On Monday, hundreds of Uber and Lyft drivers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego went on strike. They were demonstrating for higher pay and better working conditions, as their employers—that is, the companies that pay them but refuse to classify them as employees—prepare for their highly anticipated initial public offerings. Uber’s market value is being pitched to investors at about $120 billion, and Lyft is seeking a valuation of about $23 billion. While many of the people who are actually classified as employees at the two companies will become millionaires overnight (and some workers who have been driving for a long time will be able to buy small amounts of stock), the drivers complain their wages have been cut and that they’re not making a living wage ahead of the IPOs. Last week in the Los Angeles area, Uber reduced what it pays drivers per mile by 25 percent, slashing the rate from 80 cents per mile to 60 cents.
As independent contractors who can’t unionize, drivers are isolated from one another. But that hasn’t stopped them from organizing by creating worker groups to advocate for their collective demands. In Los Angeles, drivers picketed outside the Uber Greenlight Hub, a driver assistance center in Redondo Beach. In San Francisco, drivers demonstrated in the rain outside the Omni Hotel, where potential investors were slated to meet ahead of Lyft’s IPO. But the meeting was moved, unannounced, to the Olympic Club, an ultraexclusive private club and golf course in San Francisco.
In separate phone calls, I interviewed two driver-organizers, Tyler Sandness of Los Angeles and Rebecca Stack-Martinez of San Francisco, to ask why they halted their labor on Monday, how their working conditions have changed, and what they hope the increased pressure will accomplish. Our discussions have been edited for length and clarity.
Slate: How long have you been driving for Lyft or Uber?
Tyler Sandness: I drive for Lyft, and I’ve been driving for about seven months.
Rebecca Stack-Martinez: I’m a full-time driver for both, and I’ve been driving about a year and a half. [After this article published, Stack-Martinez clarified that while she has driven for both Uber and Lyft, she is currently only driving for Uber.]*
Are you able to make ends meet with how the apps pay you? Are you supporting a family?
Sandness: It’s full time and it barely, barely pays enough. I’m already having anxiety about being able to pay my taxes this year because as a 1099 worker, you have to squirrel away money for taxes. But you make so little, you have to dip into that just to be able to pay the bills. So right now, looking at it, I can’t say for certain that this is economically viable, and I’m pretty sure that I’m losing money at the end of the day. And I’m not supporting a family.
Stack-Martinez: Barely—it’s getting harder and harder. I mean, I live in San Francisco. We all know this is the most expensive city in the U.S. I have a husband and a dog, but no children. As Uber and Lyft continue to cut our rates, it’s getting harder and harder to make a living. About a year ago, if I did 100 rides in a week, I could get an extra $225 to $250 as a bonus. This week, if I do 100 rides I’ll get $50 [as a bonus]. A lot of drivers depend on that bonus to supplement the rest of our rides to increase our profit margins to make sure we’re earning a decent living.
How much do you work a week?
Sandness: I work about 35 to 40 hours a week, and it runs between eight to 10 hours a day.
Stack-Martinez: I just took on another part-time job that has more guaranteed wages, two days a week. I drive currently 35 to 45 hours a week. But I used to drive about 60 to 70.
Why are you striking today?
Sandness: What Lyft and Uber are doing to the people who work for them is ridiculous. We’re generating so much value, and we provide a service that everybody needs here in Los Angeles, but we’re not sharing in those profits. Instead, Lyft and Uber have seen it fit to subsidize their IPOs on the backs of the drivers. They want to generate as much profit right now as possible to make them look really attractive to investors, but they’re not doing that responsibly. Uber is now dropping their rates down from 80 cents a mile to 60 cents a mile. And to give context, the IRS says it takes about 58 cents a mile to operate a vehicle, so Uber is handing down basically a two-penny-a-mile profit to their drivers. No one can buy a decent life with only two pennies a mile in profit.
Stack-Martinez: Well, there are supposed to be Lyft executives inside the building we’re outside of having a fancy lunch with potential investors. We wanted to make sure that the investors knew what kind of company they really were investing in and how they treat their drivers. So that’s the overall goal of today. But the broader goal is to give us back the dignity and respect that we deserve.
What are your demands?
Sandness: The point of the protest today is to win a $28-an-hour minimum wage here in Los Angeles. That’s something that was won by Uber and Lyft drivers in New York City a couple of years ago. We calculated it, and getting paid $28 an hour would equal to about $17 an hour in take-home pay after expenses. It’s still not great for one of the most expensive cities on Earth, but it’s a lot better than what we’re making now. So, we think that that’s a reasonable amount for the company to pay out for doing an essential job.
