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Gig Economy Drivers Strike: Uber Has Built Its $90 Billion Empire on an Anti-Worker Model

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The New York Taxi Workers Alliance helped organize the Uber and Lyft strike in New York City on Wednesday. We speak to the group’s executive director, Bhairavi Desai.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, We are joined in studio by Bhairavi Desai, who is the executive director and co-founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents over 21,000 taxi drivers in New York City. She was out there yesterday.

Talk about the significance of this global strike that took place as Uber is just about to go public.

BHAIRAVI DESAI: It was absolutely amazing. There were strikes across every single continent. The United States, there were several cities. And it was just a rolling strike for over a 24-hour period. It’s the first time that we’ve ever seen this among drivers.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And why was it scheduled just as Uber is about to go public?

BHAIRAVI DESAI: Well, it was timed with the IPO. In its pre-IPO filing, called the S-1, to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Uber unabashedly notes in there that they expect driver dissatisfaction to only increase. They expect to cut driver pay, to cut incentives and move quickly into driverless vehicles. And this is all after also acknowledging that the vast majority of drivers earn below minimum wage.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So you’re saying Uber expects to cut driver wages more. But as we’ve just heard, there has already been a massive and precipitous decline in drivers’ income for Uber. Now, why has that decline happened?

BHAIRAVI DESAI: Well, the business model is so fundamentally anti-worker. You know, Uber saturated the streets with vehicles, and then they continued to cut the rate of fare that the drivers would be paid by. And so, as Inder was saying, you’re competing with so many more people, and you’re getting paid less per fare. On top of that, you’re paying heavy costs for vehicles to rent or to buy in order to go to work with them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re head of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. Explain, as we just heard the ride-share driver talking about, the effect on taxi workers.

BHAIRAVI DESAI: Well, in New York City, out of our 21,000 members, about 10,000 of them actually drive for Uber or Lyft. We started out as a yellow cab drivers’ organization back in '98, but over the past five years, as more of our members started to drive for Uber and Lyft, they've retained the membership. And Inder is one of our members. We have a unity platform, because, as he said, this is fundamentally about the race to the bottom. Uber starves the Uber drivers so they can starve the taxi driver. So both groups of drivers need to stand together against this business model.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, were there yellow taxicab drivers who moved entirely to Uber? And if so, why?

BHAIRAVI DESAI: It’s been a revolving door of desperation, because in the beginning, you know, Uber offered bonuses and promotions. You know, “$60,000 guaranteed.” Federal Trade Commission investigation actually found that only 10% of the drivers ever grossed what Uber had actually promised. Uber ended up settling for a $20 million fine because of false advertising.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about this issue of independent contractors, part-time workers versus full-time workers.

BHAIRAVI DESAI: Well, you know, the gig economy, whether it’s Uber, Lyft or Handy or TaskRabbit, any time workers have demanded a decent pay and livable incomes and job security, dignified work, they’ve responded by saying, “Well, this isn’t supposed to be full-time. This is part-time.” Uber has gone as far as to say, “By part-time, we mean just a couple hours here and there each week.” Every time we raise the bar to just get to the floor of basic employment protections, you know, they lower the expectation of what this is actually supposed to be. When they lobby, they call it a job. Once they get the drivers in, they call it a gig.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what do you think people who use Uber and Lyft—I mean, New York is one of the biggest markets for Uber. What should people know?

BHAIRAVI DESAI: Well, both New York and London have had massive driver opposition. What people should know is that this is a fundamentally flawed business model. The gig economy represents less than 1% of the U.S. economy, yet they are lobbying for explicit exemption from not only taxi laws, but also labor laws. They’re looking to overturn basic protections. Today, taxi drivers, Uber drivers are on that front line, but there’s millions of workers standing behind us if we fall.

Forty years ago, taxi drivers were considered commission employees. They then became independent contractors, being stripped of all basic labor protections, from minimum wage to the right to democratic unionism and collective bargaining. From drivers, it went on to more than 30% of the American workforce. We’ve been in this place again.

But the significance of May 8th was that it was the drivers from Uber themselves. You know, Uber is partly seeking a $90 billion valuation, both so its founders can cash out, but also so it can become too big to fail as it unveils this dystopian business model against workers and communities. What we’re saying is, they have made drivers too poor to live. And these two forces are now on a collision course.

We wanted to send a message yesterday: We are not deterred by Wall Street and their wealth. We know this business model cannot exist without the drivers. In their S-1 filing, they’ve repeated that they need to go into driverless cars. They can’t get drivers out of the car fast enough. And what we’re saying is, “But we exist now, and you need to answer to that.”

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how tips work, because when you go into one of these cars, you know, you don’t pay at the end. The driver showed Democracy Now! yesterday—the person who was just interviewed—his pay stubs. And for 20 hours’ work, he had $2 worth of tips.

BHAIRAVI DESAI: So, when these companies started, they touted the fact that, “Oh, no tip is necessary. It’s one of the ways we’re cheaper than a taxi.” Once tipping started, it’s turned out that only about 2% of passengers tip. They fundamentally changed that culture. It’s another way that they brought down driver incomes.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for joining us. Bhairavi Desai is executive director and co-founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, representing over 21,000 taxi drivers in New York City. And, of course, we’ll continue to follow this struggle, that includes not only the Uber and Lyft drivers, but also yellow cab drivers, as well.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, up to a million species extinct in our lifetime? Stay with us.

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