Brian Dolber Labor Project Censored

Sleeping at the Wheel: The Uber Files, the Media, and the Coup Against Labor Rights

Uber’s entire model has been about breaking—if not smashing—labor law (and worker power) through systematic misclassification.

By Brian Dolber / Project Censored

The recent reporting on the Uber Files—a series of 124,000 communications, dated from 2013 until 2017, that Mark McGann, one of Uber’s top lobbyists, leaked to The Guardian—has shed light on the company’s strategies to gain global prominence during its nascent years. McGann and the many reporters working on the project through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists are commendable for their efforts to bring this history to public attention. Still, the reporting elides a much larger story about the rise of a new model of labor relations being implemented throughout the globe, and workers’ efforts to stop it.

Founded in the wake of the global financial crisis, Uber Technologies worked to take advantage of widespread unemployment, decades of neoliberal policymaking, and advances in geolocative and algorithmic technologies to “disrupt” the locally owned and highly regulated global taxi industry. With a lean model that pushed capital expenditures and risks onto its workforce, Uber and “the gig economy” upended transportation throughout the world. By the time Uber went public in 2019, it had established a firm global presence and a valuation of $76 billion.   

The Uber Files reporting shows that Uber broke into tightly regulated markets by subsidizing cheap rides and offering bonuses to drivers with investor cash, only to eliminate those subsidies and slash driver pay once they established market dominance. To maintain operations, the company bought off academics to spin lawmakers and the media. Uber representatives had secretive meetings with Emmanuel Macron and convinced Joe Biden when he was vice president to amend his speech at a World Economic Forum meeting. When regulatory threats did come, the company used a “kill switch” to hide information from the authorities. 

Uber doesn’t just break laws or act unethically. Their entire premise, in the words of an Uber operative, is “just f—ing illegal.” Some argue Uber is “not a business proposition” but “a political coup…to seize control of a portion of urban transport infrastructure from the voters and taxpayers.” 

But more fundamentally, Uber’s entire model has been about breaking—if not smashing—labor law (and worker power) through systematic misclassification. Despite the power Uber exercises over its workforce, they deem drivers “independent contractors” to exempt themselves from minimum wage and other workplace protections. As an organizer with Rideshare Drivers United, I’ve heard repeatedly how Uber regularly changes the terms of work in response to ever-shifting supply of drivers and demand from passengers with no mileage rate too low. In the meantime, they charge their workforce extortionary commissions, often well over 50 percent, supposedly for providing the service of connecting drivers to passengers. 

This assault on labor rights is part of the broader white supremacist, authoritarian attack on democracy. As the app-based workforce is largely comprised of BIPOC workers, Uber continues the history of racialized workers locked into second-class labor categories and denied collective bargaining rights. Uber keeps these drivers working often over 60 hours a week, chasing “surges” and “bonuses” based on data collected through surveillance technologies, in the hopes that they will clear a net income after paying for gas, car maintenance, and insurance. In the meantime, taxi drivers have gone into enormous debt and in some cases have been driven to suicide. Upon hearing of potential threats to Uber driver safety from French taxi drivers, former CEO Travis Kalanick expressed glee over the intra-class conflict he fomented: “violence guarantees success.”

Kalanick’s departure in 2017—when the Uber Files end—did not curtail Uber’s extremism. Since just before their 2019 IPO, Uber has persistently slashed driver pay to demonstrate to investors that they might, at some point, become profitable. Acknowledging that misclassification is essential for their viability, the platform giants spent record breaking sums to rewrite the laws they had already broken, while striking deals with labor unions in Washington State, New YorkAustraliaCanada, and the United Kingdom, to exempt app-based workers from employee rights.

These collaborations, though, have not extinguished the struggle for labor rights. As the media have largely overlooked Uber’s illegal activity, they have also given short shrift to the ways drivers have self-organized on every continent where Uber has extended its tentacles. Drivers around the world struck on the eve of Uber’s IPO. In California, they have fought against the draconian Proposition 22, which locks app-based workers into a second-class category. Drivers in other states have struggled to prevent similar laws from going on the books. In Europe and the UK, drivers have fought for data rights in the courts, while maintaining a persistent presence in the street. Increasing gasoline prices prompted Uber drivers in South Africa to strike for three days in March 2022, while even the threat of recent strikes in India has prompted government action. 

The Uber Files only seem like a huge revelation because the media have been asleep at the wheel. The same economic logics and technological transformations that enabled Uber’s corporate extremism also helped bring about journalism’s “market failure” following the 2008 financial crisis. As gig work platforms sought to “disrupt” the service sector, social media platforms such as Facebook disrupted so-called “old media” and their advertising models. Algorithms enabled advertisers to reach ever-more targeted audiences at ever-cheaper rates. By 2016, Uber accounted for half of all ground transport; Facebook, Google, and Amazon today receive half of all advertising revenue. Consequently, local newsrooms– the very outlets that might have served as forums for debating the merits of transportation regulations– have been gutted by private equity firms and hedge funds, or closed, leaving news deserts. Major outlets such as the Los Angeles Timesand the Washington Posthave become the property of individual billionaires, whose hostility to labor is perhaps only rivaled by Uber itself.

