hundreds of thousands of drivers take to the road on the Uber platform," the statement read. "Uber powers entrepreneurship by providing the tools to build a small business. The thousands of drivers driving on the platform at this moment are a testament to that opportunity."
A driver who works for Lyft, Uber, and Sidecar who asked not to be named agreed that companies like Uber and Lyft don't prioritize the independent contractors working for their services.
"It's an industry predicated on disposable employees," he told BuzzFeed News. "I like that they have the little sign about the self-driving cars. Travis and Uber people have been really clear that drivers don't really mean anything to them. Once they're able to get rid of them [and] that excess cost, they're going to be totally stoked about it. Part of the frustration comes out of the stupid fare war with Lyft. For Uber, they can charge $1.00 for every ride and still make $.20. So they can go as low as they want. Lyft at least gives that fake pretense that they care, which is bullshit...but Uber is pretty clear about being like, 'We're this strong company and we're going to do whatever we can to make money.'"
The rating system, created as a method of quality control for both drivers and passengers, was another point of frustration for many of the protesting drivers. Valilar, for example, felt that as a woman it worked against her.
"There's no protection for us female drivers," she told BuzzFeed News.
"I get harassed, molested every single night. I have to deal with that aspect of it. The first week I was working for them I sent them an email about it and the response I got was, 'We're just an app...' Ever since then, I've taken it upon myself to protect myself. Luckily I'm a tough cookie. But there are a lot of females out there that fear the rating system. I just manage to break really hard and let them eat shit."
On the leaflet an Uber spokesperson handed out, Uber contended that in comparison to a taxi, Uber is safer for drivers because it's "cashless, every ride is GPS-tracked, and feedback is always a two-way street."
But drivers feel they are at the mercy of their passengers' rating. Some drivers complained that they were suspended because of a 4.6 out of 5 rating, but passengers who might have a low rating are not penalized in the least. Paired with the risk of being deactivated for not accepting at least 90% of all requests, drivers claim this provides little protection for them. One sign at the protest read, "we should not have to pick up drunk [passengers]."
Though the turnout ended up being less than the San Francisco drivers network hoped for, the drivers plan to press on. Though one of the protest speakers said the only way things will change for the betterment of the drivers is if the company itself undergoes a cultural change, he also encouraged drivers to attend an upcoming California Public Utilities Commission hearing on transportation network companies on November 4.
There's also a push among drivers to better organize themselves. BuzzFeed News overheard one driver urging others to introduce themselves to at least five other drivers, "who don't look like you but do the same thing as you," and sign up for their email list. "We need to be more organized," the driver told BuzzFeed News.