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New York City Drivers Cooperative Aims to Smash Uber’s Exploitative Model

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Ken Lewis grew up on the island of Grena­da, and wit­nessed the pro­gres­sive after­math of its 1979 rev­o­lu­tion. ?“I remem­ber the pow­er of coop­er­a­tives, peo­ple get­ting land, turn­ing places that were bar­ren into pro­duc­tive places,” he says. That image stayed with him after he moved to New York City for grad school and start­ed dri­ving a taxi on the side. Now, sev­er­al decades lat­er, Lewis is final­ly get­ting a chance to put the pow­er of coop­er­a­tives into prac­tice, in ser­vice of the dri­vers he worked with for so long. 

He is one of three cofounders of The Dri­vers Coop­er­a­tive (TDC), which aims to real­ize a long-held dream of social­ly con­scious New York­ers in a hur­ry: a rideshar­ing app that you can feel good about. When it rolls out to the pub­lic ear­ly next year, TDC will become New York City’s first work­er-owned rideshar­ing plat­form?—?owned by the dri­vers them­selves, rather than by big investors and exec­u­tives. Its founders’ brazen idea is that TDC can actu­al­ly gain a com­pet­i­tive advan­tage over Uber and Lyft?—?sav­ing mon­ey and fun­nel­ing those sav­ings back to dri­vers?—?by doing away with the most exploita­tive prac­tices of that dom­i­nant duop­oly. ?“The way the [Uber] mod­el is orga­nized is extrac­tive. It takes out the mon­ey and doesn’t give back much. Imag­ine a com­pa­ny that doesn’t have any prof­its, but has cre­at­ed bil­lion­aires,” Lewis says. ?“That mon­ey comes from drivers.” 

Erik For­man, a vet­er­an labor activist and orga­niz­er, became inti­mate­ly acquaint­ed with the dark side of that extrac­tive mod­el when he was work­ing as a staff mem­ber at the Inde­pen­dent Dri­vers Guild, a union-affil­i­at­ed group that orga­nizes rideshare dri­vers in New York. Com­pa­nies that oper­ate in the indus­try reg­u­lar­ly push much of the risk of employ­ment onto the dri­vers by clas­si­fy­ing them as ?“inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors” rather than employ­ees. But they also push the costs of the job onto the work­ers, forc­ing them to pay for their own car and main­te­nance (not to men­tion things like health­care ben­e­fits). Instead of being paid to work, in oth­er words, rideshar­ing apps?—?like oth­er ?“gig econ­o­my” com­pa­nies?—?make peo­ple pay in order to work. When Uber launched in New York City in 2011, it was an attrac­tive alter­na­tive for many who had pre­vi­ous­ly been taxi dri­vers, with decent pay and lit­tle reg­u­la­tion. But in sub­se­quent years, Uber cut pay rates while the num­ber of dri­vers rose, leav­ing many who had tak­en out loans to buy cars for their job strug­gling to meet their debt oblig­a­tions and earn a living. 

For­man, who has been through bit­ter union bat­tles with big com­pa­nies, real­ized that for the same amount of effort, work­ers could prob­a­bly start their own ven­ture?—?lead­ing him to help cofound the rideshar­ing coop. ?“The indus­try seems unique­ly in need of a sys­tem change based on work­er own­er­ship,” he says. “[TDC] is not anoth­er com­pa­ny try­ing to get mon­ey out of dri­vers. It’s the opposite.”

In fact, the lack of exploita­tion is also The Dri­vers Cooperative’s finan­cial advan­tage. For one thing, the bil­lions of dol­lars that Uber has spent on mar­ket­ing the con­cept of rideshar­ing mean that TDC has lit­tle need for big ad bud­gets. Their plan is to grow by build­ing a net­work of dri­vers, using press and word of mouth. And while Uber and Lyft take around a quar­ter of the mon­ey from each trip (some of it to pay for all that mar­ket­ing), the coop plans to take only 15%. By com­bin­ing the pur­chas­ing pow­er of all the mem­bers, they hope to low­er expens­es on costs like gas and insur­ance?—?expens­es that Uber and Lyft dri­vers must han­dle on their own. They project that this should all add up to 8?–?10% high­er earn­ings for dri­vers on every ride, even while being able to beat their com­peti­tors on fare prices. And if the coop has any prof­its left at the end of the year, they will be paid out to dri­vers as dividends. 

Nobody under­stands the fun­da­men­tal con­trast with Uber’s busi­ness mod­el bet­ter than the third cofounder, Alis­sa Orlan­do?—?because she used to work for Uber. Her stint as the head of Uber’s oper­a­tions in East Africa left her dis­il­lu­sioned with the company’s preda­to­ry con­trol over its dri­vers, embod­ied in the way it uni­lat­er­al­ly cut earn­ings, deac­ti­vat­ed dri­vers alto­geth­er, or sad­dled them with unsus­tain­able car loans, all while claim­ing they were work­ing togeth­er. ?“We called dri­vers part­ners to the extent that it helped us” main­tain favor­able reg­u­la­to­ry sta­tus, Orlan­do says, ?“but they were nev­er partners.” 

