Strikes and Protests: What Does Uber’s IPO Actually Mean for Its Drivers?

A protester wears a shirt displaying the logo of smartphone ride service Uber during by a protest.

A protester wears a shirt displaying the logo of smartphone ride service Uber during by a protest. GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty Images

This week brings big news and big money for Uber: The company that brought you the rideshare industry and roused backlash for spying on drivers and fostering an oppressive, frat-bro office culture is finally launching its IPO on Friday.

Uber’s Wall Street coronation will make even more money for its wealthy executives and investors. The company is poised for a mouthwatering $80 to $90 billion valuation, with initial shares expected to trade between $45 and $50. It should be a historic day on the New York Stock Exchange, with the IPO trailing only Chinese tech giant Alibaba and Facebook in size.

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But Uber’s big day isn’t just about the minting of new millionaires. Thousands of the company’s drivers marked the occasion by taking to the streets in various cities on Wednesday, lambasting the long hours and low pay they experience at the wheel. The protests took place internationally, from New York to Los Angeles, London and Australia. Though only a day long, the strike aimed for the jugular. In New York, drivers led by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance deactivated their apps from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., effectively shutting down the busy morning commute. Drivers across the UK deactivated their apps from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., while demonstrators in San Francisco flooded Market Street, hoisting signs outside of Uber headquarters.

Similar to the wave of dissent that met Lyft’s IPO in March, Uber drivers were calling attention to the obvious: Uber going public feels like a giant slap in the face. Drivers are the lifeblood of the company, yet few of them stand to recoup anything from Uber hitting the market. But many of the company’s early investors, such as the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, are destined to add to their already ballooning fortunes on Friday. Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, for example, is expected to amass an extra $9 billion once Uber debuts on the trading floor, even though he was ousted from the company amid a series of high-profile scandals in 2017. He is already a billionaire.

This doesn’t sit particularly well with drivers, who organized on Wednesday largely to demand better wages and transparency from the company.

According to Alexandrea Ravenelle, a sociologist whose book Hustle and Gig explores the pitfalls of the gig economy, workers are doing what little they can to draw attention to the inequality putting a squeeze on their livelihoods.

“We look at this IPO and we look at the individuals who are not risking their livelihoods, who are not on the front lines of driving, and they could make billions,” she told Observer.  

Rideshare drivers for Uber and Lyft stage a strike and protest at the LAX International Airport, over what they say are unfair wages in Los Angeles, California on May 8, 2019.

Rideshare drivers for Uber and Lyft stage a strike and protest at the LAX International Airport, over what they say are unfair wages in Los Angeles, California on May 8, 2019. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Since drivers are classified as independent contractors, they’re not afforded any basic workplace protections like health care or paid time off, even if they log far more than 40 hours a week. Though Uber says many of its drivers earn upwards of $20 an hour working in major cities, other estimates paint a picture of poverty; an Economic Policy Institute Study last year found that drivers’ take home pay was closer to $9 an hour, after considering Uber’s ride commissions and the cost of gas and car maintenance.

Driving for Uber isn’t exactly the empowering and flexible job that company propaganda touts it to be, and Uber knows this. Ahead of its IPO filing, the company admitted to the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) that driver satisfaction is plummeting. That makes sense, considering how driver earnings have steadily declined by 53 percent since 2013, according to a recent JP Morgan study.

Ravenelle says that drivers are also pushing back against an increasingly meddlesome relationship with the company, which sounds all too familiar.

We’ve seen that Uber consistently changes the rules of the game,” she explained. “They increase their take percentage, they decrease the rates on a whim… and drivers are the ones literally holding the bag of expenses.”

To its modest credit, Uber extended a concession to drivers in conjunction with the IPO, in the form of $10,000 to $ 20,000 in common stock. But drivers need to have at least 10,000 rides under their belts to be eligible. And even so, it’s more of a symbolic gesture than anything else, said Ravenelle.

“If you’ve been driving for Uber long enough to get the $10,000, you’ve spent a lot of time and you’ve put a lot of your own money into driving for Uber.”

Going forward, Ravenelle sees more strikes as a way for drivers to carve out the equity they desire. She pointed to a recent bill passed in New York City, which bumped hourly driver wages up to $17.22 after expenses. The initiative was led by the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG), the union representing upwards of 65,000 for-hire drivers in New York City. The IDG was pivotal in implementing an Uber tipping feature in NYC, which later spread across the country.

With groups like this spearheading the charge, drivers might just have a chance.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that this is the beginning of a much bigger movement of gig workers organizing and drawing attention to their plight and creating change,” Ravenelle said. “This is the first time where we’ve really seen it become nationwide.”

Strikes and Protests: What Does Uber’s IPO Actually Mean for Its Drivers?