[By Lauren Kaori Gurley]
On November 6, early Uber investors, founders, and employees will be able to cash out of the ride-hailing company for the first time since it went public in May. It could be a bloodbath, or a big payday for those with a large stake in the company.
Investors aren’t the only ones anticipating the occasion, however. Uber drivers—building on momentum from recent organizing victories in California—will use the opportunity to literally get in the faces of the company’s top investors. Rideshare drivers plan to demonstrate outside at least three investors’ homes and offices, including Uber venture capitalist Bill Gurley in Silicon Valley and Uber co-founder Garrett Camp in Los Angeles.
“These guys are making billions of dollars while they’re claiming they can’t afford to pay us a fair wage,” said Jeff Perry, 39, an Uber driver from Sacramento, and one of the protest’s lead organizers. “This is a great opportunity to highlight the differences between the two classes within Uber.”
Two groups that represent rideshare drivers in California, Gig Workers Rising in Silicon Valley and Mobile Workers Alliance in Los Angeles, will lead the protests. Drivers plan to demand a pathway to unionization—and hope to highlight the differences between Uber’s billionaire stakeholders and its labor force, which isn’t guaranteed a minimum wage.
Uber has rapidly expanded into 700 cities across the world in large part by relying on a business model that preys on drivers, who do not receive basic labor protections and benefits like overtime pay, worker’s compensation, and health insurance. According to a 2018 study by the Economic Policy Institute, Uber drivers earn $9.21 an hour after accounting for the costs of gas, car maintenance and other expenses. That’s below the minimum wage in 13 of its 20 biggest urban markets in the United States.
“Our overall idea for the protest comes from the sense that this group of people and financial enterprises are getting extremely rich regardless of the way Uber treats its drivers,” said Edan Alva, 49, an Uber driver from the East Bay, also involved in organizing the November 6 protest.
Alva told Motherboard that he has had to sign up for government assistance to support himself and his son since he lost his job as a security management contractor for PayPal last year. “Uber and Lyft have cut their prices significantly. It’s literally impossible for me to exist,” he said. Other drivers he knows have been forced to live out of their cars. “We will probably show up in our cars, and it will be a ‘this is your house. This is my house’ situation,” Alva said of the protests.
Uber co-founder Garrett Camp’s $71 million Beverly Hills mansion was an obvious choice for a protest site. Camp, who has been described as the visionary behind Uber’s business model, had around $3.2 billion in the company’s stock at the time of its public offering in May.
Bay Area organizers say they selected Bill Gurley’s home in Atherton, California as another protest site because of the massive profits he has reaped off his stake in the company as a partner at Benchmark, one of Uber’s top venture capital investors when it was a startup. When the rideshare giant went public in May, Gurley received one of the fattest payouts in venture capital history, estimated at over $600 million. In a 2018 blog post called “The Thing I love Most About Uber,” Gurley wrote that “driving with Uber reverses the way we have been trained to think about labor…Instead of making labor conform to management’s notion of a ‘job,’ Uber hands control to the workers.”
But contrary to Gurley’s blog post, many drivers say that the company tightened its grasp over its workers, in particular by slashing wages and determining the share of earnings on a ride that go into the pockets of the company.
A third action will take place at Google Community Space, a free event and coworking space for nonprofits in downtown San Francisco. That action will target Google Ventures, an investment branch of Google’s parent company that had an estimated $5.2 billion in shares in Uber around the time of its IPO in May. In 2013, Google Ventures made its largest ever investment, putting $258 million into Uber, which then grew twenty-fold in value as the companyUber expanded. (Uber’s shares have plummeted from $45 to $32 per share since May.)
Perry, the Uber driver and organizer, says he hopes that targeting specific investors will force them to grapple with how their decisions have impacted real people. “Look, I’m not a blip on a map or a little emoji driving around on a digital screen. I’m a human being, I’m a person and [Uber’s] decisions are affecting my ability to provide for my family,” he said. He says he’s seen his earnings cut in half since he began driving for Uber and Lyft four years ago.
This year, drivers in California have transformed the state into a hotbed for rideshare driver organizing. In March, Los Angeles drivers organized the first major rideshare strike in the United States, over pay cuts. In September, drivers across the state fought and helped win the passage of a historic law that will make gig workers in California the first in the country to qualify for basic labor protections and rights, including a minimum wage, overtime pay, and compensation for work-related injuries.
The organizers of the November 6 protest told Motherboard that they hope rideshare drivers in other cities and countries learn about their action and plan their own actions for that day.
“We want to send a message and say ‘hey look, there has to be some sort of moral responsibility for your investment,” said Perry. “‘You’re not going to sail off into the sunset when this is the way you profited, not without having to look me in the eyes and say it.’”
Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment.