Uber and Lyft drivers begin strike to protest low wages, job insecurity

"Uber's corporate owners are set to make billions, all while drivers are left in poverty and go bankrupt,” one strike organizer said.
Image: Members of the Independent Drivers Guild drive across the Brooklyn Bridge in protest of Uber and Lyft on May 8, 2019.
Members of the Independent Drivers Guild drive across the Brooklyn Bridge in protest of Uber and Lyft on May 8, 2019.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

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By Phil McCausland

Uber and Lyft drivers in cities across the country began to strike Wednesday to protest low pay among several other labor concerns.

The strike is timed to coincide with Uber’s IPO filing on Friday. The flashiest new tech stock to hit the market, Uber is expected to be valued at more than $80 billion when it goes public at the New York Stock Exchange.

Drivers argue that Uber and Lyft profit off the backs of employees, leaving them with low wages and without access to full-time employment benefits despite working long hours.

The drivers started their two-hour strike in New York during Wednesday's morning rush hour — 7 to 9 a.m. — and planned to rally outside Uber and Lyft’s headquarters in Queens in the afternoon to share their demands for job security, a livable wage and greater fare regulations, according to New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

The extent of the strike was not immediately clear but NBC News was able to quickly book rides on the Uber and Lyft apps in New York City on Wednesday morning. The NYTWA tweeted on Wednesday morning that it appeared no drivers were working in parts of lower Manhattan.

"NO UBER DRIVERS HERE!" the group tweeted.

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An Uber spokesman told NBC NY that the company's data showed there were 500 fewer drivers than usual Wednesday morning, which is less than one percent of the 120,000 for-hire drivers in the city.

Drivers in other cities are also expected to join the protest. In Atlanta, drivers will be participating in a 12-hour strike from noon to midnight organized by Rideshare Drivers United Georgia. In Connecticut, drivers will rally from 11am to noon at Uber's Stamford office.

"Wall Street investors are telling Uber and Lyft to cut down on driver income, stop incentives and go faster to Driverless Cars,” NYTWA Executive Director Bhairavi Desai said in a statement. “Uber and Lyft wrote in their S1 filings that they think they pay drivers too much already. With the IPO, Uber's corporate owners are set to make billions, all while drivers are left in poverty and go bankrupt.”

Uber and Lyft drivers in Los Angeles held a 25-hour strike in March to protest their working conditions as well as wage cuts. The action was pursued after Uber announced plans to cut 25 percent in drivers' pay per mile in Los Angeles and parts of Orange County. On Wednesday, Rideshare Drivers United says Los Angeles drivers will be turning off their apps for 24 hours.

It is fairly clear that Uber and Lyft, both losing billions of dollars annually, are struggling to make ends meet. Both companies have said they would suffer financially if they offered their employees full-time benefits and higher wages.

Uber openly stated in its IPO that its “business would be adversely affected if Drivers were classified as employees instead of independent contractors.” Lyft said in its own filing that if the “contractor classification of drivers that use our platform is challenged, there may be adverse business, financial, tax, legal and other consequences.”

Still, ride-sharing drivers say that Uber executives are set to make a bundle once the company’s stock hits the market Friday, while the employees have only watched their wages sink.

But that claim is rejected by both Uber and Lyft, the latter stating that drivers’ wages have increased over the past two years and earned them more than $10 billion on the ride-sharing platform.

Uber, meanwhile, stated that it is continuing to make the work environment for its employees better — an effort it says will continue after the IPO filing.

“Drivers are at the heart of our service ─ we can’t succeed without them ─ and thousands of people come into work at Uber every day focused on how to make their experience better, on and off the road," the company said in a statement. "Whether it’s more consistent earnings, stronger insurance protection or fully-funded four-year degrees for drivers or their families, we'll continue to improve the experience for and with drivers."

Nevertheless, members of NYTWA who plan to strike Wednesday called Uber a bad actor of the gig economy. They have little faith in the tech giant to do right by their drivers.

“We want Uber to answer to us, not to investors,” said Sonam Lama, an Uber driver since 2015. “The gig economy is all about exploiting workers by taking away our rights. It has to stop. Uber is the worst actor in the gig economy.”

Ben Kesslen contributed.