How Being an Exploited Uber and Lyft Driver Rekindled My Long-lost Activist Spirit

“Uber vs Lyft” by stockcatalog is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Since the COVID-19 shutdown in March, I have had a strong urge to stand up and speak against Uber and Lyft. As the virus spread across the country, the two ride-hailing companies, which I had been working for since 2014, abandoned the drivers who make up the core of their business.

Because they had us misclassified as contractors, we did not qualify for traditional benefits, which depend on how much an employer paid into the unemployment insurance fund. We found ourselves at the mercy of the state, which decided to award $167 a week to every Californian who didn’t qualify. Even after the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed to give independent contractors an additional $600 a week of federal aid, we had to wait until the middle of May to receive the money. I know drivers who couldn’t get their applications in due to heavy traffic to the state website on April 28, when the CARES application opened.

As the virus spread, Lyft was busy trying to manipulate drivers to risk their lives and continue driving. As Lyft scrambled to reinvent itself, they began making deliveries. They formed a “Driver Task Force” and urged us to join it and be “a force for good” during the pandemic.

Their weekly newsletter, which used to spotlight drivers who, say, knew the coolest nightspots in town began to carry stories of brave drivers helping deliver groceries and medicine to seniors.

“I have a mom who’s elderly,” a driver named Guadalupe says. “So I just felt for the elderly more so than anything.”

“People are going through a lot,” says Miracle, another driver. “I just want to be part of the team that brings joy to people.”

But while drivers like Guadalupe and Miracle were out there risking their lives so that they could pay their bills, Uber and Lyft were on their way to spending over $200 million on Prop. 22, which would screw drivers even more by exempting gig companies from Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), a new California law that required gig companies to classify workers as employees an pay them benefits.

Other drivers began organizing to oppose Prop. 22. I stood by and watched, justifying my silence by reminding myself that as a journalist I couldn’t get involved in activism. It took a virtual journey to my childhood to finally remind me that a true watchdog doesn’t sit on the fence as wolves devour the sheep he’s supposed to defend.

As a boy growing up in the Gusii highlands of southwestern Kenya, my heroes were all journalists. I loved them because their stories were the vehicle by which I traveled to faraway places without leaving the geographic confines of remote birthplace. By the time I was 5 years old, I knew the voices of every radio announcer so well that when they began to read the news, I rushed to utter their names before they did. It’s a habit that has stayed with me to this day when I listen to radio news.

When I learned to read and write in Swahili and English, the two official languages of Kenya, my favorite journalists became those who wrote for newspapers. I read every paper I could find. Because we were too far away from any major city, the newspapers that made it to us were old ones, which butchers used to wrap meat for customers. Whenever my mother bought meat, I sat down and read every word in the newspaper it came wrapped in. I didn’t care that it was bloody. Humor, sports, news, cartoons, comics, advertisements — I read it all.

As I grew older, I began to gravitate towards the journalists who boldly spoke their minds. For most of my childhood, Kenya was a one-party dictatorship under President Daniel arap Moi. Publishing anything even remotely critical of the Party could land you in prison. A lot of my childhood heroes like Koigi wa Wamwere were jailed and tortured. Others like Pius Nyamora, who published a hard-hitting weekly political magazine called Society, fled the country and spent decades in exile. Their persistence finally paid off and Kenya became a multi-party democracy in 1991. Those were the journalists I wanted to be like when I grew up.

In the fall of 2005, I began my studies at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. On the first day of school, we gathered at the library for orientation. The dean asked us to begin by saying why we wanted to be journalists. My classmates gave reasons like, “I love writing’, or “I love telling stories”.

When my turn came, I said that I wanted to use journalism to advocate for my community. There was awkward silence and uncomfortable stares before one professor informed me that the word “advocacy” was taboo in journalism.

Throughout my studies, professors, especially those who came from careers in daily newspapers, reminded us that journalists had to be objective. With every day that passed, I moved farther and farther away from the idea of journalism as the catalyst for change that it was in Kenya. That fear of being labeled “biased” or “unprofessional” is what kept me from speaking up against Uber and Lyft.

There was also another reason for my silence: I was ashamed. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had ended up driving a taxi for six years instead of a lucrative job that fit my master’s degree.

