Yesterday, Uber driver Takele Gobena stood with other drivers to support Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien's plan to give Uber and Lyft drivers the right to unionize.
Last night, Gobena got a text saying he'd been deactivated, meaning he couldn't drive for Uber again until he was reactivated. Being kicked out of the system at a moment's notice is one of the things Uber drivers say makes their jobs so unstable and in need of collective bargaining. Gobena believes his temporary deactivation was a direct result of standing with O'Brien.
"This is retaliation because I spoke yesterday," Gobena says. "It really happened when news came out. The Seattle Times did a story. KIRO did a story. [Uber] did this in the evening because they know I usually work in the evening from 6 [p.m.] to midnight."
Gobena says after about two hours, he was reactivated. But an Uber spokesperson disagrees with basically every point of his account.
Uber's Kate Downen says Gobena got that text because he had indicated on his account that his insurance was going to expire on September 1. Gobena denies that. According to a Geico insurance ID card, a photo of which Gobena shared with The Stranger, his policy is good until December 12. The Uber spokesperson also says Gobena wasn't actually formally deactivated and that within seven minutes of uploading the new insurance information, Gobena was active to drive again. The spokesperson says he even accepted a ride and then canceled it. Gobena denies all of that and says he's only heard that claim since reporters started calling him about this. (Seattle Weekly also posted about this earlier today.)
"I did not upload anything," he says. "I did not submit anything... I did not do any ride last night... I don’t know what’s going on in their mind, but based on my experience this is not new for Uber. They have been deactivating drivers who speak for their rights."
Gobena says he knows two Seattle drivers who were deactivated after protesting Uber last year. He also says that earlier this summer, after filling out a survey for the service in which he criticized the rates it pays drivers he was deactivated for three days and not given any reason. (Downen says she's unable to comment on those claims without more information.)
"I’m going to fight for this because it’s worth fighting for," Gobena says. "I'm going to speak for myself and for other drivers who are afraid of speaking because they are afraid Uber is going to deactivate them tomorrow morning."
Uber says Gobena got earlier text messages warning him about the insurance before he was notified about the deactivation. But Gobena says he never got any previous messages. A screenshot he provided of text messages from Uber dating back to last Tuesday show only two other messages, neither about the insurance issue. One is notifying drivers about free car washes and another warns about road closures and large events happening in Seattle over the weekend.
All this lack of clarity about what happened, why, and what the protocol is shows exactly why drivers like Gobena should be able to bargain over working conditions, argue O'Brien and other supporters.
Working Washington spokesperson Sage Wilson says it’s particularly relevant that as an employee Gobena would have the explicit right to organize with coworkers and not be fired for it, but that as an independent contractor, Uber isn’t bound by those same rules. “It’s as if Uber wanted us all to have a teachable moment on arbitrary discipline and the right to organize,” Wilson says.
Gobena says that if he could bargain, he'd ask for a more clear policy explaining how the company warns drivers about issues like expired insurance before it simply deactivates their accounts.
Drivers, O'Brien said yesterday, "live in fear of waking up and seeing they have been deactivated."