Now she is using her expe­ri­ence in ven­ture cap­i­tal and plat­form-based busi­ness­es on behalf of TDC, a scrap­pi­er job that allows her to sleep bet­ter at night. Meet­ing with New York City dri­vers to recruit them into the coop, she’s heard count­less sto­ries of the impos­si­ble choic­es that dri­vers are forced to make?—?like the woman who said that a half dozen pas­sen­gers get into her car with­out a mask every week, but if she objects, they give her a low rat­ing. ?“She has to make this choice between ensur­ing that she’s safe, and the poten­tial threat of deac­ti­va­tion,” Orlan­do says. 

Moham­mad Hossen, a rideshare dri­ver who serves on the coop’s advi­so­ry board, says that the pan­dem­ic has act­ed as an accel­er­ant for the urgency of the new project. His income from dri­ving has fall­en by two-thirds, to just $100 a day, and costs for dis­in­fec­tant and oth­er safe­ty mea­sures?—?paid out of his own pock­et?—?have gone up. The shared predica­ment has allowed him to suc­cess­ful­ly recruit oth­er dri­vers, while they wait for hours at the air­port to get a fare. ?“At the end of the day, you have no life, no secu­ri­ty, no future,” Hossen says. ?“We real­ize that, and we suffer.” 

That could change when dri­vers are also the company’s own­ers. The Dri­vers Coop­er­a­tive is start­ing a pilot project this month giv­ing rides to work­ers for the Bronx-based Coop­er­a­tive Home Care Asso­ciates, an exam­ple of cross-coop coop­er­a­tion. Founders hope to even­tu­al­ly recruit sev­er­al thou­sand dri­vers in the city, and say recruit­ment is going well. They aim to roll out their own app and open for busi­ness in the first quar­ter of 2021. Their even­tu­al goal, they say, is 10% of the $5 bil­lion New York City rideshare mar­ket, and expan­sion into oth­er cities. For now, though, they will be sat­is­fied with mak­ing a good idea a reality.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. 


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Why companies based on gig work are hurting more than their employees

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Imagine that one of two people will be responsible for your safety. The first receives health and dental benefits, earns more than minimum wage, has clear advancement options within their company, and may even belong to a union. The second has no insurance benefits, works wildly erratic hours, feels no allegiance to their company, and makes less money. Which person would you pick?

The ride-share and micromobility industry is under the microscope for worker violations and safety concerns. Major shared e-scooter companies are facing lawsuits from injured riders. Revel, a moped company operating in New York City, recently reopened operations after a shutdown earlier this year, as complaints about reckless driving and fatalities involving its vehicles mounted. Ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft face a number of lawsuits related to allegations by passengers of injury, assault, and harassment. A California ballot measure asking voters whether gig workers should count as employees has shown that many Americans are understandably focused on legal and legislative methods to introduce more order and security to the gig economy.

Like most startup industries, the companies providing these new mobility options are scrappy, doing things on the fly, and, at times, operating shortsightedly. This needs to change. As these forms of transportation edge their way to being a supplementary public transportation in a pandemic and beyond, we need to take this responsibility seriously.  After all, when the public gets on a bus, they don’t imagine the bus’s tires were changed not at a company-designated station but in someone’s garage.

Companies themselves would be wise to consider moving away from the gig economy and choosing to play a greater role in ensuring the well-being of their workers because doing so is fundamentally linked to the safety of their consumers and the success of their business.

Outdoor apparel giant Patagonia is famous for taking this approach: With generous time off, on-site child care, and the doors locked on weekends, the company has doubled in size since 2008 and is currently expanding into new markets. Employee turnover is minimal. CEOs and business school professors are increasingly aware that giving workers better wages and benefits also tends to be a recipe for greater profitability and employee retention in the long run.

Of course, any business has to keep an eye on the bottom line, but the damage done from rider injuries and safety lawsuits gives pause—financial pause, especially with potential liabilities tied up. But also pause because if you are hurting your customers, it’s not great for your brand. Investing in worker safety and well-being is more expensive in the short term, certainly. But in the long term, it leads to a more profitable company.

In 2019, my company, Spin, chose to make more than 90% of its workers employees with benefits, as opposed to contractors. In all markets our lowest starting wage is $15 per hour, with incremental increases based on tenure. We did this in part because research has shown that companies with healthy employees have better business performance. Companies with excellent safety, environment, and health programs outperform the S&P 500 by 3%-5%. But also because gig workers are less likely to have been thoroughly trained, more likely to leave for another job, and are often incentivized to cut corners in order to keep a high number of scooters on the streets and boost their own apparent productivity. This is unacceptable. Carefully training and fairly compensating the employees who work to keep our scooters safe for riders ensures that employees face no perverse incentives to rush through their work.

