In the Bushwick headquarters of the Independent Drivers’ Guild, Sohail Rana projected on a whiteboard a drawing of a fish baring ghoulish teeth chasing after a school of minnows. He circled the big fish.
“Uber/Lyft,” he wrote next to it. He pointed to one of the smaller fish. “Who is this?” he asked.
“Us drivers,” offered a student.
Of the nearly 30 Uber drivers in Rana’s “Five Star Service” class on a Thursday in August, all were men and all but one were immigrants: from China, Yemen, India. Some struggled to share basic information — their names, how long they had been driving — in English.
And while they boasted ratings from customers above four stars out of five, all were in Rana’s class after being being “deactivated” from the app because their average rating fell below 4.6 stars , per Uber’s policy. Uber sends drivers like this directly to the guild’s remedial driving course — which costs $70 — to get back on the road. But Rana was making sure they also got a lesson in organized labor.
This particular session fell during a special time for New York City driver organizers. The day before, the City Council voted to grant a wage floor for rideshare drivers and to temporarily freeze the number of licenses for ridesharing vehicles for one year as the city studies the impacts of ridesharing apps. These bills were landmark first-in-the-country initiatives the guild helped push through, Rana told the class.
Rana is a guild steward and part-time driver originally from Pakistan who has the energy of an up-and-coming politician with the looks to match. In his dark pinstripe suit — one of his top tips for his students is to dress well — he cuts a sympathetic figure for a classroom of drivers who feel unfairly treated by the system that landed them there in the first place.
“We still need to do more work,” Rana said. “But the more and more of us come together, the more people listen.”
As the number of Ubers and Lyfts on streets across the country skyrocket and fundamentally change how we get around, there is new attention on how ridesharing affects not just peoples’ commutes, but their drivers’ lives. In New York City, where the number of daily rides in Ubers officially surpassed those in yellow cabs last summer (according to data from April, rideshare vehicles provide more than 540,000 trips in New York per day, compared to 310,000 in taxis), there have been serious labor repercussions for thousands of professional drivers in the industry. And there have been tragic results, as well — over the past nine months, six taxi drivers have committed suicide due to what their families and advocacy groups said was economic pressure on the taxi industry, including the plummeting value of medallions. But the success of ridesharing apps isn’t translating to more cash for their drivers: more Ubers and Lyfts on the road mean that their drivers earn less.
Most of Rana’s students are taking his class not because they love organized labor, but because they needed to get back to their jobs after being deactivated for low ratings. Rana tells his students that he will give their names to Uber at the class’s close and they should be back on the app by the next day, prompting murmurs of relief in the classroom. (Drivers deactivated for low ratings for a second time can’t re-take the class.)
Rana’s pitch was one of the first messages these students received about how to organize with their fellow Uber drivers — and his message resonated. The opaque policies of ridesharing apps, like ratings systems, are fueling driver dissatisfaction, and groups like the Independent Drivers Guild and others are capitalizing on this energy to organize drivers and push for reforms.
“Signing up is easy,” Uber’s website tells potential drivers, but this promise can also be a pitfall. The company conducts a basic background check on drivers and requires them to have a valid driver’s license (as well as a taxi license in New York City, which Uber helps drivers apply for at its hubs). But there’s no employee handbook providing guidelines on policies and customer service behaviors. Some drivers are shown a short video suggesting best practices, but most learn the rules of the road after spending time behind the wheel and with the app.
“Uber leverages significant control over how drivers behave on the job through algorithmic management. That control has implications for whether drivers are truly independent contractors.”
This lack of training isn’t unusual in the sharing economy; like many other companies providing app-based services, Uber classifies its drivers not as full-time employees managed by the company but as independent contractors. Drivers pay for their own vehicles and gas and operate without benefits in exchange for, as Uber and other companies infamously advertise, the chance to “be their own boss” and “set their own schedule.”
