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Driver strikes didn’t break Uber — but they showed gig economy workers are mad

Uber says the protests haven’t impacted their business, but the global day of action is still one of the strongest showings of drivers’ growing frustration.

Uber and other app-based drivers protesting at a rally outside Uber and Lyft headquarters in New York City. One man holds a sign reading “Hard work = fair pay.” Another reads, “Drivers united are stronger together.”
Uber and other app-based drivers protested at a rally outside Uber and Lyft headquarters in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Shirin Ghaffary is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.

Uber and Lyft drivers in over two dozen cities around the world are participating in an international day of protest, calling for better wages and working conditions days ahead of Uber’s estimated $91 billion IPO.

The day of action started this morning in Melbourne, Australia, where drivers showed up to protest outside a local driver assistance center, called a Greenlight Hub. A few hours later, in New York City, around 40 cars formed a procession protest across the Brooklyn Bridge. After which, about 300 drivers and their supporters gathered outside Uber’s and Lyft’s driver service offices in Long Island City, holding signs saying things like “Driver Power” and “For Uber IPO: pay back our money.”

As many as 300 protesters in San Francisco rallied in front of Uber’s corporate headquarters beginning at noon local time, after which hundreds of drivers are expected to shut down their apps until midnight. Uber has sent an email to its staff there warning of the protests — as a safety precaution, according to an employee.

So far, reports about the success of the protest have been mixed. The New York Times called the initial turnout “muted.” This morning, I anecdotally tested the impact and scale of the protests by opening the Uber and Lyft apps during the hours of the shutdown. A ride from my home in Brooklyn to the Vox Media offices in Manhattan was the same cost as it would usually be. And there was a normal wait time of under 5 minutes.

According to Uber, so far the company has not seen any significant impact on the reliability of the service — such as wait times, percentage of trips surged, or the number of drivers online compared to the monthly average in cities where there were reports of protests. Lyft did not respond to an inquiry about whether or not the protests have interrupted their daily operations.

But the fact that drivers protested at all on the same day in various cities around the world is a major feat of drivers’ organizing capacity — and one of the largest coordinated protests by gig economy workers in recent history. Unlike many office employees, Uber and Lyft drivers have no central corporate communication platform. Nor do they have a union to help organize logistics. That’s due to the fact that they’re largely considered contract workers rather than employees (although this is hotly debated, particularly in California).

Instead, ride-hailing app drivers communicate through a series of decentralized online groups on networks like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter. The organizing for today’s protest started in Los Angeles with the ride-sharing group, Rideshare Drivers United, which first called for a 24-hour strike. San Diego quickly followed suit, and several other cities like San Francisco called on drivers to shut down their apps for blocks of time and rally at Uber offices. News spread overseas in a matter of days to places like India and Chile — showing, if anything, a solidarity of concern among workers from vastly different regions.

“The day of action was already a success prior to it starting.” said Lenny Sanch, an Uber and Lyft driver in Chicago who helped organize fellow drivers to rally outside City Hall, where they are pressing for support from the mayor’s office. “We caused an organic rising in a short amount of time.”

Another win for the strike is that it’s received the attention of key Democratic politicians with a national following. Almost every leading Democratic presidential nominee, from Sen. Bernie Sanders to Silicon Valley darling Pete Buttigieg, has publicly supported the strike (although notably, no word from frontrunner Joe Biden).

The support of leading progressive powerhouses like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren is key, particularly because of the battle ahead in California, where some Democrats are pushing to legislate that Uber drivers and other gig-economy workers should be considered employees, not contractors.

If California is successful in these efforts, it may set a precedent for other Democrat-controlled state legislatures, causing companies like Uber and Lyft to radically change their business model.

“For me, personally, this message is more to the state of California than to Uber,” said Steve Gregg, 51, an Uber and Lyft driver for over two years in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I would really like to see government step up and do their job to protect workers.”

The Uber and Lyft strike may not have caused a transportation crisis today, but it’s a sign of a deeper, long-term labor crisis within an increasingly frustrated workforce. One that even Uber itself has acknowledged is a significant and growing problem.

Either way, come Friday, executives at Uber will smile and celebrate as they ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Today’s protests may not cause them to make any changes overnight. But in contrast to the normal fanfare surrounding an IPO, the strike proved that labor issues will continue to be a thorn in Uber’s side for years to come.

Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

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