As the day of the election drew closer, though, I began to feel guilty. As a driver, I had firsthand information that most of the journalists writing about Prop. 22 didn’t. And as a highly trained journalist, I had the storytelling skills that most drivers didn’t. Remaining silent would have been a betrayal of myself and the drivers who stand to lose if Prop. 22 becomes law. I also had to remind myself that the reason I drove for ride-hailing companies for so long was because I had been fired from three consecutive jobs for questioning employers who used exploitative tactics like the ones Lyft and Uber want to legalize. (One former employer hired me as a contractor to avoid paying me benefits but fired when I asked for overtime pay. I filed a wage claim with the Labor Commission and won a cash settlement against the company).

I began driving for ride-hailing companies in January 2014, after being pushed out of my teaching job at UC Berkeley for refusing to co-teach Swahili and share earnings with someone who didn’t speak the language. Initially, I planned to drive for a few weeks to let the rage in me cool down before looking for the white-collar job I felt entitled to. But I got drawn deeper into it by the freedom and flexibility of the gig economy.

Flexibility allowed me to be home during the day to care for our daughter while my wife attended university full time. After she graduated and took an extremely demanding job, driving at night enabled me to stay home and support her so she could concentrate on her work.

After six years of driving for both Uber and Lyft, I can categorically state that when you see the two joining hands you should get really worried. It is as unusual a collaboration as it gets, and it doesn’t have workers’ interests at heart.

For much of their existence, Uber and Lyft have been bitter rivals. In fact, their mutual hatred was so immense that Uber resorted to unethical measures intended to drive Lyft out of business. In 2014, for example, it was revealed that Uber employees created nearly 200 passenger accounts and used them to request and cancel more than 5,000 Lyft rides. Uber’s goal was to frustrate drivers by portraying Lyft’s app as unreliable.

Where I come from, my people say that when two bull elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets hurt. The feud between the two San Francisco elephants hurt drivers more than it did either of them.

Uber’s scheme relied on the fact that ride-hailing companies did not charge passengers the standard $5 cancellation fee for requests withdrawn within five minutes. We would receive those phony ride requests, drive for four minutes, then get canceled without earning the agreed $5 fee. When drivers get several cancellations it’s not only demoralizing but drivers lose money for burning fuel, which as independent contractors they pay for.

During those early days, the two companies were startups with seemingly unlimited amounts of money to burn. They began a war of bonuses and driving incentives. The pay was decent, especially during commute hours and after entertainment events when fares were many times higher due to surge pricing. It was not uncommon to make hundreds of dollars on one ride during primetime. If I worked weekends and some weeknights, I could take home more than $2,000 a week, a lot more money than I earned teaching at Berkeley. I decided that I was going to drive and use the flexibility to build a freelance writing career.

But that didn’t happen.

Uber decided to undermine Lyft by starting a price war. Backed by billions of dollars, Uber could afford to lose more money than its much smaller competitor. In protest, a lot of us drivers quit Uber to drive exclusively for Lyft because we felt that the latter was more committed to the welfare of drivers. When, for example, Travis Kalanick, then Uber’s CEO, joined President Donald Trump’s advisory board soon after inauguration, Lyft responded by donating $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to fight Trump’s immigration policies. But soon drivers would find out that that was a façade — a gimmick only intended to hit back at Uber.

Like Uber, Lyft began acting in ways that the ACLU would never approve of. It started to cut drivers’ pay, taking as much as half of what passengers paid, and even more from the surge pricing fares that used to offset the decline in our earnings. Shady deductions like “platform fee” and “safety fee” began to appear on drivers’ statements. When we complained, Lyft obscured fare breakdowns from the app. They spun the deceptive act by saying that it was to keep us from trying to calculate what part of the fare we’d take home.

“What you see is what you get,” they told us.

But there were ways to find out what passengers paid. One Sunday night, for instance, a passenger I was driving from San Francisco International Airport to Palo Alto complained about having to pay $150 for the 20-mile ride. I got paid $41 on that ride. During the good years, I would have been paid 80 percent of the fare, or $120. Another way they cut our earnings was by giving us only a tiny fraction of what passengers paid on carpooling rides. If, for example, a driver picked up four passengers who paid $5 each to go from the same neighborhood to the train station, Lyft paid the driver a little over $5.

As earnings continued to fall, I found myself working more than 60 hours a week to make less than I used to in 40 hours. I went from working nights and weekends to essentially driving every day, sometimes going out twice a day. I spent most nights away from home and saw my wife and children for only a couple of hours, as I spent most of my time at home in bed trying to catch a nap before the next ride.

