With the ring of a bell, controversial former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick became a billionaire on Friday when the ridesharing company made its debut on the New York Stock Exchange. But while Uber execs former and current cashed in on the IPO, the drivers that actually build the company’s wealth won’t see nearly that kind of payout.
“On a bad day — and there’s too many of those bad days — you make less than minimum wage after expenses,” says Vincent Suen, a rideshare driver based in Los Angeles. That’s why Suen — along with drivers around the world — went on strike ahead of the public offering to show who actually generates Uber’s wealth.
Suen is a member of Los Angeles Rideshare Drivers United, one of the labor groups behind the strike. Members of the organization, along with other California-based drivers, previously went on strike in March in protest of a change in Uber’s pay structure that effectively meant wage cuts for workers.
Pay cuts are all the loathsome given how the company has recruited its drivers — a model Lenny Sanchez, a rideshare driver and co-founder of Chicago Rideshare Advocates, calls predatory. Among the company’s misdeeds was a controversial subprime car loan program, which garnered comparisons to indentured servitude. Sanchez says he’s seen Uber “targeting low-income minority neighborhoods — people who specifically do not have credit, do not have co-signers, do not have a job, do not have a car, but people that are about as desperate as can be,” Sanchez says. “They’re just in a deep hole. So Uber and Lyft present the solution to these people.”
Uber’s entire business model is based on undercutting drivers at every turn. Perhaps most notably, the Uber characterizes drivers as independent contractors, which means they don’t receive the same workplace regulations or benefits, including healthcare.
The independent contractor classification is at the heart of “Uber’s hyper aggressive nature of disrupting workforces,” as Sanchez calls it. “Their main objective is to skate around regulations so that they don’t have to comply with everything that exists — the protections that an employee, or union-protected employees have. If they can redefine any workforce as independent contractors, they will.”
The lack of benefits is particularly troubling given the low pay — which studies have found to be poverty wages — and high expenses for Uber drivers. “You give passengers a discount, but for drivers? We don’t get a discount on maintenance,” Suen says.