Expect protests from (real) cab drivers as Uber helps host US Conference of Mayors — just as that company is getting hit for failing to treat its workers as employees
By Tim Redmond
JUNE 18, 2015 — On Monday, June 22, Mayor Ed Lee will lead the Conference of US Mayors on a tour of Uber headquarters. It’s part of his ongoing promotion of tech in the city; other tour locations include Autodesk and Twitter.
The Uber tour comes just as that company is taking some serious political and legal hits that could undermine the entire concept of the “sharing economy” – at least on the level of employment.
Companies like Uber try to get away with keeping the number of actual employees low – most of the people who make money for the outfit are drivers who are treated as independent contractors.
That saves Uber (and Lyft, and TaskRabbit, and so many other outfits) the cost of providing health insurance, disability, workers compensation, retirement and all of the other benefits that typically come with real employment.
But the regulators are starting to crack down.
Why the US Conference of Mayors would want to make a company that has been operating in so many cities in violation of local laws a stop on a goodwill tour is a bit confusing – except, no: Uber is a big sponsor of the mayor’s conference.
But the mayors who choose to go to Uber will be greeted by angry taxi drivers – real taxi drivers – who will circle the HQ, hold a press conference out front, and hand out leaflets.
That’s going to part of series of protests against Uber that will focus on the Conference of Mayors. The drivers will be out protesting Lee’s Saturday speech to the conference and the City Hall party Friday night. And on Monday they will be at Uber.
As Ruach Graffis, a longtime driver who works with the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance, told me, “we aren’t against the Uber drivers, because they’re workers like us. But we want Uber to play by the same rules as everyone else.”
There’s some indication now that Uber may have to act more like a real employer – and business analysts say that could deeply damage the company’s bottom line. The state Labor Commission just ruled that Uber drivers are not independent contractors but employees. The ruling applies to only one driver, who will get a little more than $4,000 in back pay, and will be appealed. Ultimately, the question will wind up in court – and possibly at the state Legislature and Congres.
A similar case against FedEx just wound up with a settlement that’s going to encourage drivers (and their lawyers) to pursue a lot more of these claims.
The tech folks, most of whom are young, love the model of everyone working as a freelancer, and sympathetic economists talk about how most people these days can look forward to having dozens of jobs (or gigs) over their lifetimes. That’s all fine and good for some, but as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich puts it in the NYT:
“For anybody who has to pay the bills and has a family, having no labor protections and no job security is at best a mixed blessing. At worst, it is a nightmare. Obviously some workers prefer to be independent contractors — but mostly they take these jobs because they cannot find better ones.”
So the existing laws, which make it hard for companies to turn employees into freelancers, are starting to come up against the great wealth of companies that live by keeping workers off the payroll and not paying benefits.
I assume the Uber lobbyists are already plotting their legislative strategy.