Drivers wielding megaphones stood atop giant piles of dirty snow in Queens this morning, railing against Uber's recent decision to cut fares by 15 percent. "Shame on Uber," chanted hundreds of New York City-based drivers, in between the airing of grievances. As the crowd occasionally got too close, Uber's private security guards would emerge to shoo protesters away — only to be met with a chorus of boos. They all want to get paid.
Organizers called on drivers to go on strike to shut down the app-based service in one of its most profitable cities. But with less than 1 percent of Uber's 35,000-plus total network of New York drivers in attendance, the likelihood of a strike affecting Uber's service seemed remote. Still, the protest attracted far more drivers than previous anti-Uber events in New York. This signals two things: drivers are growing increasingly frustrated with the way they are treated by the company, and the number of drivers has exploded in recent months, which speaks to the challenges the company faces when managing this rapidly expanding workforce.
"If Seattle can do it, why can't we?"
Abdoul Diallo, one of the protest organizers, shamed Uber for forcing its drivers to work longer, harder hours to make ends meet. "People are driving their cars into the ground," Diallo told The Verge after climbing down from his soapbox of slush. "They're in subprime loans because of Uber."
Diallo, an outspoken critic of the ride-hail service who runs an organization called the Uber Driver Network, said that their only hope is to join a union, like the Amalgamated Transit Union which represents transit employees. Diallo and others were passing around cards for drivers to fill out declaring their support for joining the union.
"If Seattle can do it, why can't we do it?" Diallo said, referring to the recent vote by the Seattle City Council to allow ride-hail drivers to unionize. He also said that drivers should launch their own ride-hail app, which would operate like a cooperative with drivers as the owners. (Uber drivers in France just did this, with mixed results.)
Uber says driver earnings are up 20 percent
Uber says that since the fare reduction went into effect, driver earnings have gone up 20 percent, compared to the prior two weekends before the fare cut. "That's a lie," Diallo said, shaking his head. "It doesn't take a math degree to know that less does not mean more."
Tashi Sherpa is an Uber driver from Queens who has been working for the app-based service for two years. He accused Uber of "playing games" with drivers' incomes. "They are killing the drivers," Sherpa said. "They are a billion-dollar company because of the drivers. And now they are playing games with us."
If this seems like déjà vu, it's because drivers staged a similar "strike" in January 2014 after another fare cut. Uber says these cuts are meant to entice riders to use its service during the less busy winter months. To mitigate the impact on drivers, Uber says it guarantees $40 per hour during peak hours in gross earnings, and $30 an hour during regular hours. To qualify, drivers must accept 90 percent of their trips and average 1.3 trips per hour. And fare cuts could be restored if Uber decides they aren't having the desired effect. "As we have always said price cuts need to work for drivers," a spokesperson said in a statement. "If for any reason they are not, we will roll them back as we have done in other cities before."
"There's too many drivers."
Uber slashed prices in New York about three weeks after announcing fare reductions in 100 North American cities. The move forced Lyft to cut its prices to stay competitive. And drivers say they are being left in the lurch while these billion-dollar ride-share companies fight market share.
Julio Cruz, a Manhattanite who has been driving for Uber for less than a year, estimated the fare cut has subtracted around $300 from his weekly earnings. "After I pay all my gas and insurance, I'm probably going to be down to $1,300, $1,400 [a week]," he said.
Cruz argued that the unprecedented growth in the number of drivers on Uber's platform has made the service unsustainable. "There's too many drivers," he said. "You've got 35,000 drivers. How are you going to make money?"
The fare cuts have affected morale, drivers say. "I took Friday off because I was really pissed off. I drove Saturday and Sunday like really upset. I'm not the same driver I used to be," he mused. "Who wants to go drive for less money?"