Safety out there also begins with safety in the home base. Designating our workers as employees with benefits—as opposed to contractors—allowed us to put protocols in place in both operations and maintenance and high standards endorsed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This operation would have been much less achievable with an ad hoc staff.

In order for companies in the ride-share and shared mobility space to truly unleash their potential, we must first gain public trust by improving the job we do on safety. Part of this will require that city planners and urban voters reimagine the nature of transportation infrastructure away from cars and toward biking, walking, and scooter transportation. It’s also vital that companies themselves give their workers every reason to do careful, excellent work in maintaining their fleets. As private-public partnerships create another way for people to move around, we need to make sure our workers are as supported as the workers behind transit agencies.

As the pandemic continues to demonstrate, the choice between safety and economic growth is a false reality, and companies should not pose these options against one another. At the end of the day, treating workers well is ultimately the safest choice for both businesses and their customers.

This blog originally appeared at Fast Company on October 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kyle Rowe is the global head of government partnerships at Spin, the micromobility unit of Ford Mobility.


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Prop 22 is Bad for Black Workers

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When the pandemic forced Cherri Murphy to stop driving for Lyft, she applied for unemployment benefits like millions of other workers. But because Lyft has refused to pay into California’s unemployment insurance fund, insisting that its workers are independent contractors rather than employees, Cherri received zero dollars in unemployment benefits.

By day, Ms. Murphy is a member of Gig Workers Rising and a volunteer social justice minister who helps people connect their faith to the fight for racial justice. By night, she is a Black working woman in America, completing more than 12,000 Lyft rides, forced to play by rules designed for her — and millions of Black workers — to lose.

“Uber and Lyft drivers are mostly folks who look like me,” said Ms. Murphy. “We’re African American and people of color. We’re on the frontlines and among the hardest hit financially. But our bosses have offered us no meaningful protections, treating us as expendable as ever.”

Now, in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately hurting Black Americans, Uber, Lyft and other gig companies like DoorDash and Instacart are trying to roll back labor rights for app-based workers through a ballot measure called Proposition 22. That’s bad news for Black workers.

Supporters of Proposition 22 talk about innovation and jobs of the future, but there is nothing new about bosses attacking labor rights. Don’t be fooled by the misinformation campaign these companies are running — saying drivers must choose between flexibility and employee rights. Flexibility has always been at the discretion of the employer.

As a report co-authored by the Partnership for Working Families and NELP shows, Proposition 22 would lock app-based workers out of minimum wage and overtime protections, unemployment insurance, the right to form a union, and critical health and safety protections.

Proposition 22 would effectively cancel local COVID-19 emergency sick leave laws, passed in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Los Angeles, that apply to app-based workers.

Bosses have always taken too much from Black workers. And U.S. labor laws have continuously failed Black workers, leaving them out of lifesaving labor protections. Economic inequality continues to this day, with Black women earning 62 cents on the dollar, and Black families having on average one-tenth of the wealth of white families. Union membership dramatically reduces that wealth gap.

The failed response to COVID-19 has only made life worse for Black people in the U.S. Racism in the labor market has forced Black workers onto the most dangerous frontlines of essential work. Yes, Trump is a threat to our safety. But Silicon Valley has done extensive damage as well, using sly legal moves and buying off politicians to steal the benefits workers have earned.

Proposition 22 is only the latest attempt by Silicon Valley bosses to rewrite state laws. It would roll back years of court rulings, agency policy, and statutory law in California, including Assembly Bill 5, which clarified that app-based workers are employees covered by the state’s wage-and-hour laws and eligible for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.

Proposition 22 is a step in the wrong direction that harkens back to a long and shameful history of denying Black workers their fundamental rights. The measure sets a dangerous precedent; one that the Trump administration and gig companies could use as fodder for their continued nationwide attack on workers’ rights.

Ms. Murphy was among hundreds of Black Uber and Lyft drivers who penned an open letter calling out gig employers for empty lip-service to the Black Lives Matter movement. The same companies running ad campaigns in support of Black Lives are bankrolling the most expensive ($184 million+) ballot measure in history to take protections away from Black workers.

California voters must vote no on Proposition 22, and say yes to a future with universal rights and good jobs for Black workers and for every worker in the state.

This blog originally appeared at National Employment Law Project on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rashad Robinson is an American civil rights leader. He is the president of Color of Change, having joined the organization in May 2011. He has served as a board member of RaceForwardDemosState Voices, and currently sits on the board of the Hazen Foundation.

Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP).


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Return of the Lockout: Uber and Lyft Try to Strong-Arm California

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In August a California court ordered Uber and Lyft to reclassify more than 100,000 drivers as regular employees. The two companies, which depend on a business model that defines drivers as independent contractors, got the decision lifted for at least a few months.

