At the n+1 website, Nikil Saval outlines the considerable damage that ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft do to the cities in which they operate and the workers they contract. Saval suggests that the struggle against ride-sharing companies concerns not just fair pay and public goods like transportation, but democracy itself. He writes, “What Uber and its ride-sharing fraternity want cannot exist alongside a democratic society; only one vision can prevail.” Check out an excerpt from the piece below, or the full text here.
In the same vein, the proliferating but ever meaningless distinctions between the “bad” Uber and the “good” Lyft have obscured how destructive the rise of ride-sharing has been for workers and the cities they live in. The predatory lawlessness that prevails inside Valley workplaces scales up and out. Both companies entered their markets illegally, without regard to prevailing wages, regulations, or taxes. Like Amazon, which found a way to sell books without sales tax, this turned out to be one of the many illegal boons.
The taxi system was and is an exploitative one, in which drivers were often classified as independent contractors. But ride-sharing is an incalculably more exploitative one. In regulated markets, taxi companies are at least required to maintain, acquire, and insure all the cars in a taxi fleet. Ride-sharing companies are not. This means for example, as Quartz reported recently, that Uber can force its drivers into “deep subprime” loans to acquire their vehicles, leaving them drowning in debt. In addition to undermining every possible regulation to screw their drivers more, Uber claimed as late as 2015 that drivers could earn $90,000 working for them. In a landmark piece for the Philadelphia City Paper, reporter Emily Guendelsberger worked as an UberX driver and discovered the truth. “If I worked 10 hours a day, six days a week with one week off, I’d net almost $30,000 a year before taxes,” she wrote. “But if I wanted to net that $90,000 a year figure that so many passengers asked about, I would only have to work, let’s see . . . 27 hours a day, 365 days a year.” The jobs created by ride-sharing are emblematically crappy, part-time, and contingent. In fact, according to the loophole in labor law that ride-sharing companies exploit, they’re not even “jobs” so much as gigs; the drivers are independent contractors who just happen to use the ride-sharing app.
But lying and rule-breaking to gain a monopoly are old news in liberal capitalism. What ride-sharing companies had to do, in the old spirit of Standard Oil, was secure a foothold in politics, and subject politics to the will of the consumer. In a telling example of our times, Uber hired former Obama campaign head David Plouffe to work the political angles. And Plouffe has succeeded wildly, since—as Washingtonians and New Yorkers are experiencing with their subways—municipal and state liberals are only nominally committed to the standards that regulate transport. Never mind that traffic is something that cities need to control, and that transportation should be a public good. Ride-sharing companies—which explode traffic and undermine public transportation—can trim the balance sheets of cities by privatizing both. The choice we make should be between unchecked ride-sharing and fully funded mass transit. Instead, the success of ride-sharing means that we choose between Uber and Lyft.
Image via Boston Globe.