The Racial Implications of the Uber-Lyft Strike

On May 8 drivers for Uber and Lyft went on strike across the world. Workers turned off their apps in anticipation of Uber’s initial public offering (IPO) on May 10, which was valued at $75.46 billion. However, workers believe they haven’t benefited from these profits. Reports have cited rising allegations of poverty pay as motivating the strike.

While much of this is true, what’s missing is the fact that drivers of color and immigrant drivers acutely feel the harmful impact of these ridesharing companies’ labor.

Uber and Lyft are mascots for capitalists who love deregulated markets and pride themselves on their capacity for “disruption.” To an extent, that isn’t all hype. They certainly can pull off tearing asunder industry standards. Driving used to be a job people could retire from, use to mortgage their homes, and pay for their kids education. These days, drivers typically make below minimum wage and can, without warning, have their apps deactivated without explanation, effectively separating full time workers from their livelihoods.

In New York, Uber and Lyft also benefited from being able to field an unlimited number of cars, driving down fare prices and essentially making it impossible for traditional taxi cabs to compete. Moreover, one of Uber’s primary objectives was to devalue taxi medallions, throwing drivers’ lives and the industry in general into chaos.

Yet Uber, Lyft, and others have also been able to establish themselves as “woke” brands. These companies and their supporters have argued that ride sharing apps prevent cabbies from discriminating based on race, which has struck a chord with Black passengers who are fed up with being ignored whenever they need a ride. From Los Angeles to New York, stories of Black riders being passed over abound. However, Black users of Lyft and Uber were more likely to experience longer wait times and cancellations than their Asian, Hispanic, or white counterparts.

Anne Brown, author of the study that examined ridesharing’s effect on the problem of “hailing while Black” noted that while race factored into whether or not service would be delayed by an Uber or Lyft driver on the basis of race, it never led to outright denials. In fact, her LA-based study showed that nearly all Black Lyft and Uber riders made it to their destination, even if faced with an initial cancellation. Her findings also serve as a cautionary to those who might view algorithms and apps as key to building an anti-racist future because “discrimination occurs when a driver… first infer[s] a riders race: when they see a rider’s picture (on Lyft), learn their name or approach a rider for pickup.” Brown wrote that while policymakers might be tempted to write off cabs in favor of Ubers and Lyfts as a result of this study, she noted that both “are still inaccessible to those without bank cards or smart phones.”

Some argue that ridesharing has extended car services in neighborhoods typically underserved by public transportation. In New York City, this narrative is complicated by the fact that industry changes wrought by the advent of Uber exacerbated difficulties for many neighborhood-based car services, sometimes known as “gypsy cabs.” Drivers organized by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) pressed the city under Michael Bloomberg’s administration to extend green cab services — NYC taxis that can only pick up fares south of 110th Street in Manhattan and are associated with car services — to more far flung areas. NYTWA has also been actively attempting to address the issue of race-based refusals of service with its Racial Justice and Civil Rights Initiative. This program encompasses a number of measures, including peer-to-peer anti-bias education for drivers, encouraging app-based dispatching, and supporting the growth of African American representation among cabbies.

Examining the effects Uber and Lyft have had from a labor perspective reveals another side of the conversation about equity, justice, and cabs.

Rather than being valiant disruptors of social injustice, these companies aren’t interested in updating the norms of racial capitalism.

This performative “wokeness” is particularly striking in a city like New York, where around 92 percent of the cabbie workforce are immigrants, most of whom are Bangladeshis.

The most prominent issue coming to the fore in the strike is pay; generally speaking, rideshare drivers are not paid enough and their take has been shrinking for years. Uber driver Esterphanie St. Juste, who participated in the LA strike, would make “easily over $1,000 a week and still have two days off” when she started. Now she drives constantly and has not had a day off since January. Her story is typical.

These meager earnings are compounded by drivers’ status as “independent contractors,” a status that companies exploit to deny benefits, minimum wage, and paid time off. Recently, drivers won the right to be treated as employees for the purpose of collecting unemployment. But the misclassification suit remains ongoing, serving as a touchstone for the industry’s current instability.

In New York, a total of nine drivers have killed themselves due to a tragic combination of being debt burdened, overworked, and underpaid. The majority of these driver suicides were men of color. Many of the victims cited changes in the industry as having pushed them to end their lives. The first of them, Douglas Schifter, shot himself in front of City Hall in protest of the deregulation that brought Uber in. In the midst of this spate of deaths, NYTWA began organizing to reign in the number of Uber vehicles and push for the city to establish a living wage for drivers.

Even without the added economic burdens of falling pay and insecurity, driving is a tough job and those who do it are exposed to a great deal of violence. In early March, Benin-born Uber driver Ganiou Gandonou was stabbed to death in a robbery in the Bronx.

Drivers are also often the victims of hate crimes. Sikh and Muslim drivers have been the targets of Islamophobic fury since 9/11. On March 9, for instance, cab driver Jaswinder Singh Padda had his throat slashed by a passenger in what appears to have been a premeditated attack.

Incidents like the murder of Gandonou and the attack on Singh Padda underscore just how dangerous it is for drivers of color working in an unsupportive industry. Coupled with the ever deteriorating working conditions, it also illustrates how much they need it to change.

About the Author

Skanda Kadirgamar is a Brooklyn-based reporter who grew up in New York and now covers housing, labor, and South Asian diaspora activism.