Uber drivers in Australia briefly went on strike on Wednesday, the beginning of a planned series of protests in more than a dozen cities around the world ahead of the ride-hailing giant’s blockbuster initial public offering this week.
More than 30 protesters gathered near an Uber facility in Melbourne, holding signs that said “on-demand workers demand a living wage” and chanting “Uber, Uber you must listen. We will break your algorithm!” They said they were protesting falling pay, long hours and a lack of sick leave.
“Those of you that drive know that you have little time for your families, you have little time for your friends, every waking moment you’re thinking about when you’re going to get out and how you’re going to make the next dollar,” Debra Weddall, 60, said in a speech to other drivers from the back of a flatbed truck. Ms. Weddall said her earnings have significantly decreased since she began driving for Uber two years ago.
Protesters nodded in approval and shouted, “Shame, Uber, shame!”
“We have no sick leave, and are forced to drive long hours to make ends meet,” said Robin Thomas, 37, a full-time Uber driver, who said he makes about $8 to $9 an hour after expenses and maintenance.
An Uber spokesman said company employees collected letters from the drivers outlining their complaints.
The strike was set to be replicated in other cities, including London, New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as in front of Uber’s headquarters in San Francisco by the end of Wednesday. The action was one of the biggest coordinated efforts by drivers to demonstrate their grievances to Uber, organizers and drivers said. Drivers for other ride-hailing services, such as Lyft, were also set to participate in the protests.
The drivers are independent contractors, not full-time workers. Ride-hailing companies have argued that drivers prefer the flexible schedule that comes with being a freelancer. But drivers lack full-time benefits such as health care and have said they have little control over their wages because companies like Uber set the fares and take a cut of the fees that they earn from rides.
[Get the Bits newsletter for the latest from Silicon Valley and the technology industry.]
The strikes are timed right before Uber’s public offering, with the company set to start trading its shares on the stock market on Friday. Uber is the biggest of a generation of technology start-ups whose business is based on smartphones and that uses gig workers. It has set an initial pricing for its shares that values it at $91 billion and its founders and investors are set to reap billions of dollars in wealth.
But that windfall will largely skip the drivers. While Uber has said it intends to award cash bonuses to more than 1.1 million drivers in the United States so that they can buy the company’s stock in the I.P.O., drivers have said that is a fig leaf. They said the wealth being gained by top executives and private investors spurred them into action on Wednesday.
“It’s more wealth accumulating at the top,” said Ann Glatt, 62, who drives for Lyft in San Francisco and plans to participate in the protest there. “It’s very clear when you’re at the bottom how bad the bottom can be.” She said she recently moved 90 miles away to Sacramento because she could no longer afford to live in her home near San Francisco.
More than three million people drive for Uber globally and have earned $78.2 billion from the service since 2015, the company said in a recent regulatory filing. Uber said in a statement, “Drivers are at the heart of our service ─ we can’t succeed without them ─ and thousands of people come into work at Uber every day focused on how to make their experience better, on and off the road.”
Lyft said in a statement that driver earnings have increased over the last two years. “We know that access to flexible, extra income makes a big difference for millions of people, and we’re constantly working to improve how we can best serve our driver community,” a spokesman said.
The idea of holding a strike quickly gathered momentum, drivers said. Rideshare Drivers United, based in Los Angeles, initiated the protest, asking its more than 4,000 members to turn off their ride-hailing apps for 24 hours. Other drivers began to organize similar actions around the world, staying in touch over Facebook groups and group chats.
“It just got bigger and bigger,” said Karim Bayumi, 40, who has driven full-time for Uber and Lyft for four years and who plans to participate in a picket at Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday. He added, “Drivers have had enough. It’s now or never.”