A day of strikes planned by Uber drivers in cities around the world got off to a muted start in Australia and Britain on Wednesday, with protesters denouncing the ride-hailing giant’s employment and pay practices as it prepares for what is expected to be a blockbuster initial public offering this week.
In Melbourne, about 30 protesters gathered near an Uber facility, holding signs that said “on-demand workers demand a living wage” and chanting “Uber, Uber, you must listen. We will break your algorithm!” Their complaints included falling pay, long hours and a lack of sick leave.
“Those of you that drive know that you have little time for your families, you have little time for your friends, every waking moment you’re thinking about when you’re going to get out and how you’re going to make the next dollar,” said Debra Weddall, 60, speaking to other drivers from the back of a flatbed truck. Members of the crowd nodded in approval, shouting, “Shame, Uber, shame!”
“We have no sick leave, and are forced to drive long hours to make ends meet,” said Robin Thomas, 37, a full-time Uber driver, who said he made about $8 to $9 an hour after expenses and maintenance.
An Uber spokesman said company employees had collected letters from the drivers outlining their complaints.
In the United Kingdom, drivers in London, Birmingham, Nottingham and Glasgow who belong to an independent workers’ union started a nine-hour strike at 7 a.m. by logging out of the Uber app. Their demands included higher fares, and a reduction in Uber’s cut to 15 percent from 25 percent. They also pushed to be granted worker status by the company, and for an end to unfair dismissals. It was unclear how many took part in the strike; cars were readily available across London on Wednesday.
Some drivers, joined by members of other unions, protested at Uber offices around the country, including the British headquarters in East London. About two dozen protesters gathered outside the office there, banging drums; releasing smoke flares; displaying banners that read, “Uber sell off: Billions to bosses, poverty pay for drivers”; and chanting, “Uber Uber, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side.”
Police officers stood nearby, with one briefly stepping forward to remove a red smoke canister that had been set off.
Muhumed Ali, who said he had driven for Uber for four years, was among those protesting in London. He said driver costs continued to rise while wages dropped. He said he drove as many as 60 hours a week, up from about 40, in order to make enough money. He said he wanted Uber to increase fares to £2 per mile, about $2.60.
“It’s unfair,” he said of the public offering. “The bosses are getting billions in their pockets while drivers are living on poverty wages.”
The strikes were set to be replicated in other cities, including New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles, and in front of Uber headquarters in San Francisco by the end of Wednesday. The action was supposed to be one of the biggest coordinated efforts by drivers to demonstrate their grievances to Uber, organizers and drivers said. Drivers for other ride-hailing services, such as Lyft, were also expected to take part.
At La Guardia Airport in New York around 8 a.m., there was little evidence that the strike was having much impact. Cars driving for Uber and Lyft were picking up passengers and one airport worker said the flow of for-hire cars was typical for the time of day. Most drivers interviewed said they were either unaware of the strike, or, if they knew about it, unable to participate because they needed to earn money.
“I don’t think anything will be done,” said Aneudy Landof, 40, an Uber driver. He said he earned more driving for the company driving nine hours a day, seven days a week, than he would at a regular 9-to-5 job, but acknowledged that some people would not satisfied with that. “People are never happy, people want to make a million dollars a day.”
At the heart of the drivers’ frustration is their status as independent contractors, not full-time workers. Ride-hailing companies argue that drivers prefer the flexible schedule that comes with being a freelancer. But drivers lack full-time benefits like health care and have said they have little control over their wages because companies like Uber set the fares their and take a cut of the fees they earn from rides.
The strikes are timed right before Uber’s public offering, with the company set to start trading its shares on the stock market on Friday. Uber is the biggest of a generation of technology start-ups whose business is based on smartphones and that uses gig workers. It has set an initial pricing for its shares that values it at $91 billion and its founders and investors are set to reap billions of dollars in wealth.
But that windfall will largely skip the drivers. Although Uber has said it intends to award cash bonuses to more than 1.1 million drivers — with those in the United States having the option to buy the company’s stock in the I.P.O. — drivers have called that a fig leaf. They said the wealth being gained by top executives and private investors had prompted the action on Wednesday.
“It’s more wealth accumulating at the top,” said Ann Glatt, 62, who drives for Lyft in San Francisco and plans to participate in the protest there. “It’s very clear when you’re at the bottom how bad the bottom can be.” She said she recently moved 90 miles away to Sacramento because she could no longer afford to live in her home near San Francisco.
More than three million people drive for Uber globally and have earned $78.2 billion from the service since 2015, the company said in a recent regulatory filing. Uber said in a statement, “Drivers are at the heart of our service ─ we can’t succeed without them ─ and thousands of people come into work at Uber every day focused on how to make their experience better, on and off the road.”
Lyft said in a statement that driver earnings have increased over the last two years. “We know that access to flexible, extra income makes a big difference for millions of people, and we’re constantly working to improve how we can best serve our driver community,” a spokesman said.
The idea of holding a strike quickly gathered momentum, drivers said. Rideshare Drivers United, based in Los Angeles, initiated the protest, asking its more than 4,000 members to turn off their ride-hailing apps for 24 hours. Other drivers began to organize similar actions around the world, staying in touch over Facebook groups and group chats.
“It just got bigger and bigger,” said Karim Bayumi, 40, who has driven full-time for Uber and Lyft for four years and who plans to participate in a picket at Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday. He added, “Drivers have had enough. It’s now or never.”