In the place of official customer-service training, ridesharing companies often send tips to drivers, through the app and over texts and emails, on how to get high ratings from riders, like offering water bottles and mints (for which drivers must pay out of their own pocket). This creates a paradoxical situation. “Uber leverages significant control over how drivers behave on the job through algorithmic management. That control has implications for whether drivers are truly independent contractors,” said Alex Rosenblat, a technology ethnographer at Data & Society and author of the forthcoming book Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work. “Yet ratings systems enforce a certain number of suggestions.”
Driver ratings are used both to compliment good drivers — many see their high ratings as a point of occupational pride — and as a control system over what ridesharing start-ups consider poor customer service; when a driver dips below a certain customer-feedback standard, their driving privileges are revoked. Uber doesn’t make its cutoff standards public and the rate varies by city, but the Independent Drivers’ Guild estimates that in New York City the cutoff rate is around 4.6 stars (when asked for specifics on its ratings cutoff rates for drivers as well as other details about the ratings system, Uber referred The Outline only to its website for information about ratings and driver improvement classes).
This surprisingly high standard hasn’t dovetailed with any form of passenger education about the implications of these ratings systems; riders are simply asked to rate their driver on a one-to -five star scale at the end of their ride, with no perception of what the company considers an “unacceptable” rating. Experts say consumers, who have few other options to send feedback to Uber, also use the driver ratings system to complain about problems in their overall experience that have nothing to do with drivers, like bad traffic, faulty GPS, or an offensive fellow passenger.
As a result, a driver who has a slightly dirty car or talks too much to a grumpy passenger can find themself deactivated, removing them from what for two-thirds of New York rideshare drivers is a full-time job. Often, Rana says, the drivers who wind up in his class fit a specific profile: they are largely immigrants with limited English skills, unfamiliar with New York streets and professional driving, who are kicked off the app after one or two negative reviews early into their driving careers.
Uber’s business model was developed to put part-time drivers to work driving their own cars. Eight years after the company’s founding, this scenario barely resembles the reality of driver life in major cities like New York. A report prepared for New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission this summer finds that 85 percent of app-based drivers in the city currently make below minimum wage, while 80 percent of drivers acquired their vehicles solely to drive for an app-based company. As the number of drivers and cars on the road increase, companies are able to offer lower rates to passengers — while creating more competition for drivers. The bills passed in New York City this summer are expected to help address major problems with the number of vehicles on the road and driver pay, two of the top issues pushed by labor groups.
But more cryptic aspects of the ride-sharing economy are also fueling driver frustration. Ratings, Rosenblat says, can saddle drivers with a sense of powerlessness. “There’s all these points in which drivers have quite limited information or power over their working conditions,” she said.
“There’s all these points in which drivers have quite limited information or power over their working conditions.”
A two-year-old offshoot of the Machinists’ Union, the Independent Driver’s Guild, which specifically serves New York City drivers, is the only organized driver group in the country recognized by Uber and it has become a locus of driver organization. The guild, which meets regularly with the company to push for reforms, has positioned itself as an advocate for drivers, and publicly touts its campaigns for driver rights like healthcare and bathroom breaks on its website. It’s also where Uber sends its deactivated drivers for a weekly customer service course. (Non-New York City drivers have the option to take an equivalent class with a private company that Uber recommends on its website.)
Rana told the class of his own foibles with Uber. He said he was falsely accused by a passenger of drunk driving despite his high rating — a 4.96, he told us proudly — and missed two days of work as Uber reviewed the complaint. And despite his class’s endorsement from the company, Rana is far from an Uber cheerleader. The first half of his three-hour class is an overview of the guild’s history, and he makes a direct pitch to the drivers in the room to sign up for membership. The $18 monthly membership fee, Rana mentions to drivers, can be directly taken out of their earnings on the app.
Fees like this membership charge and the $70 required for Rana’s class, other driver groups say, are a red flag that demonstrate the guild’s too-cozy relationship with Uber. It’s widely reported that the guild also takes money from the company, although the guild has not shared details with reporters or the public of the agreement or exactly how much cash is exchanged. What’s more, in order to earn a seat at the negotiating table with the company when it was formed, the guild promised Uber to not push for a change in drivers’ status as independent contractors.
