Did the Uber strike “work”? Following Wednesday’s action by Uber and Lyft drivers across the world, some commentators wondered what the workers were trying to achieve, since they could not possibly stop Uber’s debut as a publicly traded company on Friday. Others lamented that “only hundreds” of drivers were in attendance at strike protests in the United States. Parents (many of them white-collar tech workers) outside my children’s school in suburban Silicon Valley asked me, “Was it a success? Did the drivers get what they wanted yesterday?” They seemed surprised when I told them I thought it was a triumph.
No, drivers’ commissions were not raised in response. And no, neither Uber nor Lyft implemented just-cause deactivation or recognized a grassroots worker organization as a legitimate bargaining unit. But as a labor scholar (and former taxi-worker organizer) who has researched the so-called gig economy for more than a decade, I appreciate—almost viscerally—that Wednesday’s strike was a huge, unprecedented victory for service workers in the on-demand platform economy. Politicians (including presidential candidates), consumers (even those in wealthy Silicon Valley suburbs!), civil rights advocates, labor organizers, and drivers around the world stood together in a coordinated, organized direct action and collectively rejected an economic system built on human exploitation. Even those who did not physically participate in strikes joined on social media (at one point, three different Twitter hashtags related to the global strike were trending in the U.S.) and through in-person conversations. Taken together, millions of people participated in the first-ever international picket and made the difficult recognition that despite its consumer conveniences, the so-called Uberization of the service economy must be defeated.
I could not have imagined all of this just six years ago. In 2013, a year after Uber and Lyft first launched in San Francisco, I wrote an opinion piece lambasting the company for sidestepping regulations and lowering labor standards. I was excoriated—not just in the comments section—but also by friends and even fellow advocates and scholars. “Have you ever tried to get a cab in this city?!” “People need this work!” Uber was, at the time, the darling of many. Less than a year later, I attended the first driver-organized protest against Uber in front of its headquarters but left feeling despondent. The energy at that early action was low and hopeless, and it got little attention and support. When, that day, I interviewed a driver-organizer named Ramzi and asked him if he was trying to form a union, he responded, “I’m a capitalist. I don’t believe in unions.”
Half a decade later, the collective global consciousness of both workers and consumers has transformed dramatically. Workers have powerfully articulated their need for protections and independent worker organizations. More and more consumers want ethical transportation services. How and why did this shift take place in such a short period of time?
Based on years of closely engaged research, I can only explain the simultaneous strikes and international picket that happened this week by pointing to the failure of government regulators to address labor conditions—and to the innovative, technologically savvy worker organizing that this failure has spawned.
From roughly 2013–16, both workers and regulators relied on lawsuits to call Uber and Lyft’s bluff on worker classification. (Both companies maintain their drivers are independent contractors who do not get even minimum wage protections; most legal scholars disagree.) Hundreds of administrative, individual, and class-action lawsuits were filed against both companies alleging violations of workers’ rights, but most cases were dismissed on procedural grounds, settled, or sent to the black abyss of mandatory arbitration (with the exception of an unemployment insurance appeals decision in New York). While many waited for litigation to solve the problem of poor labor conditions, state legislatures working hand in hand with lobbyists wrote laws to benefit the gig corporations. As my colleagues and I have shown, during these years, almost no city and state lawmakers stepped in to regulate labor conditions in favor of workers.
But by 2016, workers who were tired of waiting for the resolution of lawsuits and regulators to intervene on their behalf began to take matters into their own hands. They faced exceptional hurdles. App-based workers are unusually dispersed and atomized. Unlike even taxi drivers who congregate in the taxi lot and in front of hotels, Uber and Lyft drivers have almost no places to convene and get to know each other. As their individual economic dependence on the app varies, drivers don’t even necessarily share the same interests. Perhaps most perversely, since their employment status remains an unsettled legal issue, U.S. drivers who engage in collective organizing risk being accused of violating antitrust laws. And as a result, traditional unions have been reluctant to invest in nascent driver movements.
The three worker organizations I have studied (which were responsible for the largest protests in the U.S.)—L.A. Rideshare Drivers United, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, and Gig Workers Rising—engaged in years of independent, on-the ground organizing with almost no funding but a lot of energy. They systematically eschewed the notion that, in the digital economy, workers’ rights could only be achieved by holding hands with capital. They did what successful labor organizers have always done and built solidarity through one-on-one conversations, raising worker awareness around the possibilities of acting together.
But, ingeniously, these worker organizations adjusted their tactics to directly address the specific hurdles posed by the platform-based service economy.
Similar to the ways in which their Silicon Valley bosses controlled them and their work through apps, text messages, and email, platform workers built their membership in tech-savvy ways. They solicited drivers via Facebook ads, built relationships in WhatsApp and Signal groups, and kept track of their members via sophisticated, worker-designed digital platforms. Through group emails and direct messages on Twitter, organizers reached unions and driver groups as far off as Chile, Brazil, England, Australia, Japan, and India. Some used Google Translate to communicate with each other in writing. New technologies facilitated the difficult conversations (arguments even) that preceded Wednesday’s coming-together.
To be clear, no one—least of all the worker organizations—thinks that Wednesday’s actions or the accountability that may come from Uber going public are enough to build more equitable work. But the tide has undoubtedly shifted. Globally, for the very first time, consumers and workers collectively recognized the role of human exploitation in the on-demand platform economy, making demands for regulation and recognition of worker power.
As Bhairavi Desai, the director of the National Taxi Workers Alliance, said after the New York City protest, “It’s the first time we’ve had a global strike … it’s a real moment of change. … We are not expendable. We are not replaceable. Drivers built these empires.” Uber’s and Lyft’s empires were designed to deliver convenience to consumers while isolating drivers, and labor organizing is beginning to overcome the gulf between the two. Desai is right that drivers built these empires. Wednesday proved that by acting together, they could also tear them down.