I Am Not an Uber

Twenty to thirty people, mostly men, show up for secret meetings on Los Angeles’s East Side, near the neighborhood of Little Armenia where most of them live. Clutching coffee and packs of Marlboros, they share war stories and ask for advice. Female drivers whose passengers send them sexually explicit texts, drivers of both genders who have been slapped or threatened—everyone speaks up.

A night with LA's Uber drivers

image by Neil Kremer via flickr

On Thursdays evenings, twenty to thirty people, mostly men, show up for secret meetings on Los Angeles’s East Side, near the neighborhood of Little Armenia, where most of them live. Clutching coffee and packs of Marlboros, they share war stories and ask for advice. Female drivers whose passengers send them sexually explicit texts, drivers of both genders who have been slapped or threatened—everyone speaks up. They ask each other, too, what steps they should take to protect their livelihoods against price cuts and decreasing pay. When the conversation shifts this way, things can get heated. Uber drivers have already protested low pay and even wage theft at the Uber offices in Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, and New York. In Los Angeles, groups like Team 84483—that’s the number for the SMS update service they use for anonymous, off-app communications—have decided to ask their customers, not the company, to do what they say is only right.

I found Team 84483 in the parking lot of a Hollywood Rite Aid on an early-November night, following a tip from Harold, a driver who had taken me to an appointment a few days earlier.1 On our trip, driver had lured me into conversation by apologizing for his shoes—new, a gift from his wife, they squeaked whenever he pressed the gas pedal—and then asking what I thought about fair treatment for drivers. There were thirty people at the meeting to which he’d invited me once I told him I was a reporter; they’d lined up their cars to be plastered, from windshield to back bumper, with white-on-black posters that read TIP YOUR UBER DRIVER and WE NEED HELP. From the meeting, they planned to drive their cars through the city’s highest traffic areas in a convoy for three hours, after concealing their license plates with more posters in order to avoid being identified or “deactivated” by Uber. (I spoke to no one with firsthand knowledge of a driver whose Uber account was turned off.)

As the poster-taping proceeded, I asked the drivers, one at a time, why they drove and what they wanted from the $18.2 billion company whose reputation—including its reputation for treating its labor force with any fairness—has suffered serious blows over the past few weeks. There were many different answers: transparency, better pay, the end of surge pricing—which charges riders more when demand for rides is high—and bloody revenge against Travis Kalanick, Uber’s now much-maligned and much-psychologized CEO. But the drivers seemed less interested in Kalanick’s aggressive tactics or his on-the-record sexism than in his company’s callous policies. Smoking, shaking their heads, the drivers insisted they could neither support themselves nor trust the company—sometimes just “Travis”—to provide them with information they need. Many said they had been downgraded to UberX from the more lucrative UberBLACK service tier with only two weeks’ notice when the company decided that their cars were “too old” to fit UberBlack’s lux image.

A passenger, maybe drunk, maybe hungover, had slapped him that morning for mentioning tipping.

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A few men said they had made as much as $3,000 a week when they started working for Uber in 2012; some gave up other jobs in order to drive full-time. When Uber dropped fares drastically, supposedly in order to compete with Lyft (a rideshare app most successful on the West Coast and whose brand, at least, is friendlier, more transparent, and community-based), some drivers to whom I spoke said they found themselves earning as little as a few dollars an hour. One man texted me PDFs documenting his pay in October 2013 and his pay in October 2014. On the 2014 report, the driver’s total income is much lower, but you can’t see the number of trips he completed. This omission of the trip number column is intentional, he says: Uber wants to hide the fact that it is hurting its drivers. Meanwhile, company representatives maintain that drivers can earn $25.79 an hour and that drivers are provided with both weekly emails with policy updates and with 24-hour support. Uber’s stated intent is to “help drivers build their own small businesses” and to keep creating jobs. As of December 2014, Uber claims to have created fifty thousand of them, including jobs for military veterans, who drive without paying anything to the company at all.

The roughly twenty-eight men and two women at the meeting stressed that they all work full time, sometimes up to fifteen hours a day. They call part-time drivers “weekend warriors” and cite them as evidence that the sharing economy only works for people who already have the financial stability to treat driving as a kind of mildly lucrative hobby. One man took me aside and outlined his typical Monday, stressing that he couldn’t spare the money for more than one cup of coffee or the time for bathroom breaks. “I’m not a big thinker,” he said, pulling his knit cap down over his eyes, “I’m not a philosopher or a lawyer. But the country will be better when people like me are treated better.” He laughed and insisted that he, unlike many Americans, would pay his taxes. He then scrutinized my notebook to make sure I hadn’t written down his name, a strong hint that he—and probably other drivers at the meeting—was an undocumented worker.

Many of the drivers mentioned that to make ends meet they drive under unsafe conditions (fifteen hours is safe for no one) or try to game the app by waiting offline to try to create artificial surge pricing. They keep their apps turned off, especially when the weather is bad or a large concert or sporting event is happening, hoping to decrease supply—and therefore increase prices—right when demand goes up. “We have to hustle,” said Kyle, a tall, skinny man with slicked-back hair, as the group started to mill about, the postering finished, excitement gathering in advance of the convoy’s departure. “It’s not that we hate Uber. We love being our own bosses. But we have bills to pay. We should speak up when we’re not being paid enough for our work.” Kyle explained that many drivers felt Uber had misled customers into thinking that tips were included in their rides, and that the public should know this is not the case. (The company’s official language is “No need for a tip.” Although drivers can accept cash, the app does not automatically calculate or include tips.)

