David Plouffe, pictured onstage, tells Seattleites about the benefits of driving with Uber a week before a controversial City Hall vote that would allow Uber drivers union representation.
David Plouffe, pictured onstage, tells Seattleites about the benefits of driving with Uber a week before a controversial City Hall vote that would allow Uber drivers union representation. SB

When Uber’s chief advisor (and former Obama aide) David Plouffe spoke to a crowd at the Impact Hub Seattle in Pioneer Square this morning about the “Future of Work,” he sold a vision of the ride-sharing service as a supplementary income for workers facing wage stagnation.

He shared a lot of statistics—for example, that 10 percent of Uber drivers were most recently unemployed, that the fastest-growing Uber driver demographics are stay-at-home parents and retirees, and that drivers are increasingly just looking to make extra money on top of an existing income.

Plouffe’s appearance comes just ahead of a city council vote, on December 14, to allow Uber drivers to unionize. Drivers have complained that they live in fear of being deactivated at any time, often invest a lot of upfront costs, and don’t make as much money as the company promises them.

At this morning’s event, Plouffe called their unionization effort “puzzling,” “flatly illegal,” and said it “doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

When an audience member asked Plouffe for the data showing that full-time drivers are making a living wage, he wouldn't share any specifics. He said that a person could make more money driving a black car in Manhattan than driving in Des Moines. "But generally this is a very good income," Plouffe said. "I think when you talk to our drivers, and again most of our drivers don't come from the driving industry, they're comparing it to other options in the retail industry and the restaurant industry, they say two things: They say it's a very good amount of money, in many cases better, and they control the terms of their wages in terms of the schedule."

Later, Plouffe continued: "When we talk to our drivers, they basically say: I've been looking for this my whole life. I just, I've been stuck, and I just couldn't work additionally because then I'd never see my children. It just didn't work for me."

Later, I asked Plouffe why, when tech companies are increasingly making their employment data more transparent, Uber isn’t doing so in Seattle. Why should we trust his word that full-time drivers feel that their work is both well-paid and flexible? He gave me a long-winded non-answer:

DP: I think first of all, I think, those of you who have used the platform, obviously, like any experience, you’re going to talk to drivers and then you’re going have the riders’ stories, but for the most part you get people who are quite satisfied where this has been a big difference in their life.

We have released data. We’ve had some economic studies done with some outside economists. We will continue to do that. We understand that there’s a lot of interest. I think when we put out our first data on our drivers—this was about 11 months ago—it was really something that was chewed over all over the world by economists because it’s interesting. It’s like who is driving on the platform and why are they doing it? And what else do they do in their life? So, we understand that this is an important debate, so we’re continuing to release more data. We’re still a young company. We make mistakes. But we’re trying to learn from them. ...

But, you know, we’re gonna, you know, we will share as—we’re continuing to try and—we have an update on some economic data coming out in the near future for that reason. We know there’s a lot of interest in this.

And the truth is we learn a lot. We don’t ask a lot. As you know if you’ve signed up for Uber, you just provide your credit card or Pay Pal, your cell phone, your email. We don’t know a lot about our riders, even. And the drivers we know a little more because they have to do background checks, but, you know we don’t ask gender or nation—so we use survey research to ourselves learn about our drivers.

And we’ve learned a lot. One of the things that surprised me a lot when we did this: I mean, I knew that because I used Uber a lot before I joined the company but I still thought most of our drivers drove for a certain amount of money per week or month and there’s plenty that do. But it’s surprising how many say actually they drive more episodically, meaning I’m going on vacation so this is when I’m gonna drive now or I need to get a computer for my son or daughter who’s going to college. So, in some ways it’s more need based. It’s really interesting. And that’s important for us to understand.

So, there’s no doubt that there’s a lot of academic institutions and economists who are also gonna look at this. Not just with us but other platforms like it.

So there you have it. Uber has an update on some economic data coming out in the near future. Until then, Uber drivers are happy. Just take Uber's word for it.