Why Uber Protests Aren't Working

For Uber drivers tired of low pay, no tips, and long hours, Super Bowl Sunday was supposed to be their finest hour. After the $60 billion company cut rates in most markets to $1.15 per mile, some drivers — who claimed $600 in take-home pay for 80-hour weeks — took to the streets. They descended en masse on Uber's Potrero Hill operations center and on the company's global headquarters in Mid-Market, honking horns and blocking traffic on the two Mondays prior to Super Bowl Sunday. Momentum appeared to be on their side: On the eve of game day, there was talk that thousands of drivers would block Highway 101, preventing VIPs from accessing the game, or perhaps they would bar entry to Levi's Stadium altogether.

But on the big day, only about 20 drivers showed up at the Super Bowl, according to media reports, and those drivers were quickly shooed away by Santa Clara police after briefly blocking a road at halftime. (Later, fans leaving the game queued up for hours to get a ride home from Uber, an official “partner” of Super Bowl 50.)

Since then, there have been no demonstrations in San Francisco — that SFPD issued tickets to drivers who protested in front of City Hall on Feb. 1 didn't help — and the protests' main organizer, a driver who identified himself only as Mario, stopped returning calls from SF Weekly. This apparent failure to organize workers illustrates a cold, hard fact about CEO Travis Kalanick's company: Not only does Uber drastically cut back on employee costs by working only with independent contracts, but its workforce of contractors is also extremely hard to organize — almost as if by design.

For starters, it's hard to organize workers you can't find. Unlike taxi drivers, there is no central location that all Uber drivers visit — no company parking lot, no company office for getting paid. Mario got his protests off the ground by “organizing” at San Francisco International Airport, one of the few places — aside from the bike lanes on Valencia Street on a Friday night — Uber drivers congregate. (In return, he said, he had his account briefly deactivated by the company, a claim Uber disputes.)

The way Uber drivers work also thwarts any organizing. For every driver willing to shut off the app and cause a ruckus in hopes of better pay, there are three or four willing to pick up the riders otherwise left in the lurch. High turnover — as many as two-thirds of drivers quit after a few months — also works in Uber's favor.

“Uber floods the market with so many drivers, it's hard to get a decent percentage [of protesters] to matter,” says one Uber driver involved with the protests, who asked to be identified by his Twitter handle, @Uber_Strike2016.

Organizers “just can't get enough drivers to hear about [protests],” he added.

Uber did not address the demonstrators in a statement emailed to SF Weekly, but the company is taking the possibility of a driver revolt seriously enough to hire Littler Mendelson, a New York law firm known for union-busting, as POLITICO first reported.

Until changed by outside forces, such as the lawsuit challenging Uber drivers' “independent contractor” status which goes to trial in June, angry drivers may have no choice but to quit, leaving someone else to take their Prius.

“Nothing's gonna change till someone buys them or courts force them,” @Uber_Strike2016 says.

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