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Uber is using in-app podcasts to dissuade Seattle drivers from unionizing

Uber is using in-app podcasts to dissuade Seattle drivers from unionizing

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Like many corporations, Uber is not a fan of unionization. The main front in the ride-share / unionization battle is currently in Seattle, where Uber filed suit against the city in January to challenge the city’s authority to implement a law that would allow ride-share drivers to unionize.

Both in Seattle and elsewhere, Uber reaches out to its employees — or, more accurately, its independent contractor drivers — to share information on a variety of topics through podcasts, voluntary driver meetings, and text messages. The information ranges from mundane topics like how to make more money (drive in high-demand areas at high-demand times) to, in Uber’s view, how the city’s unionization law would negatively affect drivers.

Uber spokesperson Nathan Hambley pushed back on a story from The Wall Street Journal over the weekend that suggested Uber drivers in Seattle were forced to choose whether or not to listen to the company-produced podcasts every day before they can begin picking up riders.

The podcasts, which are produced in a number of geographic markets for Uber drivers, appear as notifications at the bottom of the app that can be dismissed or ignored — or acted upon to start the latest podcast episode, which usually run under 10 minutes.

Drivers are not required to listen to the podcast, said Hambley in an interview. “They are not required to look down at the notification at all. The most prominent button is to go on or offline to accept rides.”

In fact, there isn’t a way for Uber to force drivers to do much of anything. The flexibility of its drivers, the company says, is one of the reasons its partnership works so well. “We can’t require drivers to be anywhere, and we can’t require them to listen to the podcast,” he said. “It’s stuff we’re putting out there for them if they want it.”

The notification first appears as the limited message on the left, and, if the driver swipes up, the full message appears.

The podcast notification from Uber’s driver app in Seattle.
The podcast notification from Uber’s driver app in Seattle.
Image: Uber

The notification remains at the bottom of the driver screen regardless of whether it is ignored, or if the podcast is listened to or not. “Like messages at the bottom of the rider app, they cannot be completely removed,” Hambley said of the podcast notifications. “And the podcast-related messages typically remain in place for four or five days, regardless of whether drivers interact with them.”

Of course, not everyone agrees that Uber’s independent contractor model is in the best interest of the drivers. That’s something that numerous lawsuits across several states have addressed, but the independent contractor model remains.

Regarding the podcasts, Hambley said that “there is clearly a desire for information out there,” noting that most podcasts in Seattle have several thousand listens. He said that more than 10,000 drivers in the Seattle area have made at least one trip in the past 28 days, with more eligible to take trips.

To be sure, the podcasts and website are Uber propaganda, but it’s hardly out of the ordinary for a company to respond to unionization efforts in this fashion. The Teamsters union that is behind the unionization effort is doing the same thing. It’s a war of words, and even though both sides are hard to ignore, drivers aren’t required to pay any attention if they don't wish to.