Angry Uber Drivers Threaten to Make a Mess of the Super Bowl
This Sunday, Super Bowl 50 will thrust San Francisco—and Silicon Valley—into the national spotlight. Though the city is officially hosting Super Bowl festivities, the game itself will be played a long drive to the south at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, the suburban home of tech giants such as Intel. One of the easiest ways to get from the city to the stadium is to summon an Uber. But that might not be so easy tomorrow, if drivers follow through on their pledge to protest their wages by turning off their apps ahead of the big game.
A movement to boycott the Super Bowl is bubbling up among Uber drivers in online forums and on social media threads. Protesters at a recent demonstration outside Uber’s San Francisco headquarters also called for a driver strike.
One flyer circulating online urges drivers to take Sunday off to make the point, and to spread the word on Twitter using the hashtag #UberSuperBowlStrike. Another calls for drivers to convene at Candlestick Park—where the NFL’s 49ers used to play in San Francisco proper—likely in order to replicate a driver caravan protest that snarled traffic on Monday in San Francisco.
All of which puts Uber in a particularly delicate position. The company snagged an official partnership with the Super Bowl Host Committee, stealing away an exclusive lot for pick-ups and drop-offs 15 minutes away from the stadium, plus a special “lounge” for riders after the game—a move seemingly designed to draw good publicity for the oft-criticized company. But that positive attention will fade quickly if drivers leave Super Bowl fans stranded.
At issue are the fare cuts Uber imposed on drivers in multiple US cities at the beginning of the year. According to the company, it needed to address the seasonal decrease in demand after the holidays; in San Francisco, it reduced prices by 10 percent, and it decreased prices by 20 percent in the East Bay and South Bay. Drivers would still be guaranteed a certain amount during peak times while driving in the city, Uber assured them, but only if the drivers met certain qualifications, such as accepting 90 percent of ride requests and completing 25 of trips.
“Seasonality affects every business and Uber is no different, so when holiday parties wind down in SF that can mean a slow start to the year for our driver-partners,” an Uber spokesperson said. “By cutting prices for riders, we can give them one more reason to take a ride, which helps keep drivers busier during the slow season. To put drivers’ minds at ease, we have hourly earnings guarantees in place.”
Lyft, another popular ride-hailing service, cut prices in the Bay Area, too, saying it had been forced to do so in order to stay competitive with Uber.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen is that drivers want a voice with these cuts,” says Harry Campbell, who publishes The Rideshare Guy, a blog and podcast about driving for ride-hailing companies. “Uber cutting prices and telling drivers it’s good for them—it just seems to be rubbing salt on the wound, because not a lot of drivers feel like that.”
“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a driver who’s making more today than they were two or three years ago.”
Other cities have also been affected. In New York, where rates were cut by 15 percent, hundreds of drivers reportedly gathered at Uber’s headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, on Monday, to protest the new policy.
On the same day, in San Francisco, 100 drivers or so organized by a group called Uber Drivers United caravaned from Candlestick Park to San Francisco International Airport before heading to Uber’s headquarters on Market Street in the heart of the city. “It looked like a sea of cars,” says Michael Gumora, who was present at the protest, and whose website, Rideshare Report, posted a number of videos of the demonstration. “It looked like it spanned about two to three blocks of cars, four lanes across.”
Gumora says he first heard of the protests while hanging out at an airport parking lot for Uber and Lyft drivers. The word-of-mouth seemed to gain more traction offline rather than online—something Campbell says he noticed, too. “A lot of these strikes, I call them Facebook strikes because they keep trying to organize them online,” he says. “But as far as successful organizing happens, it’s usually at a more local and grassroots level.”
Some drivers who spoke to WIRED on the condition of anonymity said they would support the Super Bowl strike by turning off the app in their own cities, even if they didn’t live in San Francisco themselves. Other drivers said they would drive up to San Francisco from San Diego or LA to participate in the protest, though it will be hard to know if they follow through.
Of course, there’s no telling whether Uber itself will agree to bargain with its drivers even if the Super Bowl protests do take place. An estimated 40,000 people drive for the company in the Bay Area, and Uber may offer additional bonuses tomorrow to lure more drivers to sign on and try to make more in fares than they usually do. Even if the protest does entice hundreds of drivers to go offline, flocks of new drivers could easily sign on to take their place.
“Would [the Super Bowl protest] alone change Uber’s conduct?” asks Dmitri Iglitzin, the Seattle labor lawyer involved in a recently approved bill that would let on-demand drivers in Seattle organize and bargain with ride-hailing companies.
“It certainly would be an issue for Uber. But the company is going to be thinking of all its strategies, some of which would involve meeting the drivers’ concessions, and others which would involve trying to think of ways to avoid being so vulnerable to the drivers, how to break up the drivers’ solidarity.”
More to the point, Iglitzin says, even if the protest doesn’t attract enough drivers to significantly change Uber’s bottom line during the Super Bowl, it would still send a powerful message for the protest to happen at all. “You don’t get critical mass overnight, but that’s indicative of a deeply rooted problem.”