February 2, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY — The message arrived on Uber drivers’ smartphones at 8:06 a.m. on Friday, Jan 29: “This is a reminder that starting today there are guaranteed hourly earnings and reduced prices in NYC.”
The taxi-app company was cutting its fares by 15% and lowering the minimum charge from $8 to $7. After Uber takes its cut, the driver’s share of that is often less than $5—and that’s before sales-tax deductions, other fees, and the costs of gasoline, tolls, car payments, and insurance.
Anger grew over the weekend, as drivers passed messages around on social media. On Monday, Feb. 1, they launched a 72-hour strike that shut down Uber service at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, said Bhairavi Desai of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. More than 500 drivers protested outside the company’s New York offices, an unassuming three-story brick building amid the rising glass high-rises of Long Island City.
“They kill the driver. They put the driver on the floor,” said Ismael Sow, a 37-year-old immigrant from Sierra Leone who has been driving for Uber for 15 months. “Uber gives us a $4.89 fare. So how’s the driver going to cover on that?”
To make $1,500 a week, Sow said, he has to work 60 to 65 hours. After gas, tolls, and insurance, he nets about $700. Former yellow-cab driver Sukhjinder Singh, 43, said he works six days a week “minimum,” and the price cut will cost him $50 a shift.
Uber said in a statement that it lowered the fare “to get more people using Uber” because “in New York things tend to be quieter after the holidays.” Over the weekend, it claimed, “drivers have spent 39% less time between trips, which has increased average hourly earnings by 20% compared to two weekends before. This is similar to what happened last time we cut prices.”
“That is not true. It is propaganda,” responded Kwabena Owusu-Ansah, 34, a Ghanaian immigrant from the Bronx who has worked for Uber for two years.
“They said this is going to increase demand, but in rush hour, it’s not possible to take more than two people an hour,” said Felix Delahoz, 35, of New Jersey. “How come we’re giving a good service and getting paid like a slave?”
The drivers’ main grievances are that they work long hours, often more than 60 hours a week, and can make less than minimum wage after Uber’s commission, the sales-tax deduction, and their own expenses. Many also feel that the price cuts and commission increases since the service started here in 2011, coupled with Uber’s complex system of fees, amount to bait and switch.
In 2011, the minimum fare was $12 and Uber took only a 10% commission, said former car-service driver William Luciano, 43, of Brooklyn. Back then, he could make $1,800 to $2,000 in a five-day week. But in 2014, Uber cut the minimum fare to $8, and it now charges him a 25% commission. “To make $1,200, $1,300, I have to work seven days,” he said, and that’s before about $300 a week in gas and tolls. The fare cut will bring his gross below $1,000, he estimates.
“It was good back then, but things changed,” said Rafata Hussain, 27, of Queens.
New drivers have to pay a 35% commission. “We’re going to have to work more hours for the same money,” said Tsening Gurind, 28, a Nepalese-born driver who’s been with Uber for six months. How is he going to work more, he was asked, when he already drives for 10 to 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week? “Sometimes more, 14-15 hours,” he answered.
“Friday I worked 19 hours. Saturday I worked 16 hours. Yesterday I only worked 8 hours,” said Alek, 29, a Russian immigrant who did not want to give his last name. The father of a baby girl, he estimates that he averages $7-8 an hour after Uber’s 25% commission, gas, and tolls. He said he pays $500 a month for insurance and $422 in car payments.
Moncef Fadili, 29, of Brooklyn, a Moroccan immigrant driving for more than a year, said he spent $25,000 on a car and pays more than $6,000 a year in insurance—and then discovered that “they give the new drivers the good fares.” After three or four months, he said, they switched him to “20, 16, 10-dollar fares.”
The strikers’ demands include that Uber raise fares back to where they were before the cut; add a tip option to the app; cap the number of drivers; and reduce the company’s commission to 10% for its low-cost UberX service, 15% for black cabs, and 18% for UberXL and SUVs, larger vehicles that are allowed to take more than four passengers.
Bhairavi Desai sees Uber’s goal as converting cab-driving from a full-time job to a part-time gig, and ultimately maybe even one without human drivers. “They have more lobbyists than Walmart,” she told the crowd. “They’re up in Albany fighting for a law that even if they control every part of your day, the government cannot say they are your employer.”
Uber executive David Plouffe—formerly President Barack Obama’s senior adviser—has said that the vast majority of Uber drivers have another job, she went on.
“Is that true?” she asked the crowd.
“NO!” the drivers roared back.
Plouffe has also said most work only two or three hours a day. “Is that true?” she asked.
“NO!” the drivers roared again.
“I think you’re going to see these actions continued, because people are pretty riled up. What you’re seeing is a drivers’ movement. It’s growing,” Desai told LaborPress. Uber, she added, is “just undercutting the drivers’ ability to make a decent living. It’s a vicious race to the bottom.”
The Taxi Workers Alliance is planning a demonstration at City Hall Feb. 17.