by Mel Gammie
Thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers in multiple countries logged off their apps and went on strike on May 8th to protest Uber’s impending IPO. This unprecedented move by gig economy workers to mobilize against their employer was a noteworthy display of dogged collective organizing—with, unfortunately, underwhelming results.
In the UK, drivers of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain delineated a clear set of demands ahead of their planned one-day strike, calling for “fares be increased to £2 per mile, commissions paid by drivers to Uber to be reduced from 25% to 15%, an end to unfair dismissals, and for Uber to respect the rulings of the Employment Tribunal, The Employment Appeal Tribunal and the Court of Appeal confirming ‘worker’ status for drivers.” Similar demands were made by strikers worldwide.
However, at the planned protest in Glasgow, Scotland, only one driver showed up for roughly fifteen minutes before heading home. Similar modest or low turnouts have been reported in other protest locations. In some locations, drivers who were asked about driving during the strike had no idea that it was even taking place. This disappointing turnout points to what seems to have been a breakdown in communication before the planned events. Yet the results may not be the point—these initial efforts are a first step towards greater organization in the gig economy labor pool, and hopefully towards tactics that extend beyond traditional, contained strikes.
Insidious manipulation by gig economy corporations sells laborers the idea of a liberatory working life while in reality dooming them to the opposite.
Despite the muted turnout, the efforts by organizations to voice their demands for fairer treatment as laborers in the gig economy were exemplary. As Shirin Ghaffary writes for Vox, “The Uber and Lyft strike may not have caused a transportation crisis today, but it’s a sign of a deeper, long-term labor crisis within an increasingly frustrated workforce.” The gig economy is, by design, an alienating and atomizing employment scheme. Corporations like Uber and Lyft try to portray the gigs to potential drivers as guarantors of freedom and autonomy, but most drivers end up shackled to their vehicles, working long hours just to break even. This insidious manipulation sells laborers the idea of a liberatory working life while in reality dooming them to the opposite.
Unlike more traditional workplaces—say, a factory—workers in the gig economy are a diaspora, spread out across a vast geography. All communication between employee (really, benefit-less contractors) and employer is conducted through the medium of the individualized phone interface. There is no channel through which to reach other drivers, and the prospect of collective action is precluded by the fundamental architecture of the system.
This is, as they say, a feature, not a bug. The prospect of management’s ability to constantly depress wages while minimizing blowback is a selling point for investors. Uber and Lyft take the lion’s share of profits (including millions of dollars in bonuses each year) while arbitrarily lowering per-mile rates and refusing to recognize workers as fully employed by the company. To see drivers making the push to organize themselves across oceans and plan this strike is an indicator of just how far they’ve been pushed. They are supremely pissed off, and rightly so.
Collective organizing in the gig economy is a solid first step toward securing more protections for workers, but it has so far proven insufficient to challenge the institutions that allow such abuses to happen in the first place.
Uber and Lyft effectively dismantled the established taxi economy by introducing a newer business model that undercut established rates, defanged unions, and put many cab drivers out of a job. As the streets are flooded with more drivers, the pressure to maintain a solid income has even driven some New York taxi drivers to suicide. (Another ramification, contrary to rideshare companies’ utopian insistence that sharing will streamline auto transportation, is a massive increase in urban traffic. The only promise that they’ve upheld is the mandate to disrupt everything).
Collective organizing in the gig economy is a solid first step toward securing more protections for workers, but it is unclear if it is sufficient to challenge the institutions that allow such abuses to happen in the first place. The nature of the gig economy makes striking less effective at disrupting the flow of capitalist profit. It may be that structural incentives to scab are too strong in such a hyperindividualized system. Demonstrations like the Uber/Lyft strike are unfortunately hobbled by capitalism’s anti-labor designs.
Our current moment calls for a new application of tactics to labor organizing within the gig economy. The late Mark Fisher, in his seminal Capitalist Realism, suggests: “One strategy would be to shift the political terrain—to move away from the unions’ traditional focus on pay and onto forms of discontent specific to” our contemporary socioeconomic paradigms. After all, we are no longer in a “punitive” society (a la Foucault) but are instead trapped within a control society, as Deleuze observes in Postscript on the Societies of Control. Capitalists still have a stranglehold, and neoliberalism has provided them with new kinds of knots with which to hamstring labor. The gig economy may be one of their most effective mechanisms.
A praxis that calls for more vigorously disrupting the self-proclaimed disruptors is well-suited to the disparate geographics of the gig economy.
In the introduction to Riot. Strike. Riot, Josh Clover explains that while striking unfolds from within capitalist production, the riot is a form of collective action that erupts outside, “in the context of consumption, featuring the interruption of commercial circulation.” This active confrontation, in open defiance of the capitalist mode of production, features a heterogenous assortment of participants who do not share a job per se but instead share a kinship rooted in their collective dispossession. There’s a reason that the ruder and/or richer amongst us have been known to treat their rideshare drivers with sneering disdain: we are trained by capitalism to see these people as subhuman, as automated facets of our daily routines. Solidarity and collective action are a way for labor to reassert not only their economic rights, but their humanity.
A praxis that calls for more vigorously disrupting the self-proclaimed disruptors is well-suited to the disparate geographics of the gig economy, uniting groups under one banner of major discontent and counteracting the reduced capacity for bargaining by throwing more wrenches in the gears. What’s more, this sort of organizing provides a critical foundation for the sort of mutual aid and intersectional solidarity that we must build if we are ever to reckon with capitalism itself. Murray Bookchin posits that the riot’s “shift from predictable, highly organized protests within the institutionalized framework of the existing society to sporadic, spontaneous, insurrectionary assaults from outside (and even against) socially acceptable forms reflects a profound change in popular psychology.” Considering the obstacles we face, a large-scale shift in such popular thinking will be required to enact substantive change.
This type of insurrectionary organization has met with success in the ongoing Yellow Vest movement and served to bolster labor organizing across the world. This critique of the Uber strikes is not meant to denigrate the strike model and all that it has earned for the labor movement, but rather to advance a crucial dialogue surrounding the tactics the proletariat might employ in the class struggles of the future. ♦
Melanie is a Scottish literature scholar and co-host of the weekly Coffee With Comrades podcast. She has been organizing on the left for the last few years, working on various projects in her home state of Nebraska as well as in the wider Midwest region. You can yell at her via Twitter @coldbrewedtool or email at email@example.com.