Whenever you can get a whole lot of pissed off people in the same room to agree on the same thing, you have the opportunity to inflict some real change.
It seems like every year after Uber cuts rates in January, there are a whole lot of pissed off drivers. And every year after cuts, it seems like they all agree on the same thing, yet nothing ever really happens.
I don’t blame these drivers for being angry because I’m actually one of those pissed off drivers. I hate hearing ‘lower rates means higher earnings’ for drivers when that so clearly isn’t the case (anyone at Uber ever heard of expenses?). And to be perfectly frank, I’d rather write about how to be the best driver you can be as opposed to covering the dark side of rideshare. But for me, I don’t have much of a choice, since this isn’t exactly the type of issue you can sweep under the rug.
There are a lot of drivers out there who have invested time, money and effort to learn this industry, get good at it and thrive. And rate cuts can threaten all of that. Whether you’re an Uber driver or not, it doesn’t feel very good to go in to work one day only to find out that you’ll now be required to do the exact same job but for less pay.
The Online Strike
Whenever Uber cuts rates, drivers often head to their local/national Facebook groups to vent. The venting part is completely understandable, but these rate cuts often get people riled up enough to start talking about ways to strike. But where they miss the boat by a mile is that they don’t realize just how many rideshare drivers are out there.
To put things in perspective, my site, The Rideshare Guy, had over half a million page views last month. The last time I visited San Francisco, I took 18 Uber rides and only one driver had ever even heard of my site. Although not exactly scientific, that tells me that a majority of drivers are not online, they’re not in Facebook groups and they are going to be tough to find.
Starting online makes a lot of sense though because it’s easy, you take 2 minutes to drum up a quick post and now you have a bunch of people who seem ready to follow you! But since most drivers aren’t online, you’re not reaching the people who matter most. There have been lots of strikes in the past that have gotten media attention and some traction, but nothing ever came of them because it’s not enough to just bring attention to driver’s plights. You also need to back it up with a meaningful number of drivers.
When Uber passengers aren’t able to get a ride anymore because of a driver strike, that’s when Uber is going to take notice.
Local & Grassroots Is The Key
Unlike a traditional job, drivers don’t all go to work at the same place every day. That makes it much tougher to organize them but not impossible.
So while not every driver is online, they do all go out and actually drive. The key to reaching a large audience of drivers is to find them while they’re out driving. This can be achieved in several ways:
- Airport Lots: Since Uber uses a queuing system at most major airports, drivers wait up to an hour in cities like LA and SF for just one ride. So you can imagine how many bored Uber drivers there are in these airport lots who would be pretty willing to listen to you.
- Passenger Rides: Uber’s low minimum fares are brutal for drivers but they can actually be used effectively to organize. If you had a team of 10 passionate and dedicated drivers, you could go out and take 5-10 min. Uber rides for $4.65 all day long. This would give you face time to pitch drivers, collect some info from them and help your cause.
- Uber Office Hours: Local strikes in the past have taken place outside Uber’s headquarters, but to me, it would seem much more effective to strike in front of the place where Uber is helping out frustrated drivers and onboarding new ‘partners’. If Uber’s going to aggregate drivers for you, you might as well take advantage of that.
- Fleet Owners: In cities like New York where most UberX drivers work for fleet owners (UberX drivers in NYC are required to carry commercial insurance and TLC licensing making it very cost prohibitive to sign up on your own and/or work part time), a handful of fleet owners employ a large number of drivers.
In over two years of writing this blog, almost every rally or strike that I’ve heard about has been done primarily on Facebook. Only a few have used a local and grassroots strategy because it’s much more challenging this way.
You have to have passionate people willing to take time out of their day (and money out of their pocket) to rally drivers around their cause. So when I see people comparing Uber to slavery from the comfort of their laptop, I think they’re full of it. If they really felt that way, they’d get off their ass and off their computer to organize.
Local vs National
When it comes to organizing and starting a movement, you have to think about it like scaling a business. One thing I’ve learned from consulting with so many start-ups over the past year is that companies like Uber don’t go out and launch in 500 cities across the US when they’re just getting started. They pick one city that they think has the most potential for their business model and they perfect the system in that one city.
Once the business model has proved successful, they start to expand. I think starting on a local level is just as important when you’re trying to organize drivers. You need to find people who understand the economic situation in your area, the local culture and even the cost of living. Drivers in Tulsa are probably going to want a different pay rate than drivers in San Francisco, but at the end of the day they both want the same thing: higher pay.
That’s why it’s important to start the conversation at a local level and then align goals at a higher level. The most famous national strike of 2015 was a huge flop because although they supposedly had thousands of drivers, they were so scattered across the country, there was no impact when it came time to strike. Everyone wanted different things and there was no accountability.
Accountability Is Key
If you’ve ever tried to sell something on Craigslist, you know a thing or two about online accountability. It’s a lot easier to flake on someone you met on the internet than someone whom you have a personal relationship with. Even if you could get 10,000 drivers in Los Angeles to join a Facebook group and all agree that they were going to log off for an hour every Saturday night, how many of them would actually do it when there’s no one holding them accountable?
I think that’s one of the big things that organizing online misses out on: accountability. It’s easy to support a cause from the comfort of your laptop or to check off ‘Going’ on a Facebook event. But when you do things in person, you’re developing a relationship. And when it comes time to executing your goals, they’re going to be a lot more likely to follow through since they don’t want to let you down.
