Two days before Uber’s
IPO, thousands of rideshare drivers across Americaembarked on a day of strikes and rallies to protest their slim pay as the company’s founders, executives and investors are poised to make loads of money going public.
Part of what made Wednesday’s events noteworthy is that they happened at all. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has long been counting work stoppages, which include strikes and lock outs. In 1969, there were 412 work stoppages involving at least 1,000 workers, the agency said. In 2018, there were just 20 — and that was a jump from 7 stoppages the year before.
The Uber strikes lasted for different amounts of time in different locations — New York’s was confined to the morning rush hour. Los Angeles drivers turned off their apps for 24 hours. The protests also targeted Lyft
and driver organizations in the U.K., Australia and Latin America, according to Rideshare Drivers United, the organization spearheading the effort.
What’s behind the fall in stoppages and strikes?
“It’s become a lot more dangerous to strike in the last 30 years,” said Lawrence Mishel, a labor market economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. The decline in labor-union membership has also been a “major factor,” he said. In 2018, 10.5% of workers were in unions, down from 20.1% in 1983, the first year for which comparable data was available.
Yet it’s not as if management has labor completely over a barrel now, Mishel noted. The ways worker show their dissatisfaction might just be changing, according to Mishel, who recently calculated Uber drivers would make $9.21 an hour if they were regular full-time workers instead of independent contractors.
U.S. companies have outsourced their manufacturing overseas, so there are fewer factory workers to go on strike. As the 2016 presidential election showed, many of these workers are either underemployed or jobless. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 forbid unions from contributing to political campaigns and forbids “union shops” unless a majority of employees have voted in favor of them.
Mishel said a closely-watched 1981 air-traffic controller strike set a new tone for companies. That year, 11,345 unionized air-traffic controllers walked off their government jobs and President Ronald Reagan ended up firing most of them. “That was sort of a signal to management this was now acceptable practice,” said Mishel. “It was not considered acceptable before.”
“Strikes as protest, rather than the long-term shutting down of an employer will become much more prominent,” he said, citing Google
workers walking off the job for a couple hours in November 2018 to challenge the tech giant’s handling of internal sexual harassment allegations. Other countries have more clout: Over 90% of workers in Ireland are members of a labor union.
Dissatisfaction about wage growth and working conditions have increasingly turned many workplaces into “tinderboxes,” Mishel said. “If a fire can be lit, it’s going to take off around the country,” he said. Real average hourly earnings increased 1.3% on a seasonally adjusted basis from between March 2018 and March 2019, and fell by 0.1% on the month in March.
strikes weren’t the only labor fights getting attention recently. There’s been recent teacher strikes in Arizona, Oklahoma, Denver, Colo. and Los Angeles. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the Arizona and Oklahoma teachers’ strike were the year’s two biggest work stoppages. Both ended with worker raises.
In a statement, the driver organizations said: “We strike to protest the greed and destruction of Uber, Lyft and their Wall Street investors. In each of our cities, our protests are at different times and with unique demands — but we are united as one joint council of grass-roots driver labor organizations with the shared goal of winning job security, livable incomes, and respect for app drivers.”
An Uber spokesman said, “Thousands of people come into work at Uber every day focused on how to make their experience better, on and off the road. Whether it’s more consistent earnings, stronger insurance protections or fully-funded four-year degrees for drivers or their families, we’ll continue working to improve the experience for and with drivers.”
A Lyft spokesman said hourly earnings for the rideshare’s drivers rose 7% in the last two years and they’ve earned over $14 billion since the company’s start. “On average, Lyft drivers earn over $20 per hour. 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,” he said.
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