Taxicab drivers in Paris, Marseilles and Lyons, France, joined by drivers from Brussels, Belgium, disrupted traffic on June 25 and fought with police in their battle against the multinational car-service corporation, Uber.
To understand why workers have targeted Uber, you have to know how Uber works and how Uber’s owners exploit those who drive under Uber’s control.
Uber is a San Francisco-based multinational company that lets people arrange their ride through their smart phones. The person connects with Uber, which connects with a driver and car. Uber charges the customer less than do most local taxi or car services, while dumping these costs onto its drivers and a greater risk onto its clients.
Founded in 2009, Uber now operates in more than 250 cities in 50 countries. According to Uber’s co-founder and chief executive, Travis Kalanick, the company had 26,000 drivers in New York City alone; 15,000 in London; 22,000 in San Francisco; 10,000 in Paris; and 20,000 in Chengdu, China. Last December, the Financial Times estimated Uber’s worth as between $35 and $40 billion.
Since Uber’s drivers are “independent” contractors and allegedly not employees, Uber doesn’t need to buy auto insurance, nor to get taxi licenses, nor to buy gasoline, nor pay benefits.
Regular taxi drivers have little enough protection and benefits. Those working through Uber have it worse. Uber needn’t comply with regulations like wage-and-hour standards. Uber needn’t reimburse its workers for out-of-pocket costs, such as bridge and turnpike tolls, that drivers pay for while providing service to Uber’s customers. That’s why Uber’s rides are cheaper.
Other companies also disguise their workers as “independent contractors.” Uber competitor Lyft and Instacart, a grocery delivery service, both use driver-contractors. Microsoft, Google and Oracle all use tech-contractors. Construction and trucking companies also make extensive use of “independent” contractors. Since there is no central register of such contractors, the extent and impact of their use is hard to evaluate.
Before the extensive use of independent contractors, employers used the threat of layoffs and replacements from the “reserve army of the unemployed” to discourage workers from demanding higher wages and better working conditions or from forming unions. When most of the work formerly done by workers is performed by “independent” contractors, the boss can maneuver so each contractor competes with all the others. The contractor has no fixed jobs and no guarantees, but remains connected to the employer only so long as there is work to be done.
In the United States, a former “independent” contractor of Uber’s sued in California to challenge her status and won a judgment from California’s Labor Department that she did indeed work for Uber. Uber will tie the issue up for as long as possible with legal appeals.
According to French law, Uber is not permitted to provide service. Uber has told its drivers in France that the company will pay any fines they get. That is Uber’s standard practice when challenging restrictions.
To protest Uber’s challenge to their rights as workers, French taxi drivers, with some help from their Belgian co-workers, concentrated on blocking the main routes to the airports. French TV showed well-dressed business people, some in suits, some in high heels, running through the traffic jams pulling their suitcases in order to make their planes.
The taxi drivers explained that Uber drivers pay no license fees, carry no insurance protecting their passengers, and don’t have to pass tests on local geography.
The drivers resisted the French cops trying to clear their blockades and overturned and burned some Uber cars, after confronting their drivers. (Radio Canada, June 25)
Drivers in Quebec also went out on a one-day strike on June 25, but took no steps to block traffic as in France.