As Kyle spoke, the other drivers listened, so I asked him, on a hunch, if he could tell me how Team 84438 was organized. “We don’t have bosses here,” he said. “Just guys who can help keep things from becoming chaos.” He then admitted to having set up the subscription service and mentioned that 84438 had received advice from the Teamsters and some labor advocacy groups. He also made clear that they remain focused on raising passenger awareness, not pushing for more benefits or immediate fare hikes from Uber. (Nor could drivers form a traditional union if they wanted to: they are independent contractors, not employees, a status all the drivers I spoke to said they preferred.)

I learned from Kyle that the convoy was going to target nightlife hotspots: Hollywood Boulevard, the Sunset Strip, and LA’s newly reinvigorated downtown, now called the Arts District, thanks to one of many decades-long, massive urban development projects gentrifying the city’s poorest districts. At least in the short term, services like Uber support these projects by making it easier for yuppies to hop from bar to bar; they are, for many, the easiest way to get around in a party city with few cabs and a notoriously poor public transportation system. After scolding me for having taken the subway to the meeting, Kyle invited me to come with the drivers on the convoy. He shouted some encouragement at the convoy as everyone got in their cars and pulled slowly out of the Rite Aid lot.

Kyle and I took up a place at the end, where he could keep track of stragglers. A woman in an SUV took the lead, at one point blocking a Hollywood intersection to allow the whole convoy to make a left turn on a red light. “Look at Anna!” said Kyle. “Yeah, girl!” Earlier, in the parking lot, Anna had shown me a text message sent her by a passenger. By text, she had politely refused to carry his luggage down from a hotel room—not part of the service—and he had responded by texting her “COME BACK SO I CAN BURY MY DICK IN THAT PUSSY.” She cancelled the ride and asked Uber how to complain about the passenger: their response was that she should use the app’s ranking system to give him zero stars. “But guess what,” she had said to me. “Now I’ve got a lawyer.”

“There,” Kyle said, “and there!” pointing to people who had taken out their phones to take pictures as the trail of postered cars went by, at least one driver leaning on his horn. “Oh my god, stop honking,” Kyle said to himself. “Who is that honking guy? Where’d he get his manners?” We passed a classic car showroom on Santa Monica Boulevard where a gorgeous fête was underway; a man in a jacket with leather elbow patches turned his whole body away from the street and hunched his shoulders as the convoy went by. Somewhere between the Sunset Strip and our turn to downtown, in a darkened residential neighborhood, a woman came running to her front yard when she heard the honking. “Guys!” she yelled to a few fellow house partiers. “It’s Uber! Hooray!” As with many of the people who responded to the convoy, it was unclear whether she knew what was happening or why.

As we turned toward downtown for the last leg of the convoy—hour three, with the drivers on Kyle’s speakerphone complaining that they had to urinate, which led to a series of ongoing jokes in English and Armenian between our car and others—a man in a tall black SUV left the highway entry lane to our right and began edging into our lane. Kyle slowed, hoping to avoid what we both thought was a drunk driver, but the car drew up next to us, unswerving. The driver rolled down his window. He spat through my open window and the dry Los Angeles night right onto my face and hair. As the SUV peeled away, Kyle responded with a disgust that faded quickly into resignation. “The public,” he said. Another driver offered wipes over the speakerphone, and I laughed. Back at the meeting, he’d mentioned that a passenger, maybe drunk, maybe hungover, had slapped him that morning for mentioning tipping.

The rest of the convoy was less eventful. A police officer pulled over two cars and requested they uncover their plates. Kyle argued with a woman in a green sequined minidress and a few other drunks as to whether tips were included in the price of an Uber ride. All the drunks said yes. At stoplights, other Uber drivers inquired about the convoy. Kyle handed them postcards out the window. When I got out of the car I did a Twitter search to see if anyone had posted about the convoy. There was almost nothing, except a few blurry photos—no mention of tipping. Indeed driver protests seem to have had little overall impact on the public or the company—except, perhaps, for a recently announced incentive program called Momentum, which will provide discounts on auto maintenance and cell phone plans for drivers.

Recent PR and promotional efforts by Uber in Los Angeles have included the dispatch of Diplo to work as a driver for a day. That seems as good a tactic as any. With certain variations, the Uber story is old: labor tends to disappear, or be disappeared—especially when, as with Uber, a company is selling both a service and a convenience. Consumers do not—or even cannot— see the people who perform that service; that would take too much of their time. The app no longer requires that users even speak their destination out loud to the men and women ferrying them about. “I go to pick people up,” one driver told me, his face red with frustration, lit by the Hollywood Rite Aid’s big white sign, “and they see my name on the app but they look at me, and they say, ‘Are you the Uber?’ But I am not an Uber. I have a name.”

  1. Names in this piece have been changed. 

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