What Has Uber Done to Make Its Drivers So Angry?
Photos by Alex Zimmerman
Abdul Diallo stands hunched over in the middle of a throng of screaming Uber drivers and activists, patiently filling out a union card a stranger has just handed him. He says he has no idea what the card means, but he’s getting desperate. “Maybe they can help me?” the fifty-year-old Uber driver says. “But right now, I feel like I’m going to be homeless.”
Diallo, a father of two, was one of a few hundred Uber drivers who showed up at the company’s Long Island City headquarters this afternoon to protest its decision to slash fares in New York by 15 percent for some of its more popular services. Like many of the drivers who showed up, Diallo works for Uber full-time and says the new policy will significantly reduce his income.
“I’ve been with Uber since Uber started,” says Diallo, who started driving a yellow cab 27 years ago when he moved to New York from Senegal. “I’m trying to find something else, but I have a loan for the car.”
Most of the drivers who showed up expressed a similar sentiment: Uber promised to be a flexible way to make a living, but the company has repeatedly squeezed its drivers to attract new customers — and doesn’t give riders an opportunity to tip. “The normal rate is already tough,” says Rock Epenit, an Uber driver from Jamaica, Queens. He heard about the protest on the radio after awaking at 4 a.m. to start making runs to LaGuardia Airport — and noticed he was making less money than usual. “You’re forced to work mornings and nights” to make a decent living, he says, especially to afford insurance, car payments, and gas.
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For its part, Uber claims that its decision last week to reduce prices is actually better for drivers: Because of increased demand, drivers will spend less time driving around looking for fares — and even though they’ll collect less money from each ride, the increase in the number of customers will more than make up for it.
In fact, drivers are already seeing the benefit of the new fare policy, according to Uber spokeswoman Alix Anfang. “Since the price cut, drivers have spent 39 percent less time between trips, which has increased average hourly earnings by 20 percent, compared to two weekends before,” she wrote in a statement. Trips in Queens, she added, rose by a record 22 percent. “As we have always said, price cuts need to work for drivers. If for any reason they are not, we will roll them back, as we have done in other cities before.”
And while it’s hard to argue with data, it was nearly impossible to find an Uber driver who seemed to have had that experience. Many drivers at the protest refused to even give their names, fearing the company would deactivate their accounts in retaliation if they spoke to reporters.
“If we were making more money, we wouldn’t be here,” said Paul Ryon, a fifty-year-old driver from the Bronx. There might be more customers in the aggregate, he conceded. But Uber is constantly recruiting more drivers eager to snatch them up.
The protest also attracted onlookers who have been following the debates and court battles surrounding the company’s decision to classify its drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. It’s a distinction that relieves the multibillion-dollar ride-hailing company from paying benefits to its workers, many of whom are full-time.
A lawyer with the Brooklyn firm Held & Hines watched the protest while handing out stacks of cards bundled in rubber bands. The firm is involved in a federal class-action lawsuit against Uber. The lawyer declined to speak to the Voice on the record, but in a statement, the firm said Uber drivers “have been misclassified as independent contractors, have not received their full tips, and [have] otherwise failed to receive the benefits initially promised by Uber.”
The protest, which Business Insider reported was organized by the United Drivers Network, was slated to attract 1,000 drivers and encourage 10,000 more to refuse to take fares. It wasn’t immediately clear if the boycott had any effect on the service this afternoon, but Uber driver Ryon said he was disappointed in the turnout, which numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands. Asked why he doesn’t just give up driving for Uber, he said the market has gotten too competitive to make it worth switching to another service. “You’re trapped in a web with Uber,” Ryon said. “You can’t get out.”
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