Protesting Uber’s IPO — and police secrecy

Drivers ask why they keep getting pay cuts as the top execs prepare to become staggeringly rich -- and why is SFPD still dragging its heels on new police-misconduct disclosure laws? That's The Agenda for May 6-13

The finance experts expect Uber to hit Wall Street on Friday/10, possibly with the biggest IPO since Facebook – but not until after both its own drivers and the rest of the taxi industry launch protests.

Uber, the New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo notes, “is a moral stain on Silicon Valley.” I still find it somewhat bizarre that a company that started with a business model that was illegal everywhere it operated now gets to turn its founders and investors into billionaires; in the world of tech, I guess, crime pays.

But there’s another level of crime going on here: Top executives are on a path to fantastic riches, but the drivers – without whom there would be no Uber – are getting screwed.

The Uber model is to attract new business – to grow market share – at any cost. Every single ride is subsidized with venture capital, so that it’s cheap enough to lure passengers away not only from legal, regulated cabs but from public transportation. When the company needs to cut costs, it just cuts the amount it pays its drivers.

Rebecca Stack Martinez has been driving for Uber since last August. She was working between 60 and 80 hours a week, and earning – after paying for her own gas and car costs – about $750. That’s below the San Francisco minimum wage.

But no matter: Uber refused to consider the workers who make the entire company function employees. They’re independent contractors.

“They say they are going to cut rates more,” she told me. “They are going to continue to squeeze us.”

Martinez is particularly mad about the messages she’s getting from the pre-IPO company: “They say they can’t afford to pay drivers more, but the CEO is getting a $50 million bonus.”

Uber drivers will protest at company headquarters Wednesday/8 at noon. They’ll also log out of the ride-share system for 12 hours. There will be similar strikes in San Diego, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Los Angeles.

Gig Workers Rising, a group that advocates for the freelance contractors who make the “gig economy” work, are asking for a fair wage and reasonable transparency from Uber. “We want to know how much we are getting paid before we accept a ride,” Martinez said. “We should get honest information about the per-mile and per-minute rate.”

The group also wants worker protections (Uber can “deactivate” – that is, fire – a driver any time for any reason) and a voice at work. “If they are going to change our pay, we want a seat at the table,” she said.

The next day, Thursday/9, San Francisco taxi drivers will converge at Uber to protest the company’s “unlawful, unethical and destructive policies,” Mark Gruberg of the Taxi Workers Alliance told me. From the group’s press statement:

In its short history, Uber has shown itself to be the ugliest company on the face of the planet. Its recent attempts to change its image and noxious corporate culture do not address the damage its business model is doing to the environment, workers and the public.

Gruberg told me that his group wants to “focus attention on Uber as a company.”

That protest starts at 1pm. Uber’s HQ is at 1455 Market.

The SF Police Commission is finally getting around to approving rules for releasing documents under SB 1421, a new law that requires police departments to make public a fairly wide range of officer misconduct records that were previously considered confidential.

The proposed commission policy is here. It’s a good thing that the commission is finally – four months after SB 1421 became law – is moving forward on this. It’s been a long period of delays. I filed my first sunshine request under this law (for information about the officers who shot Alex Nieto) back in January, and I still haven’t received the information. The SFPD has delayed the response seven times, saying it doesn’t have time to handle all these requests:

SFPD has received a number of requests for previously confidential peace officer records made public as a result of the passage of SB 1421. Despite our best efforts to respond promptly, a backlog has quickly developed and will remain for some time.

SFPD must balance its duty to respond to public records requests with its duty to perform the broad range of tasks performed by SFPD personnel that result in keeping the peace and maintaining safety in our communities. Responding to your request will be quite burdensome and time-consuming, especially when coupled with our duty also to respond to like public records requests from  others. SFPD will not be able to respond within the customary time frame without unreasonably impinging on its ability to perform its other duties.

But there are some real issues with the proposed policy. Among other things, the commission wants the Department of Police Accountability to coordinate with the SFPD on all requests. John Crew, a longtime police accountability lawyer, notes:

Why can’t DPA interpret these provisions about its own records — particularly on subjective calls about whether to apply that discretionary exemption — in the way that it chooses?  Why should SFPD be able to block or delay what DPA has independently determined can and should release from its own records?  Say DPA sustains a charge of dishonesty against an officer and SFPD disagrees and chooses to impose no discipline.  The DPA investigative finding still stands and the DPA records from that case are all public records under SB 1421.  DPA can — and should — now choose to affirmatively publish detailed information with officers’ names anytime they sustain a dishonesty charge.  (There would be no better deterrent to the scourge of widespread lying within SFPD.)

Then there’s the technical – but important – difference between the California Public Records Act and the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance. The commission wants to say that records can be kept secret if “on the facts of the particular case, the public interest served by non-disclosure clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure.”

That’s state law. The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance largely prevents local agencies from citing that exemption.

The other issue: The Commission needs to direct the department to promptly respond to media inquiries about issues that are now public record. The city just spent $13 million to settle a case involving a man who was convicted of murder after the court found that the SFPD and the DA’s Office had framed him. Were any of the officers involved disciplined in any way? That’s a simple question, and now the public has the right to an answer. Why is it taking so long?

What about the Nieto killing – and Luis Gongora Pat, and Amilcar Lopez?

“The taxpayers know how much they’re paying for these quite avoidable tragedies,” Crew said. “We’ve had a right to know since January 1st what, if anything, SFPD has done to make sure the tragedies don’t happen again.”

The meeting starts at 5:30pm in City Hall Room 200.