The Uber Files are largely unsurprising to drivers, but they are proving a powerful tool in the struggle for justice in the gig economy. In France, taxi drivers are calling for a parliamentary inquiry into Macron’s dealings with the company. Italian taxi drivers, who had been opposing liberalization, went on strike, contributing to Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s resignation. 

Members of the U.S. Congress, however, introduced the Worker Flexibility and Choice Act with bipartisan support. Backed by Uber and the Coalition for Workforce Innovation, the bill would allow workers to opt out of minimum wage and overtime protections in exchange for so-called “flexibility.” While it has little chance of passing during this Congress, its introduction should alert the entire labor movement—and the media– to the looming threat of corporate extremism.  

Journalism may be the first rough draft of history, but it still needs to be on deadline. Fortunately, workers and citizens may still have a say in what the second draft looks like. If there was ever a time for journalists to pay attention, it’s now. 

Brian Dolber

Brian Dolber (bdolber@csusm.edu) is Associate Professor of Communication at California State University San Marcos. He is the co-editor of The Gig Economy: Workers and Media in the Age of Convergence (Routledge, 2021) and a volunteer organizer with Rideshare Drivers United. A former co-chair of Union for Democratic Communications, he is a contributor to Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2022.   

8 comments

  1. I have a hard time understanding what “rights” people have when it comes to working, as per the dogma of left wing liberals.

    You have the right to pursue work. It pretty much ends there because almost everything that follows is a matter of agreement. Commercial agreements are not part’n parcel of rights. Those are two different paradigms which is one of the reasons that we distinguish common law from commercial law.

    It often seems to me that what falls under commercial agreement should somehow be turned into a right. Sounds like a spoiled child with grandiose expectations to me.

    1. Uber and the capitalists think you have a right to be exploited. You have a right to pursue work? No shit, really? This ain’t about somebody’s “right” to go out and get a job. You have a hard time understanding what rights people have at work? Yeah, you sure do.

  2. INVISIBLE HAND V. A WOBBLY MIDDLE FINGER

    I knew I didn’t like Uber, but I had no idea it’s this bad. Terminal capitalism, where the 1%ers and their 20%er D/Lib enablers don’t even bother to hide the blatant exploitation or to justify the system.

    Re: the feeble attempt by Michael G. above. Capitalism and free enterprise are NOT the same. Free enterprise is the privately or cooperatively owned production of physically real goods and services. Capitalism is the manipulation of that abstraction known as money.

    Since the manipulators now can purchase…er, donate to political campaigns, we see whose interests become encoded in law. Using that invisible hand as a middle finger to the vast majority of humans.

    In the US, union workers are under contract law. A field well developed since that’s important to corporations. Non-union workers fall under a title inherited from English common law, called a Master-Servant relationship. Cui bono?

    As one o’ them union blue collar workers who cain rede, wraht, an’ thank, over the decades I’ve come to fully appreciate why my grandfather was a Wobbly (IWW.) The statement of principles from the 1905 founding convention of the IWW is right. “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”

    Were you in the room as I type this, you could see my very real middle finger raised at the arrogant exploiters who believe they’re entitled to our labor. We know who the real essential workers are. A biz cliche’ is that if you know the numbers, you can manage anything. Well, we know the numbers–we’re the many of the world.

  3. Any thoughts about the Uber users?
    Probably they like it this way or they would not pay for it.

    1. They like it being cheap. The vast majority of them have no idea of the exploitation behind the “app.” The cynical freaks who started Uber knew full well that people, especially cash-strapped people, would become Uber drivers and Uber riders too. I will never use Uber, but I understand why others do. It’s impossible in our late-stage, finance-capitalist country to avoid exploitation and exploitative arrangements. If you take an Uber ride, figure out what the Uber share is and give at least that much to the driver, if you can afford it. In cash of course.

  4. Excerpt from a blog circa 2015 about fallacies of propaganda of disruptive innovation..

    “ The specifically Uber-like disruptors, or similar entities are more insidious with their business model that not only is concerned with moving people, preying on young jobless or underemployed gullible dreamers unable and make ends meet but is most of all aimed at changing of general paradigm of the work itself disrupting wage labor laws and replacing them with capricious servitude that reigned supreme for millennia until about 150 year ago.

    The disruptors in a clandestine way are trying to replace standard definition of labor, wage and employee with an insidious twist of reducing labor contract obligation to time of rendering services setting up the casino game where no matter what house won’t lose.”

    In fact entire Uber business was a modern Ponzi scheme that programmatically produced inherent business losses covered by perpetual refinancing of inever to be paid off debt and executive gains based of increase of share price. The real purpose was to push car sales amid economic collapse of 2008-2011 and beyond. GM Ford were major investors in Uber and Lyft. In fact Lyft took blatantly form of GM leasing agent by giving drivers option to lease car for purpose working for Lyft.

    Those inherently money losing enterprises are direct product of unprecedented bailout of Wall Street in 2008-2011 and will continue as long as Fed keep bailing them out by printing money to take up more unpayable debt.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: