Uber Wants to Reorganize the Economy? Workers, too Can Play at that Game

The global newswire Associated Press announced this January that it will no longer refer to the app-based cab-hail service Uber, as “ride-sharing.”

The move follows criticism that services like Uber and Lyft are very far from sharing; they are taking more than they’re giving.

That’s certainly the view of Bhairavi Desai co-founder and director of the National Taxi Worker’s Alliance. Desai told GRITtv this week that while it characterizes itself as an innovative disruption, Uber’s more like Walmart on wheels. They’re not democratizing the workplace, she said, they’re de-regulating it or rather, re-regulating it, to the benefit of app-owning bosses and the detriment of drivers.

Minimum guaranteed wages, health and safety insurance, and the chance to negotiate collectively. Taxi drivers fought decades for those protections, said Desai. Now in comes Uber. Behind the sharing spin, what’s it really want? She says, “It’s nothing less than the reorganization of the economy.”

The worker contributes the car, the gas, the training and the risk, and in return for being called an “independent contractor” they make more or less the same money as they would working for a fleet. They may pick up more rides, more quickly, and drive more hours, but that should raise real safety concerns. Doug Henwood reporting for The Nation found taxi drivers in Chicago and Los Angeles making around $12 hour after expenses – about the same as other drivers.

Former driver Jon Liss writes that “for all the convenience Uber may offer its users, one of its primary byproducts has been the degradation of working class jobs that once generated a living wage.”

Nor, as Liss points out, does Uber have any responsibility to serve everyone, only the smartphone clutching, credit-card swiping few, even as prices soar and taxi supply shrinks for the rest of us.

That said, the status quo wasn’t perfect for taxi drivers pre-Uber, any more than it was for part-timers pre Wal-Mart. The bosses’ pitch – that workers can be partners, sharers, associates (the euphemisms mount) works not only because people are desperate, but also because being a worker’s never brought with it the economic power or cultural pride in race-to-the-top America that it has in countries where unions have been less devastated.

But Uber et al better watch out. Today, the Taxi Workers are at work on their own app. And as we report in our latest documentary, Own the Change, hundreds of taxi drivers are becoming worker-owners by creating their own worker-owned companies – like Madison’s Union Cab, a co-operative. Redesign the economy? Two can play at that game.

As Desai says, “I love a good disruption but I love it in favor or poor people and working people.”