But in the meantime their threat to shut down operations in California—and thereby fire thousands of drivers while ending service to millions of customers—raises the question: What do we call this extraordinary corporate stratagem? A public relations gambit? A pressure tactic? Blackmail? A capital strike?

It’s all of the above, but the best historical analogy is the “lockout,” a disreputable, two-century-old employer weapon designed to force workers to knuckle under.

A WEAPON AGAINST SKILLED WORKERS

The Homestead strike of 1892 began as a stoppage by skilled workers who resisted demands by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick to slash wages and union power. Frick erected a fence around the entire mill, locked out all employees, and called in a barge full of Pinkerton private police to protect the scabs he hoped to recruit. When workers routed the Pinkertons in a bloody battle, it took the importation of National Guard troops from Philadelphia to put power back in capitalist hands.

Late 19th century lockouts were not uncommon because the status quo had tilted in favor of elite workers: skilled labor controlled the shop floor in many mills and mines and on construction sites, even as deflation was increasing the value of their nominal wages. Bosses responded with lockouts to force concessions and wage cuts.

Lockouts were far less frequent in the mid-20th century decades of union power and successful collective bargaining. That’s when workers went on strike themselves and almost always came out ahead.

But beginning in the 1980s, when just holding on to the contract provisions won in earlier bargaining rounds was often counted a union success, lockouts returned as an employer weapon. Managers locked out union workers in major battles at Caterpillar, the Detroit newspapers, and A.E. Staley in the 1990s. In more recent years, they used the same tactic at Honeywell and National Grid, a Massachusetts gas distribution utility.

Remarkably, the most high-profile lockouts have arisen in professional sports. Here players established strong unions that captured some of the enormous revenue generated by game broadcast rights. And free agency contracts enabled some stars to win enormous salaries. Owners struck back, precipitating lockouts that wrecked the training season: in 2011, the NFL locked out players for 136 days and the NBA did the same for 161 days. The following year, NHL owners locked out players for 119 days.

GIG WORKERS’ FUTURE AT STAKE

But what does all this have to do with Uber and Lyft? Their drivers are not unionized, after all. True, but they have won, in California courts and legislature, a considerable employment-rights victory that, if and when enforced, will transform the meaning of work in the gig economy, greatly enhancing income and security for many.

Last year California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law that requires Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and many other companies to reclassify as regular employees workers currently illegally treated as independent contractors. This means that in the future they will be paid a more predictable wage, earn sick leave and Social Security credits, and find themselves covered by worker compensation and unemployment benefit laws.

And they will be legally entitled to unionize, in which case workers and managers can negotiate a contact that gives drivers as much “flexibility” as Uber and Lyft now claim they want.

So, like the skilled workers of late 19th century America, gig economy drivers and DoorDash “shoppers” now find the status quo theoretically on their side. At least in California, they are on the verge of enjoying work rights that gig employers want to gut. To do so Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have amassed a $181 million war chest to pass Proposition 22 on the November California ballot. That proposition would once again legalize contract work for millions of workers who by any reasonable definition are regular employees.

Uber and Lyft are strong-arming Californians. They hope their threat will convince drivers to abandon their rights and persuade California riders to endorse the theft.

BLUSTER

In 1941 Henry Ford threatened to shut down his company if workers voted for the United Auto Workers. They did and yet Ford continues to this day. Management bluster is often just bluster, which is probably the case with Uber and Lyft.

But in the last month, they have proposed another way to keep employees from their rights: create a set of franchises to employ their drivers, if Proposition 22 passes. Franchising is an old trick, as any employee at McDonald’s, Days Inn, FedEx, or Jiffy Lube can attest. Workers are legally employees in a franchise, but the real employer, the one with the money and power, remains legally aloof. Workers get squeezed and unionization brings few benefits.

So the lockout, once thought a relic of Gilded Age America, has returned with a vengeance, ingenuity, and determination that would have made Henry Frick envious. We need an equally radical rededication to the concept of jobs with rights, and the rewards, monetary and moral, that are their just compensation.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Nelson Lichtenstein is Research Professor in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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Why Many Uber Drivers Couldn’t Afford To Stay Home During Australia’s Fires

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Australia’s bushfire crisis has killed tens and incinerated an area two-thirds the size of Illinois. The resulting blanket of smog reduced air quality in the nation’s capital, Canberra, to third worst among all major cities. But the latest manifestation of the climate crisis has hurt an already hard-done by group: gig workers delivering food for Uber Eats. While state governments have advised people to stay home, for gig workers relying on Uber to survive that’s tantamount to asking them to starve, miss rent, or fall behind on loans. All Uber has done, according to these workers, is warn them that going outside hurts their health. Concerning itself as little as possible with its employees’ well-being is a central part of Uber’s business model, defining its workers as independent contractors so it can skimp on providing health care, benefits, or a minimum wage.