This concession is a key sticking point for rival driver rights groups like the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance, which says Uber is depriving drivers of key employment benefits. The alliance, an offshoot of the AFL-CIO formed in 1998 to represent yellow cab drivers, has publicly questioned the guild’s tactics. (NYTWA charges $100 per year for driver membership, according to their website.)
Lee Adler, a professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said he recognizes that the guild’s arrangement with Uber can be “a voice” for drivers in issues like ratings. However, Adler also said he understands how the agreement to not push for full employee status for drivers is alarming to driver advocacy groups backed by other unions.
“Once someone is an employee, the whole panoply of rights in America opens up to them,” he said. “Until that happens, nothing is open.”
The criticism hasn’t slowed down in the wake of the success at City Hall. In an interview with In These Times after the bill’s passage, NYTWA Executive Director Bhairavi Desai accused the guild of flip-flopping on support for the driver cap bill.
“They have been team Uber,” Desai said. “When they saw we were going to win on the cap, they turned around and said ‘we support that.’”
But for Rana’s audience, the class was their first opportunity to talk about their grievances with Uber with people who were technically their colleagues. Many also used class time to compare certain ratings Catch-22s they’d encountered on the road: how to handle riders who bring pets, which can leave messes behind, or what to do if a passenger insists on smoking in the car. (One driver shared a story of being rated poorly for asking a passenger to not smoke, then being given another low rating by the next rider because his car smelled like cigarettes.) Serious passenger complaints against drivers, like drunk driving or other safety violations, are cause for an automatic removal from the app and require a separate trial process, but several drivers still traded anecdotes of what they said were riders making false allegations.
“If you don’t have a dashcam in the car, get a dashcam,” Rana told the class, explaining that the footage could defend against false complaints from passengers. “If a customer says something to Uber about you, who is Uber likely to believe?”
Driver Peter Nakhla said that being deactivated made it tough to keep up with the weekly $425 payment on the car he’d leased from an Uber partner dealer. (The dealer Nakhla used was one of four New York City dealerships that partnered with Uber to offer predatory lease-to-own offers for vehicles, as Quartz reported last year.) Nakhla has 22 years of taxi experience in the U.S. and his native Egypt, but was deactivated for low ratings after only a few weeks of driving for Uber.
“I tell all my customers — I don’t need the tip, but I need the stars,” he said.
Nakhla decided to sign up for guild membership, saying it sounded like a good deal — especially with the $20 discount on the class fee Rana offered that day for new guild members.
Despite the guild positioning its negotiations to get deactivated drivers back on the road as a win against the company, Rana’s Five Star Service class doesn’t exactly quiet critics. While the guild is a nonprofit, the current $70 fee is higher than some rates offered for equivalent online classes from the for-profit company recommended for non-New York City drivers. (Rates vary by city, but the fee for an online class for a Los Angeles driver in August was billed at $49.99.) Other driver advocates say that classes like Rana’s act as a mechanism to squeeze yet another fee out of drivers.
Rana says that the class fee is used solely to cover a small stipend for him and other expenses (“we need to pay our rent,” he told me), and that the guild is currently considering making the class free. And he pushes back on the idea that the guild is not working in the best interests of drivers. “[NYTWA] has been out there for 20 years — why didn’t they stand up for yellow cab drivers and Uber drivers five or six years ago?” he said. “They can start five-star classes for themselves.”
Regardless of the guild’s intentions, organizing is still a hard slog. While other drivers filled out membership forms during a break, Lenny Rabinovich, a 17-year New York driving veteran, confronted Rana to complain about the class length and threatened to leave.
“I have to pay today also?” Rabinovich yelled, when Rana clarified that the class wasn’t free. “This is ridiculous.”
“Lenny, Lenny,” Rana soothed. “This is capitalism.”
When Rana called the class to order 10 minutes later, Rabinovich was still in his seat. His classmate had convinced him to stay.