Stack-Martinez: The first demand is a living wage. The second is transparency—whether that’s around the policies or around the way that they pay us and how that impacts our daily lives. Third is benefits. We’re looking at workman’s compensation for protection if we’re injured on the job and are unable to work. Health insurance. Unemployment insurance. And the fourth is a voice at work—to be able to have an organized association of drivers who can come together and discuss the potential impacts that are coming down the pipeline, and have a say in how those are rolled out and what happens to us with this company.
There’s no way for drivers to connect through the app. How were you able to connect with other drivers to organize and how many people showed up today?
Sandness: I’m with Rideshare Drivers United Los Angeles. We’re a group of drivers. We use Facebook ads and we reach out through some other in-house technology that we have that allows us to reach out to drivers. But I don’t want to go into the specifics of that tech. [When pressed, Sandness refused to elaborate.] I’d rather talk about the traditional models that we then pair that with. We use the tech to get in touch with them, and then an organizer will place a phone call and discuss the issues and try to recruit people that way. The estimated number that’s being thrown around is like between 310 or 320 or so who were able to attend [the demonstration] today. We’ve had a very big turnout for this!
Stack-Martinez: I’m with Gig Workers Rising. It’s actually for all gig workers: Instacart drivers, handymen, and dog walkers. Right now, a large chunk of us are ride-share drivers because of the stuff that’s been happening in the last year. I’m a full-time driver and I’m actually a driver leader for the organization. I help organize the drivers whom we’re working with. We had about 100 drivers show up today.
There is no directory of who or how many drivers are in the city of San Francisco, right? We do the traditional organizing where it’s word of mouth, talking to other drivers. Media outreach: Get the name out there and let others know what we’re doing. Social media. But we’ve also done petitions and actions. We delivered two different petitions, one to Uber and one to Lyft. Through those petitions we had people sign on, and we were able to capture some contact information and reach out to over 10,000 signatures between those two petitions. We found out if they’re drivers by calling and contacting them. And we have a closed Facebook community group for drivers only, and there we also disseminate a lot of information.
With many jobs it’s possible to go use the restroom when needed. But that must be harder as a driver. How do you manage taking breaks?
Sandness: Finding a bathroom can be difficult. Sometimes you have to go to a grocery store, but oftentimes you just have to hope that there’s somewhere out there for you to be able to go to.
Stack-Martinez: Well, it’s tough. If you’re a female, you can’t exactly go in a bottle like some of these men can. So you have to drive around for a café that will allow you to use the restroom, and that’s really hard to come by here. By the time you actually drive around, find parking, and then do the potty dance up and down the street till you find somebody to let you use the restroom, that’s a good 30 to 45 minutes just there that you have to stop and shut off just to do that.
[Uber] also does these things in the morning and evening during peak times that they call “consecutive trip bonuses,” meaning if you do three trips in a row they’re going to throw you, like, $10. But the caveat is that you cannot deny or cancel any rides and you cannot log off. If you have to go to the bathroom and you’re in the middle of this consecutive trip, you either have to log off and miss the bonus or you have to hold it and wait till you’re done with those three trips. Sometimes that third and last one could take you another hour and a half to two hours to get that ride because the market is so saturated with drivers. So I’ve done it where I finished my second trip at 9:30 in the morning and I didn’t finish my third trip until 11:30. And I have to go to the bathroom, but I don’t want to risk missing or losing [the third ride] because I went into the bathroom.
Have you met any drivers in the course of your organizing who are homeless?
Sandness: I know a driver who lives out of his car. He’s a person whose financial fortune kind of really turned topsy-turvy on him and this is the only way that he can afford to live now, which is ridiculous. No one should be working 40 to 50 hours a week in America and be homeless. That’s just not right.
Stack-Martinez: You can go to the airport lots, where a lot of drivers congregate to wait for rides, and as you talk to them you’ll meet a good bunch of them who sleep in their cars. Some are from Sacramento or Fresno. Some of them are from L.A. and come up here to drive. They sleep in their cars for three or four weeks at a time and then maybe go home and spend a week with their families and then come back. Some live in their cars permanently. And every once in a while, if they have a good week, they’ll rent a hotel room.
Correction, March 27, 2019: This article quoted Rebecca Stack-Martinez as saying she is a full-time driver for both Uber and Lyft. She currently only drives for Uber.