At a packed forum at the Yesler Community Center on April 13, nearly 250 drivers for rideshare company Uber signed "Show of Interest" cards handed out by Teamsters Local 117. Current and former UberBlack drivers organized the event, and said they intend to form a union, or join the Teamsters taxi drivers association. The mood was hyped, and the crowd at the community center was nearly all immigrants or children of immigrants from East Africa, most of them dressed for the occasion in impeccable black business clothes.
"We are the faces of Uber," said Zerfu Takele, a bespectacled Ethiopian American driver with graying hair who's lived in Seattle since 1990. "We need to be respected." Right now, he claimed, communication with Uber management is "simply a one-way message—you accept it or you get kicked out." The audience erupted in applause.
Uber, recently valued at $3.4 billion, is widely seen as a game-changing entrepreneurial force in the world of transportation. But the local Uber drivers' complaints revolve around what they describe as indifference, even disrespect, by Uber's young downtown managerial staff toward their own entrepreneurial ambitions. There is also a racial element to the concerns, with Uber drivers saying their managers are mostly white.
The company says it embraces diversity. It denies drivers' allegations that they are routinely threatened with "deactivation" from Uber's system at a moment's notice, and that Uber's rating system is unfair because drivers can be terminated via e-mail after, say, a drunk customer gives them a poor rating. Drivers also complain that Uber doesn't allow them to collect tips in the traditional fashion. If a customer offers one, the driver has to refuse it three times before accepting. In other cities, the company tells prospective riders that a 20 percent gratuity is included in the fare, and Uber takes a portion of it. That practice has made Uber the subject of a high-profile lawsuit in California, a lawsuit that in December was granted national class-action status. When asked, Uber general manager Brooke Steger did not clearly explain what the company's tip practices are in Seattle.
In response to the drivers' allegations, Uber Seattle said the company's driver rating system is based on a series of averages, and that unless there's an especially egregious offense, a single rating won't lead to a suspension or termination.
It's clear that not all drivers believe this, however. At Sunday's forum, a soft-spoken driver named Sekonnen Meghonet told me he was suspended from Uber in February and lost a week's worth of income. He believed this was because he'd declined to drop a passenger off on a dangerous part of Aurora, telling her it was unsafe and dropping her instead at a nearby intersection. When I brought this concern to Steger, she looked up Meghonet's name in her system. "Found it!" she said. "I can confirm, though, that his temporary deactivation was not due to one isolated complaint." In addition, the company says there's an appeal process for deactivation that includes a face-to-face meeting, through which they've brought many drivers back on board.
Still, the list of complaints continues. Drivers said they've received e-mail notices informing them that their cars, in which they've invested tens of thousands of dollars, are suddenly too outdated for Uber's clientele. (Steger says the company isn't insisting that existing drivers conform to the new standards—just new recruits.)
These disputes between workers and management, like at any company, are best resolved through dialogue and negotiation. However, organizers of Sunday's forum say they've met with Uber management several times about their concerns and the discussions have gone nowhere.
Uber's response so far might have something to do with its founder's admitted affinity for Ayn Rand. (The founder and CEO of Uber for a time used the cover of Atlas Shrugged as his Twitter avatar; now it's Alexander Hamilton.) In general, Uber shrugs off the driver complaints as lacking in credibility or blames them on the machinations of the taxi industry, which it says will do anything to attack up-and-coming competitors. "The taxi industry special interests who put on this event have continually failed to improve the wages and working conditions of taxi drivers," says Steger, "which is the exact reason why drivers partner with other technology platforms."
In response, Dawn Gearhart, business representative for the Teamsters taxi union, said the recent meeting "had nothing to do with the taxi industry, taxi drivers, or other 'special interests.'" Drivers at Sunday's forum also explicitly rejected that argument, and so did Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien, who supported legislation, passed by the council last month, that caps rideshare drivers at 150 per company.
"Uber is going to continue to frame this as taxis versus innovation," O'Brien told me. But he believes it's "disingenuous" for Uber to insinuate that all the labor unrest at the company is a ploy by the taxi industry. "For them to go out and undermine their own drivers—I think that's a bad strategy, and it's going to undermine their public support," O'Brien said.