Fortunately for me, my wife eventually found a job that paid her enough for me reduce my driving to part time. Once again, I began to enjoy the flexibility of rideshare driving. In fact, when Lyft started asking drivers to support Prop. 22, I was ready to join the YES campaign to protect that flexibility so that I may continue driving part time and spending more time on writing projects I had set aside for years.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic.

Because of how long I had driven for Lyft, I didn’t think I would ever need unemployment insurance. People would always travel, I thought. Even as my earnings declined significantly, it gave me peace to know that I could always put in an extra hour to come closer to my target. Like most people, it never occurred to me that one day the world would come to a standstill. When it finally did, the consequences of Uber’s and Lyft’s years exploitation of workers became apparent when we didn’t qualify for unemployment.

Still, I remained silent because, like most people, I thought we’d be back at work in a few weeks. But when it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t going away any time soon, I became restless.

As we inched closer to Nov. 3, I began to notice numerous “Yes on Prop. 22” television ads, mostly featuring people of color. Initially, I responded by the yelling things like “you are being used”, and “I hope you got paid to do those ads”, as if the drivers on my TV could hear me. Then I saw an ad featuring Alice Huffman, the president of the California chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“I don’t understand how the NAACP could support Prop. 22,” I told my wife.

“They must have paid her,” she said.

I went online immediately and searched her name. Sure enough, there was a story from Cal Matters, the Sacramento-based news publication, reporting that Uber and Lyft paid Huffman at least $85,000 to endorse Prop. 22. Huffman also received nearly $2 million to support or oppose several other propositions, all of which experts say would retard the advancement of the colored people she’s supposed to advocate for. Apparently, what Huffman did isn’t illegal. But it is immoral and contradicts what the NAACP stands for.

“I feel like it’s a conflict of interest and I think it’s misleading to the public,” Carroll Fife, who works at the Oakland chapter of the NAACP, told Cal Matters.

Huffman is by no means the only one taking money from Lyft and Uber. CNET reported recently that the two ride-hailing companies paid $400,000 to a research firm to conduct one of the favorable studies they have continue to use to deceive voters. But Huffman angered more because acceptance of money is essentially a “fuck you” to colored people.

I was so appalled that I decided that merely voting NO wouldn’t be enough. I reached out to Rideshare Drivers United (RDU), a group of drivers who had banded together to resist Uber’s and Lyft’s exploitation of them. They had tried many times in vain to recruit me into the fight, but I had ignored them, although I made it clear to them that I was going to vote NO.

My decision to finally become an activist journalist wasn’t only inspired by my childhood heroes. It was informed by reading the biographies of Joseph Pulitzer — the man whose eponymous prize every journalist aspires to win. We revere Pulitzer because he refused to sit on the fence and let corporations like Standard Oil run unchecked.

I have spent the last few weeks urging everyone I know to vote NO on Prop. 22, and I will continue to do so until the polls are close on Nov. 3. I am committed because I strongly believe that it would be morally wrong to sacrifice drivers — most of whom are immigrants and people of color like me — for the benefit of multi-billion-dollar companies that are too greedy to treat the workers who are the core of their business with dignity.

Working with RDU, I have also spent the last days of the campaign reaching out to voters. It is hard work performed almost entirely by drivers and volunteers. The NO on Prop. 22 has raised and spent less than 10 percent of the $200-million gig company war chest. It’s the ultimate David versus Goliath fight.

During the first days of volunteering with RDU, I was angered and discouraged by some voters, who responded with profanities. But as I have gotten better at engaging voters and explaining things, the joy of knowing that I have converted even a handful of them to vote NO outshines the many vulgar insults that have been directed at me and other campaigners.

It finally feels great to do my part in letting voters know, for example, that Prop. 22’s claim to guarantee a minimum wage of $15.60/hour plus benefits, is false, according to a UC Berkeley Labor Center study, which found that the actual hourly pay would be a measly $5.64 after factoring driver expenses.

I might have come into advocacy and organizing much later than I should have, but I feel at ease knowing that I’m finally standing up for myself and others. Regardless of the outcome on Prop. 22, I will continue to use my voice and journalism skills to shamelessly advocate for various causes. Because I now realize that it’s my fear of being branded “partisan” and “unprofessional” that also kept me from protesting publicly against many of my past employers, who got away with the kind of exploitation of workers Lyft and Uber want to legitimize.

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