Uber and Lyft drivers deserve a better strike

This week, labor news was dominated by the story of the Uber / Lyft strike. On Wednesday, rideshare drivers were meant to turn off the apps for a period of a few hours, or even the entire day. Riders were meant to refrain from using the apps to hail rides. Simultaneous events were coordinated around the world – in London, Australia, Brazil – and across the US. Rallies were held to bring attention to driver grievances, from low pay, to being “locked out” of the app (essentially, fired) without appeal or explanation.

Labor organizations and NGOs, left media, and social media all boosted the strike, imploring people not to cross the “virtual picket line” and declaring support and sympathy for the drivers’ cause – understandably so.

However, as has become commonplace, political support edged into obfuscation. Sympathetic news outlets overdrew the action. Take this breathless headline from Slate the following day: “The Ride-Hail Strike Got Just Enough Attention to Terrify Uber. It was likely the largest-ever gig worker protest to date—and politicians noticed.” In fact, there was little indication that the strike had impacted the company much at all, nor that it had drawn much participation, even in New York and LA, where the biggest organizing efforts seemed to have taken place. Ride availability appeared unchanged, as did customer demand.

Interestingly, just two days earlier, the same publication had promised readers a way “to tell if the Uber strike is working”: namely that it would take longer to find a ride, and surge pricing would go into effect (or not!, they hedged). By the time Slate was declaring the strike a success, those criteria were forgotten. Actually, there was now an explicit declaration that they never mattered:

It’s true that riders likely had no problem hailing an Uber through their apps on Wednesday, wherever they were. But even if you could get an Uber in three minutes despite the “strike,” it would be hard to call this global labor action a failure. For one thing, the effort attracted a ton of media interest, and it also garnered the support of high-profile politicians on the left, including presidential candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Here we see the goalposts moved – the object wasn’t to impact the company, but to get media and politician attention – which tells us something about the campaign and its real intentions (more on that in a moment).

Meanwhile, organizers themselves exaggerated driver participation in the strike.

In Los Angeles, Drivers United LA said that of its 4,300 members, 98 percent were committed to going on strike. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance expected the “vast majority” of its approximately 10,000 app drivers to do the same.

These soundbites are a record-scratch moment for an organizer. To organize that overwhelming of a strike mandate among that enormous of a workforce – let alone one fractured by the lack of a fixed workplace and the volatility of casual, freelance status – would take a Herculean effort. It would take nothing short of years to build that kind of trust and militancy.

Moreover, again, such a large-scale refusal clearly didn’t happen (which didn’t stop the executive director of the NYTWA from doubling down). No grumps on social media complained of being unable to get rides. No un-organized drivers complained of being unable to get fares (remember that it was a simultaneous call for boycott). A reporter who approached drivers near LAX found some who hadn’t even heard of the strike. Rallies were small.

Under any real circumstances, if a union believed that 98% of its members were going to strike, and instead only a tiny minority did, that would indicate something had gone abysmally wrong in the organizing: either the union had been completely (self-)deceived in their understanding of worker support, or some catastrophic thing had happened in the interim — it’s actually difficult to speculate what, because such a scenario is so far removed from reality.

The only real conclusion to be drawn here is that there was no real organizing for a strike, other than appealing to voluntary participation on the part of a handful of politically like-minded drivers and customers. The strategy was a media “air war” declaring or feigning a strike, and looking to see what would shake out. There was a projection of “worker power” that organizers relied on sympathetic media to uncritically affirm. There was no real expectation of concessions from Uber or Lyft, but the hopes of raising the public profile of the campaign.

We’ve been here before

All of this is reminiscent of the “Fight for 15” campaign that began in 2012 with small-scale fast-food worker rallies or strikes and culminated in legislative pushes to raise local minimum wages, eventually, to $15 an hour.

While FF15 pretended to be a grassroots movement of workers spontaneously rising up and (with the help of local worker centers or NGOs) taking action against employers, it was better understood as a “march on the media” or “militant lobbying.” It was entirely orchestrated by the SEIU, although they denied responsibility – to the point of calculated deception – until they no longer could. It operated top-down and “above the heads of workers,” both in terms of the legislative gains it was aiming for, and in terms of the tightly-controlled manner in which it was organized.

Its goal was not empowering minimum wage service workers to fight their bosses, but “creating a new base, guided from above, to push for legislation.” That is, it delivered both voters, and a campaign issue, ready-made, to Democratic candidates. (Now that it feels political winds have shifted, SEIU in disinvesting from the campaign.)

Is the rideshare driver campaign another FF15? The political timing is right – the lead-up to a presidential election. And the tactics look the same: media spectacle giving heavy air cover to a supposedly militant and spontaneous local strike.

Why does this matter? Especially in light of the fact that FF15 appears to have been pretty successful, with six states and several large cities adopting a $15/hour minimum wage or on a schedule towards that. Doesn’t effectiveness trump everything?

For one thing, in a campaign where workers are merely grist for the mill, it’s easy to be cavalier about their risk exposure. Uber is already notorious for locking out drivers without notice or explanation. What is in place to protect those few who participated in the strike this week? In the absence of genuine collective organization, not much. 

Stepping back, the obfuscating way in which these “strikes” claim widespread mobilization when their only tactic is a media blitz gives workers – perhaps especially young workers and gig workers and workers with no previous experience with unions – the mistaken impression that shortcuts exist to organizing (that grueling program of trust-building one-on-one conversations), or that public pressure carries the day.

People are also susceptible to the idea that the only way to capture gig workers with no brick-and-mortar workplace is by putting out a strike notice and hoping that it goes viral enough to reach all workers, and that it is inspiring enough to lead them off the job. But such a strategy cannot produce a strike, not least because it skips over the crucial step of building the kind of mutual trust and solidarity needed to pull off risky, mass-scale work disruptions. (Nor should we believe that the organizers of the Uber / Lyft strike were even expecting a real strike to happen.)

It’s true that when organizing some types of workers, you need to think beyond the standard National Labor Relations Board model. Workers classified as independent contractors, as most rideshare drivers are for now, cannot simply file for a union election and then bargain a contract without first legally challenging their classification.

They can, however, still win major concessions from their employers. They can do that by building a broad organization of drivers with durable solidarity, directly in conversation with one another and capable of making democratic decisions to orchestrate the mass withholding of their labor.

When Wednesday’s Uber / Lyft strike proved a flop, the corporate mainstream media was stupid enough to chalk it up to the fact that “gig workers can’t organize” or that “rideshare drivers can’t strike, they need the money.” The second idea is a laughable inversion of reality: workers strike because they cannot afford to go on living as they are. The first idea is just as false. Despite the logistical difficulties (building contact lists, tracking drivers down, developing a plan for collective action), rideshare drivers can and should collectively organize the very thing this week’s media campaign bluffed. They would be much better served by such a plan.