But viciously exploiting its drivers—or changing the ‘norms’ that led to a “culture of sexual harrasment” at the company—didn’t stop Uber from losing $1.2 billion between July and September of last year. Their balance sheet from the three months prior to that had them $5.2 billion in the red. Despite never fulfilling the capitalist imperative to turn a profit, ridesharing services like Uber have managed to remake urban life, destroying the licensed taxi industry at a substantial human cost and worsening traffic in major American cities. As the numbers show, the daily reality of Uber drivers is no more rational or fair than one would expect from a company that loses billions while awarding its CEO a $3 million salary.

  • 3,900,000 – Uber drivers worldwide in 2019
  • 36% – U.S. adults who say they used a ride-hailing service in 2018
  • 30% – Uber’s cut of each driver’s fares as of 2019
  • $9.73 – Estimated hourly net income (including tips) of Uber drivers in 2018, factoring in vehicle expenses and Uber’s cut
  • 13 – Major U.S. markets where Uber drivers’ hourly compensation (before taxes) was below the mandated minimum wage in 2018, including the three largest: Chicago, Los Angeles and New York
  • $20,000 – Estimated annual salary, after expenses but before taxes, for an Uber driver working 40 hours per week in 2018
  • $20 million – Amount the Federal Trade Commission fined Uber for falsely claiming its NYC drivers could make $90,000/year in 2017; the company couldn’t produce a single driver who made that much
  • $143 million – Total compensation for Uber’s top five executives in 2018
  • $90 million – Amount pledged by Uber, Lyft and DoorDash to fight a 2019 California law that would classify rideshare workers as employees rather than contractors
  • 0 – Latinx or Black employees who held Uber tech leadership roles in 2018

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 30, 2020 by the editors of In These Times. Reprinted with permission.


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New Jersey hits Uber with $650 million bill for back taxes, this week in the war on workers

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New Jersey says Uber owes $650 million in back taxes and interest for misclassifying workers as independent contractors. This isn’t coming out of nowhere—in 2015, the state notified Uber it owed $54 million in unemployment and disability taxes. Four years later, the number has grown to $523 million in past-due taxes and $119 million in interest and penalties.

No surprise, Uber says it will fight to avoid paying its tab. And the decision that Uber drivers are employees could have major ramifications beyond taxes—refusing to treat its workers as employees is at the heart of Uber’s business model. New Jersey is dealing other blows against that misclassification, including determining former rideshare drivers to have been employees for the purposes of collecting unemployment (one of the taxes Uber hasn’t been paying), and the state Senate is considering legislation cracking down on misclassification. California recently passed such a law, which Uber and other affected companies have said they will spend tens of millions of dollars fighting. A class-action lawsuit against Uber in New Jersey also seeks to escape Uber’s forced arbitration requirement because the drivers in question are involved in interstate commerce.

Uber’s business model is reliant on violating labor law to exploit workers, and, as the New Jersey case shows, it also cheats states of massive amounts of revenue. Increasingly, that model is under challenge in the states. Following the New Jersey demand for back taxes, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s Bhairavi Desai said in a statement, “New Jersey is sending a message that the state’s labor laws aren’t dictated by corporations. It’s time for New York to follow.” It is time, and that would be another major challenge for Uber. At some point, you have to wonder how many big states even a rich company like Uber can afford to keep battling for the right to violate labor laws.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on November 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor

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Uber CEO Forgives Saudi Arabia for a Brutal Murder, But Punishes Drivers for Small Errors

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Image result for Audrey Winn"In an Axios interview that aired on HBO last Sunday, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi made a troubling analogy. Discussing Uber’s ties to Saudi Arabia—whose sovereign fund is one of Uber’s largest shareholders—Khosrowshahi described the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi as a “mistake” comparable to the company’s own “mistakes” in reckless automation. This “mistake” was brushed off casually, with no mention of its place in the context of other Saudi “mistakes,” including an ongoing violent war against Yemen and a long history of brutally silencing domestic critics.

“It’s a serious mistake,” Khosrowshahi said, referring to the order from Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s to kill and dismember Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October of 2018. “We’ve made mistakes too, right, with self-driving, and we stopped driving and we’re recovering from that mistake. I think that people make mistakes, it doesn’t mean that they can never be forgiven.”

The self-driving “mistake” Khosrowshahi alluded to was the death of pedestrian Elaine Herzberg, who was killed by an Uber self-driving car in 2018. According to documents released by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) last week, there was “a cascade of poor design decisions that led to the car being unable to properly process and respond to Herzberg’s presence as she crossed the roadway with her bicycle.” She was thrown 75 feet in the air by the collision and died on site.

Though Khosrowshahi scrambled to backtrack his statement, his apology seems disingenuous given his previous record of emphasizing the importance of forgiving corporate wrongdoings. In a 2018 interview, Khosrowshahi defended Uber COO Barney Harford, who left the company after allegations of making racial slurs and sexist comments.