Harnessing The Power Of The Media
The final key to the puzzle is harnessing the power of the media. Uber is a very passenger-centric company, and it should be pretty clear by now that they don’t value driver’s feedback. But they do listen to passengers, and one of the best parts about leveraging the media is that the media can quickly amplify your message to people who matter.
I know a thing or two about developing relationships with the media, and it’s one of the major tactics I’ve used to grow this blog. It’s not a coincidence that I’ve been featured hundreds of times and will probably be featured, quoted or linked hundreds more. But the way you approach the media matters big time: you have to be willing to put in the work that others aren’t in order to stand out.
Most reporters get hundreds of pitches a day from people who take the easy route and just send an e-mail. Sure, that might work once in a while but everyone is doing that. For me, I started by developing relationships with reporters who were covering the industry.
Reporters love Twitter and it’s a great way to get a relationship started. You can favorite, re-tweet and interact with reporters just a few times so that they see your name and become familiar with your cause. That way, when you do send them an e-mail, it won’t be the first time they’ve heard from you. 90% of people who pitch reporters aren’t willing to do this tiny, yet extremely effective step.
Once you have that relationship, getting your pitch or your story featured is the easy part. Most reporters at big national publications have quotas that require them to write 1-2 stories a day or whatever it may be. Uber and any type of ‘strike’ story is also a headline grabber right now. So if you can provide expertise or help, they’ll feel like they owe you one, and when it comes time for you to ask a favor of them, it will be a lot tougher for them to say no.
Successful Examples Of Drivers Organizing
There aren’t a lot of successful examples of drivers organizing because there hasn’t been a whole lot of success. But one example that stands out to me occurred in Dallas with UberBLACK drivers. In September of 2015, Uber announced a new policy that would force UberBLACK drivers to accept UberX rates. Understandably, Black car drivers were pissed and after four days of protesting, they actually got Uber to reverse this policy.
You won’t find many posts online though or Facebook groups detailing their efforts because it was all done in person. As one driver put it, “UberBLACK/SUV drivers come from tightly knit new immigrant communities, often personally know one another, and congregate en masse at the airports.” Now obviously it helps that there aren’t nearly as many Black car drivers (since the number is capped by Uber), but I do think it shows the power of organizing a group in order to affect change.
Clearly the UberBlack drivers in Dallas were impacting Uber’s business beyond just bad headlines. Otherwise, Uber would have never met with them and succumbed to their demands.
New York UberX Drivers Protest
Very recently, Uber drivers in New York staged a protest outside of Uber’s offices in Queens and the response was pretty amazing. In fact, it was the largest gathering of drivers at a protest I’ve ever seen. Obviously it’s tough to verify who is a driver and who isn’t but it should be clear that this protest had a lot of support.
It’s still a little early to say whether this protest will have an effect on Uber’s policies, but the turnout was pretty impressive. I’m still trying to get in contact with the protest’s organizers to see how they made it happen.
But I can say that since NYC requires commercial insurance and TLC licensing for all UberX drivers (unlike every other city in the US), New York is a very atypical Uber market. Most of the drivers are full-time and/or work for a fleet owner and therefore they depend on Uber a lot more than your typical driver who might just quit when rates get too low. In other words, these drivers are very motivated.
San Francisco UberX Drivers Protest
There was actually a protest on Monday in San Francisco that got some traction too. The funny thing about this protest though was that I first heard about it from a reporter. In fact, three reporters asked me about it and I didn’t ever get a single e-mail from a driver until after it had started. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I do think it shows a lot of the organizing efforts happened locally and on the ground.
Uber drivers’ rates protest takes to the SF streets (this article is better/more accurate)
I think the number of drivers was closer to 1-200 from the videos I watched, but it was still a pretty impressive turnout. These protesters have big plans to disrupt transportation during the Super Bowl, but I think that’s going to be very tough. Big events like The Super Bowl tend to be pretty lucrative for drivers so not only will the striking drivers have to miss out on income but high surge pricing will also encourage drivers from near and far to drive during the game.
Media attention is great and all, but I don’t think it’s enough. You need to really impact Uber’s bottom line in order to get them to listen.
What’s The End Game?
At the end of the day, I think organizing drivers is going to be a logistical nightmare. Not only are they spread out between online and offline, but they come from all different backgrounds and drive for all different reasons. The full-time driver who drives 60 hours a week is in a lot different position than the soccer mom who just wants to drive a few hours while her kids are at school.
But there is plenty of common ground that all of these different drivers share. Nobody wants to be treated like a disposable commodity. Everybody wants fair and reasonable pay. And most importantly, drivers all want and should have some say in the direction of the company.
I think Uber sometimes forgets that the drivers are the ones who have propped up their valuation and made them so successful. The thing that stood out to me in the New York protests is that drivers were asking to have a voice in the process. If Uber was going to cut fares, drivers wanted to be able to share their side of the story.
As an individual driver you may not have a lot of power to affect change, but when you start getting the right people on the same page, that’s when Uber might be forced to listen and make some accommodations. I don’t think ‘union’ or ‘strikes’ are the right terminology to use, but I do think that there is real precedence for an organization or a collective that represents Uber drivers everywhere. The real question though is who’s going to make it happen?
I’ve included a survey below that I’d love to get your feedback on. If you’re reading this over e-mail, please head to the website to view the article and vote.
Drivers, what do you think about organizing Uber drivers? Is it possible or will it never happen?
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-Harry @ RSG