Dem Candidates Fault Uber and Lyft -- But Are Loyal Customers

Dem Candidates Fault Uber and Lyft -- But Are Loyal Customers
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Dem Candidates Fault Uber and Lyft -- But Are Loyal Customers
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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Democratic presidential campaigns may have had to call a cab on Wednesday. Across the country, thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers took the day off to protest low wages and a lack of benefits. The timing wasn’t accidental: Ride-share giant Uber planned to go public on Wall Street two days later.  

The candidates stumbled over each other to signal that they didn’t mind any inconvenience.

“I stand with them,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted of the disaffected drivers. Fellow Sens. Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders were similarly “standing.” And former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, along with entrepreneur Andrew Yang all made sure their followers knew they, too, “stood” in solidarity with the strikers.

Each of the echoing White House hopefuls shared the same vocabulary to describe their support. They also share something else: According to filings with the Federal Election Commission, every candidate decrying Uber and Lyft practices is also a loyal customer.  

Warren and her campaign took 213 trips with the ride-sharing companies from Jan. 15 to March 30 at a cost of $3,462. Harris racked up a $2,936 total with Uber and Lyft. Yang spent $1,946; Sanders, $921; and Buttigieg, $616.

Totals were not publicly available for Biden, who famously prefers to take the train and who hasn’t filed any campaign expenses for the first quarter. (He delayed his formal entrance into 2020 race until two weeks ago.)

Critics will see hypocrisy in how these candidates speak one way but travel another. But the mismatch may have more to do with a modern world in which ride-sharing is everywhere, from rural campaign hotbeds in Iowa to urban ones such as Las Vegas. After all, “Uber” has become a verb in contemporary usage.

Ubiquitous now, Uber was a novelty a decade ago when the first customer summoned a ride across San Francisco with a tap of a smartphone button. The service that promised to be “everyone’s private driver” has since grown into a global juggernaut, flaunted regulators, and disrupted older transportation systems.

More than 2 million drivers count on the app to make extra cash or even provide a full-time income. On the eve of its initial public offering, Uber had a projected valuation of $86 billion. But success has not come without controversy.

As creatures of the “gig economy,” Uber and Lyft muscled the taxi industry out of its time-honored market share and built empires by designating their drivers as contractors rather than employees. Picking up passengers in their own vehicles and making their own schedules means drivers only make money when they’re behind the wheel; without employee status, they don’t receive a minimum wage, insurance, vacation days or overtime.

Drivers also miss out on corporate profit sharing, sparking criticism from union bosses and politicians alike.

“With the IPO, Uber’s corporate owners are set to make billions, all while drivers are left in poverty and go bankrupt,” Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said in a statement. “That’s why NYTWA members are joining the international strike to stand up to Uber greed.”

Sanders agreed with that sentiment, tweeting ahead of Wednesday’s demonstration that “one job should be enough to make a decent living in America, especially for those working for multibillion-dollar companies. Drivers must be paid the wages they deserve.”

The democratic socialist didn’t mention his customer loyalty or offer any recommendation of what a fair wage would look like.

The actual wages of drivers vary, according to analyses. The Economic Policy Institute recently estimated that Uber drivers earn roughly $9.21 each hour, after taking commissions, vehicle fees, and health insurance expenses into account. A similar study by NerdWallet found that Lyft drivers make an average hourly rate of $11.77.

Under pressure one day before going public, Uber reached a settlement Thursday with 60,000 striking drivers. The company estimates it will spend between $146 million and $170 million on payouts. Uber will not, however, back down on the employment status of their drivers.

“We believe that Drivers are independent contractors because, among other things, they can choose whether, when, and where to provide services on our platform, are free to provide services on our competitors’ platforms, and provide a vehicle to perform services on our platform,” Uber said in a statement.

The settlement has allowed a temporary détente between capital and contracted labor. It does not, however, address the underlying dispute, thus ensuring future clashes. At very least, Democratic candidates and staffers may have avoided awkward conversations with their Uber drivers.

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