“I don’t think that a comment that might have been taken as insensitive and happened to report by large news organizations should mark a person,” Khosrowshahi said. “I don’t think that’s fair. And I’m sure I’ve said things that have been insensitive and you take that as a learning moment. And the question is, does a person want to change, does a person want to improve?”

This attitude reveals a larger issue at Uber—the jarring double standard for forgiving corporate “mistakes” while punishing driver errors, even though corporate leaders have far more power to perpetrate large-scale harm.

Since its inception, Uber has faced a steady stream of public controversies. In 2014, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick joked that the company’s nickname was “Boober” because of the way it boosted employees’ sex appeal. That same year, it was also revealed that Uber’s self-named “God View” could be used to track riders’ locations, including the locations of journalists the company sought to intimidate. From spying on Beyoncé and competitors, to systemically underpaying drivers, to firing over 20 employees who filed sexual harassment claims, the company is quick to seek leniency for itself and drop its “mistakes happen” attitude the moment it turns its attention toward drivers.

In contrast to its internal corporate policies, Uber’s attitude toward drivers is unforgiving. Uber has a militantly single-minded emphasis on high ratings. Given this mindset, it is not surprising that Uber drivers are at risk of getting fired if they maintain a rating below 4.6. This policy remains unchanged, despite the fact that studies have shown that Uber’s rating system allows riders to express biases and evaluate drivers in ways that violate federal anti-discrimination laws.

When drivers are deactivated for low ratings they are told they can rejoin the platform if they complete costly, time-consuming training courses run by Uber’s third-party partners. Many can’t afford these classes already, due to Uber’s dropping wages and vanishing bonuses. Instead of getting training course discounts from the tech giant, however, this requirement remains.

The lack of sympathy is unsurprising given Uber’s history of holding drivers’ poverty against them. Who can forget the now-viral six-minute exchange, where former-CEO Travis Kalanick responded to a driver’s complaints about plummeting rates by telling him that he wasn’t a hard worker—that “some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else.”

Even when drivers have “worked hard” and excelled in their ratings, however, Uber still has ways to punish them. Any number of offenses can lead to deactivation, including, according to Uber, “certain actions [drivers] may take outside of the app, if we determine that those actions threaten the safety of the Uber community, or cause harm to Uber’s brand, reputation, or business.” Though some attempt has been made to clarify these guidelines, confusion remains. Drivers have been allegedly deactivated for a punishing range of issues, including allegedly reporting when passengers called them anti-Muslim slurs and making private Facebook posts.

Uber has a new CEO, but it’s still business as usual. The company’s continued operation is premised on forgiveness for the rich and powerful, and punishment for workers. Khosrowshahi’s statement shows this injustice remains, without any evidence of corporate self-reflection.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on November 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Audrey Winn is a Skadden Fellowship Attorney working and writing in New York City. She is passionate about workers’ rights, algorithmic transparency, and the inclusion of gig workers in the future of the labor movement.

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Hey, Uber and Lyft: Gig Work Is Work. California Just Said So.

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The rideshare industry seems to have been on an unstoppable tear, running roughshod over regulations, filling the streets with cars, and making astronomical sums of Wall Street capital. But California just tripped up Uber and Lyft’s business model with pioneering legislation to rein in the freewheeling “gig economy.”

The law, Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), passed overwhelmingly in the California Senate this week and is expected to be signed by Governor Gavin Newsom soon. It lays out a clear standard, the so-called “ABC test,” to ensure employers are properly categorizing workers as independent contractors, taking into account how much control the company exerts over their working conditions. Under the law, an independent contractor is defined as a worker with real autonomy: a person who (a) is not directly controlled by the company, (b) does work in the same trade or field independent of that company, and (c) is “independently established” as a proprietor of a separate business in the same sector. Under AB5, if you’re a rideshare driver whose entire livelihood depends on the rides your app funnels into our smartphone every hour, you’re likely an employee under California law.

The ABC test will codify the decision made in a landmark California Supreme Court case last year, Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles. The Court ruled in favor of delivery service workers who argued they deserved to be classified as employees because they were forced to wear the company’s uniform and display its logo despite being legally deemed “independent.” A major goal of the AB5 legislation is to stop employers’ widespread abusive misclassification of workers as independent contractors, in order to deny them regular employment rights and protections, often by insisting that their workers are merely app users.

Once classified as employees under state law, gig workers—not just platform-based workers, but also nail technicians, home-repair workers and dog walkers—would have access to California’s minimum wage, overtime pay, paid rest break, parental leave and workers’ compensation.

Yet Uber and Lyft both continue to resist AB5, and Uber has even indicated that it does not plan to follow the law once it goes into effect at the start of 2020. The company argues that neither the companies, nor many of their drivers, want to be bound by state labor laws and prefer to drive Uber as a casual side hustle.

But thousands of drivers are already organizing in California for more power over their working conditions. According to Brian Dolber, an organizer with the California-based Rideshare Drivers United, a fledgling union of 5,000 drivers, AB5 paves the way to formal unionization. But Rideshare Drivers United has not yet decided on what form the union will take. For now, he said, “We’re really putting drivers’ voices first.” Dolber added, “We want to continue organizing drivers and have drivers decide how they want their union to be structured.’

Critics of AB5 point to the potential loss of “flexibility” once gig workers are regarded as  employees. However, labor advocates dismiss the flexibility question as concern trolling by the bill’s corporate foes. Nayantara Mehta of the National Employment Law Project argues that current labor laws do not automatically exclude jobs with irregular hours, such as union nurses and construction workers, from being employees. Besides, AB5 deals with the degree of control a company exerts over a worker, not how the schedule is set. “Courts have found that just because a worker has a flexible schedule doesn’t mean she is somehow transformed into the operator of her own business—the true benchmark of independent contractor status,” writes Mehta.

Moreover, the fixation on flexibility elides the reality of many gig jobs. Workers’ schedules may be unstable, but not by choice: Often workers are glued to their phones so they can scramble for whatever rides pop up on their phone, or get paid for each manicure they do or each burger they deliver. Their pay could be so dismal that workers “flex” themselves into exhaustion.

“We drive and we drive and we drive,” said Nicole Moore of Rideshare Drivers United, who helped coordinate a rideshare strike in May. “We don’t have dinner with our kids, we don’t do all the things that we’re supposed to be doing in life. Yet we’re expected to pay the rent, we’re expected to put food on the table, and try to make a better life for our kids.”

This is not the first time Uber’s independent contractor system has been challenged. Various lawsuits in recent months have sought to establish workers’ formal employment rights, with mixed results. Uber managed to wriggle out of two lawsuits in March, which together settled for $20 million with 13,600 drivers—but did not address their status as non-employees. Meanwhile, growing efforts to organize rideshare drivers, particularly the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, have helped win increased labor protections at the state and local level, including a minimum wage for drivers in New York City.

Facing the prospect of their payrolls becoming saddled with thousands of brand new workers, gig-company executives are panicking. Uber and Lyft spent a total of about $750,000 lobbying the California legislature, alongside other professional and industry associations that sought exemptions from the law. In the end, Uber and Lyft were not granted the carve-out they were hoping for in the bill, but other trades—including real estate and insurance agents, doctors, engineers, architects and lawyers—were exempted.

Now Uber, Lyft and DoorDash are reportedly joining forces to fight AB5 using a time-honored California political strategy: investing $90 million on a ballot initiative asking voters to overturn the law and erect a different legal regime for gig workers, which might include some weaker benefits and pay standards.

So the gig economy’s leading lights are bent on fighting the law until the bitter end. But in this next round of legal battles, California’s new law, which is based on a Supreme Court ruling and reflects growing public disillusionment with the gig economy titans, might finally put the brakes on the platform economy’s regulatory rollbacks.

Moore is hopeful that the law can help narrow the gulf between Uber executives and drivers. “There’s no difference between my humanity and their humanity, sha says, adding: “The basic American agreement is that yes, be innovative, become a millionaire, build your own business, but the American compromise is that you will need to share some of those millions with the people who do the work in your company, so that they can also afford to take a Lyft.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.


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What Uber and the Koch Brothers Have in Common: A Plan to Destroy Public Transit

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Image result for Jeremy MohlerAt first glance, the rideshare corporation Uber couldn’t appear more different than conservative oil-mogul billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch. Uber has hired numerous former Democratic Party campaign managers and lobbyists and the company’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, has publicly criticized the Trump administration, including over the travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries. The Kochs, meanwhile, have gained a reputation for bankrolling the Republican Party.

Yet Uber—the Silicon Valley startup-gone-public—shares at least one goal with the most prominent funders of modern conservatism: the destruction of America’s public transit.

While polarization in the United States is on the rise when it comes to metrics like party affiliation and media consumption, there’s a frightening level of agreement in corporate America, regardless of party loyalty. Examining where both Uber and the Koch brothers agree exposes the consensus hiding beneath the surface of our current political gridlock. Yes, rideshare corporations and oil tycoons share a financial interest in a car-centric future. But both also lobby for corporate tax cuts, deregulation and fewer rights and protections for workers. Both also envision a society with weakened or nonexistent public goods, part of a 40-year privatization trend that’s touched everything from public education to water access. From this vantage point, government is, in fact, getting things done and solving problems—just for corporate America rather than poor and working people.

A close look at the growing war on public transit reveals the planks of this corporate consensus.

In documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Uber’s executives claim to see a “massive market opportunity” in the estimated 4.4 trillion miles traveled each year by people using public transit across 175 countries. The company continues to heavily subsidize per-ride costs to inflate its value to investors and undercut existing options, despite bleeding billions of dollars. “Uber is effectively a middleman for a money transfer from venture-capital (VC) firms to consumers,” writes James P. Sutton in National Review. Simply put, effectively supplanting the taxi industry wasn’t enough: Uber plans on undercutting public transit to finally turn a profit.

For their part, the Koch brothers are funneling money to their political action committee (PAC), Americans for Prosperity, to kill proposed public transit projects nationwide. Last year, they led the charge in stopping a popular $5.4 billion transit plan in Nashville, Tennessee, that had even been backed by a coalition of the city’s business community. The Kochs have funded similar anti-public transit efforts in Arkansas, Arizona, Michigan, Utah and other states.

Their stated rationale, of course, is lower taxes. Americans for Prosperity tried to kill a 2017 gas-tax plan in Indiana meant to raise a billion dollars to invest in buses and infrastructure, even though it was introduced by the state’s GOP-led House of Representatives. Cutting taxes is the Koch brothers’ bread and butter. They contributed $20 million to help pass the Trump tax plan, which slashed taxes for their primary business, Koch Industries, by as much as $1.4 billion a year.

Uber has joined the Koch brothers on this libertarian crusade, using a corporate shell game to avoid paying billions in taxes and lobbying against taxes and fees on rides across the globe.

The corporate behemoths also share a stated goal of “cutting red tape.” The Koch brothers bankrolled the founding of the nation’s first libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, which sees “limited government,” i.e., deregulation, as a key ingredient of freedom. They also funded the now-defunct Freedom Partners, which developed a road map that shaped the early days of the Trump administration’s deregulatory policy agenda. Uber, together with its main competitor Lyft, boasted more lobbyists in 2016 than Amazon, Microsoft and Walmart combined. As of June 2018, the two corporations had convinced 41 state legislatures and many local governments to pass legislation protecting them from regulation.

Most importantly, both the Koch brothers and Uber understand that their freedom depends on taking freedom away from working people. Uber has spent generously on fighting to ensure its drivers maintain their precarious status as independent contractors. The company has also invested heavily in technology that would get rid of drivers altogether, including driverless cars. The Koch brothers’ anti-worker views date back much further, all the way to the counterrevolutionary days at the end of the New Deal era. Fred Koch, Charles and David’s father, owned an oil refinery corporation and was active in the archconservative John Birch Society. Through groups like the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the Kochs have long led the attack against collective bargaining rights for public employees, including train and bus drivers.

At the end of the day, the Koch Brothers and Uber are much like Coke and Pepsi. They may have clashing styles, but their product is largely the same: lower corporate taxes, deregulation, lower wages, and private control over public goods like mass transit.

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeremy Mohler is a Washington D.C.-based political writer with In the Public Interest and a meditation teacher.

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Federal court deals a blow to Uber, Lyft drivers trying to unionize in Seattle

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A two-year legal battle over a Seattle, Washington law allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize was prolonged again this week, after a federal appeals court ruled Friday that it can be challenged under federal antitrust law.

The first-in-the-nation law was unanimously passed by the Seattle City Council in 2015 and sought to give ride-share drivers the opportunity to unionize and bargain for better pay and benefits.

But it was swiftly challenged by business and conservative groups, namely the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, representing Uber and Lyft, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, and the Freedom Foundation. In a 2016 lawsuit against the city of Seattle, the Chamber of Commerce claimed “the ordinance will burden innovation, increase prices, and reduce quality and services for consumers.”

One legal challenge was dismissed last year, but the law remained on hold until other legal challenges were resolved. On Friday, three judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that Seattle’s law is not exempt from the Sherman Antitrust Act, sending it back to U.S. District Court.

Uber spokesman Caleb Weaver called the decision “a win for rideshare drivers, riders and the entire Seattle community.”

The Teamsters Local 117 and members of the App-Based Drivers Association (ABDA) expressed their frustration and disappointment in the wake of Friday’s ruling.

“Anti-trust laws were put in place to protect the little guy from monopolistic practices from large corporations, not to shield a company like Uber — valued at over $70 billion — from negotiating with its workers over fair pay and working conditions,” said Don Creery, Uber and Lyft driver and member of the ABDA leadership council.

One bright spot for proponents of Seattle’s law: the Ninth Circuit judges agreed in their ruling that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) can cover independent contractors, like Uber and Lyft drivers.

This week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), along with other Senate Democrats, introduced legislation that would make it easier for people working in the gig economy to prove they are employees and thus be able to organize and collectively bargain. While the legislation doesn’t stand a chance in the current Republican-controlled Congress, Bloomberg notes that it has the backing of potential Democratic presidential candidates and could be a sign of things to come if Democrats are able to regain control of either chamber this fall.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on May 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kiley Kroh is a senior editor at ThinkProgress.


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