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“It’s not right”: why Uber and Lyft drivers went on strike

Following Lyft’s IPO and prior to Uber’s, drivers are demanding fair wages and better treatment.

Uber and Lyft drivers protesting in Long Island City, New York, on May 8.
Bryce Covert for Vox

In the warm springtime sun on Wednesday afternoon, about 200 New York City drivers for Uber and Lyft stood outside the headquarters of the Taxi & Limousine Commission, the city agency tasked with regulating cabs and for-hire cars. They chanted, “Drivers united will never be defeated!” and waved signs calling for higher pay and solidarity among all the city’s drivers: taxis, private companies, and apps.

The mostly male crowd was still diverse, made up of older men in sharp suits, young men in hoodies and jeans with keys clipped to their belt buckles, middle-aged men in turbans, and a range of accents from different countries. But they rallied around a set of shared demands: that the app companies give them a bigger cut of fares and enough pay to live on while creating a process for drivers to protest being deactivated.

They were some of the thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers across the country who shut off their apps and refused to do their usual work, going on strike to protest the company’s pay and other policies in the wake of Lyft going public in March and Uber’s expected move to do the same this week. Drivers also called on consumers to support the strike by refusing to use the apps during their strikes.

When Inder Parmar, a tall, dark-haired driver in a black double-breasted suit, started driving for Uber in 2013, he was seeking better pay than what he got from the black car company he had been driving for since 2006. Back then, he could make $37 an hour, he pointed out, pulling payment records out of his pocket. Uber’s cut of his fares was just 10 percent. Today his hourly pay is more like $9.18 an hour because the company is taking a bigger share and has changed how it compensates drivers.

“We lost a third of our incomes, and our expenses have not been decreased,” he noted. When his pay started dropping, he went to Uber’s office but was told that although he was working 70 hours a week, he was considered a part-time driver. He says he was counseled to get another job.

He doesn’t even pocket all the money he makes; he has to pay for gas, an E-ZPass for bridge and tunnel tolls, and insurance. In the beginning, “I still had something for myself” after all those expenses, he said. Now “I have nothing left.”

All three of his children have graduated from college. But because Parmar makes so little, they are now supporting him. “If my kids were still in college, I have no idea how I’d get through,” he said. He’s had to cut back where he can; all winter, he brought lunch from home with him to work, but he’s worried his food will spoil as the weather gets warmer.

“What Uber is paying us, that is below a poverty wage,” he said. “Anybody who buys [into Uber’s] IPO, they are basically supporting exploitation.”

Drivers in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and London took part in the strike on Wednesday or held rallies in solidarity. In Los Angeles, Drivers United LA said that of its 4,300 members, 98 percent were committed to going on strike. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance expected the “vast majority” of its approximately 10,000 app drivers to do the same.

Each city’s drivers coalesced around their own particular demands, although drivers across the country were demanding more livable incomes, job security, and better treatment. A study by the executive director of Stanford’s Center for Automotive Research found that more than half of Uber and Lyft drivers earn less than the minimum wage in their state. Median profit is just $8.55 an hour, and when vehicle expenses are taken into account, 8 percent of drivers actually lose money. A different study from the Economic Policy Institute found that drivers make $11.77 an hour on average, and that just a third of what passengers pay goes to drivers.

In New York City, ride-hailing companies have to pay drivers about $17.22 an hour. Still, drivers are demanding an end to upfront pricing, where apps charge passengers one fare — typically higher, they say — and then pay drivers a rate as much as 30 to 40 percent lower based on their mileage and minutes. Instead, they want drivers to be guaranteed at least 80 to 85 percent of the fare. They also called for an end to “arbitrary and unjust deactivations.”

Buchung Bista was at the protest on Wednesday because he says he’s been unfairly shut out of Uber’s app for eight months. Thin and emphatic, with a graying goatee covering his chin, he says he received a couple of customer complaints about difficulties making multiple stops — something he argues was due to the way the app works, not his own behavior. He used to have a 4.86 rating and has completed more than 40,000 trips. “My reviews are excellent,” he noted.

But when he tried to protest, he found no appeal process. “There’s no second chance, no justice,” he said. He’s been told he is permanently locked out.

While Bista is now driving for Lyft, he doesn’t make enough only working for one app. “If I drive two apps, I can make a living,” he said. He supports two children; to get by, he recently signed up for public benefits. “That’s why I’m here — my income and my family,” he said. “And also this is not right.”

LA drivers, who first called for the strike, are demanding the same pay floor as New York City and that the app companies’ commission be capped at 10 percent. They also want a “transparent, speedy, independent” appeals process for deactivations and that any discipline adhere to a “just cause” standard, more transparency on fares and trips, the ability to organize and negotiate with management, the election of a driver representative to the companies’ boards, and increased environmental standards. “We need California and Los Angeles to take action to ensure drivers have basic labor protections,” a spokesperson for Drivers United LA told Vox, since “they have none right now.”

In response to a request for comment on the strike and drivers’ demands, Eric Smith, a Lyft spokesperson, emailed a statement saying:

Lyft drivers’ hourly earnings have increased over the last two years, and they have earned more than $10 [billion] on the Lyft platform. Over 75 percent drive less than 10 hours a week to supplement their existing jobs. On average, Lyft drivers earn over $20 per hour. We know that access to flexible, extra income makes a big difference for millions of people, and we’re constantly working to improve how we can best serve our driver community.

Harry Hartfield, a spokesperson for Uber, pointed out that the New York Taxi Workers Association, which helped organize the strike and rally in the city, is “not a union,” “so it’s not really a voice for rideshare driver[s].”

The timing ahead of Uber’s IPO, and in the wake of Lyft’s, is no coincidence. Drivers hope to leverage the publicity both companies are trying to garner to shed light on their own working conditions. “In their S1 filing, Uber unabashedly states that denying workers of basic employment protections like minimum wage, Social Security contributions, and other benefits is essential to their business model,” a statement from the NYTWA reads. “Uber thinks their drivers make too much money even though in many cities drivers make as little as $7 per hour after expenses. But Uber plans to reduce driver incentives and even admits that ‘driver dissatisfaction will ... increase.’”

“Investors must be clear: Uber and Lyft are not viable,” it continues. “At their core, their business models are based on impoverishing workers.”

Drivers are also vowing that Wednesday’s action is not a one-day affair but the start of something bigger. “We’re not scared of them,” a driver told the assembled crowd outside the TLC over a loudspeaker, referring to app companies. “This is just the beginning!”

As the protest wrapped up, about an hour after it began, drivers shouted out, “We’ll be back!”

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