Transportation

How Do Los Angeles Uber Drivers Protest? They Take a Beach Day


(Updates with Uber comment in the fourth paragraph; corrects the third paragraph to note the D.C. protests did not involve drivers for app-based services)

Inspired by their counterparts in Seattle, Uber drivers in Los Angeles are organizing to demand greater transparency and more cost-sharing from the company—efforts they say could ultimately escalate to a strike. “It’s a wonderful technology, and something that is certainly here to stay,” says Joseph DeWolf, an Uber driver who is leading the charge. The problem, he says, is Uber’s culture: “The rules don’t apply to them.”

DeWolf says he and his fellow drivers were spurred by concerns over the company’s refusal to shoulder responsibility for insuring drivers; capricious-seeming policy changes, such as a recent announcement that pre-2010 cars will be phased out for Uber Black or Uber SUV services; and opaque disciplinary procedures.

DeWolf has the backing of the Teamsters, who have also been involved in organizing drivers, both app-based and not, in Seattle and taxi drivers in Washington, D.C., where disgruntled cabbies staged a moving caravan protest Wednesday morning against a city council ordinance allowing Uber and other companies, such as Lyft and Sidecar, to operate.

Uber says the Teamsters are “focused on recruiting membership and filling their coffers.” In an e-mailed statement, Eva Behrend said, “Uber partner drivers have a direct line into the Uber team, and we will continue to work with them to ensure their small businesses thrive.”

Drivers face an uphill battle. Even if every Uber driver in the country wanted to unionize and collectively bargain with Uber, U.S. law doesn’t require Uber to negotiate, because the drivers are currently considered independent contractors, not employees. “If it comes to it, says DeWolf, drivers should call the industry’s “independent contractor” bluff and stage a walkout some Monday morning, rather than logging in to their apps. “Perhaps, you know, have our meeting at Santa Monica Beach, and a picnic as well,” he says.

If Uber users miss flights and meetings, says DeWolf, “it may send a message that the Uber system/platform is more than just technology.” If those investors valuing the company at $18.2 billion have to recognize “that part of that valuation is the cars and the drivers themselves,” he adds, “I think that is a heavy hammer to wield on our part.”

Eidelson is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington.

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