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Journalists Aren’t The Only People Uber Is Bullying

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RAFIQ MAQBOOL
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RAFIQ MAQBOOL

Calls to boycott Uber are growing this week after a senior executive suggested the company hire opposition researchers to dig up dirt on journalists who are critical of the ride-share service.

Emil Michael, Uber’s senior vice president of business who made the comments, and CEO Travis Kalanick have apologized for Monday’s remarks. The company also launched an internal investigation on a New York executive for improperly using Uber’s tracking technology on a Buzzfeed journalist. Still, the fallout from targeting journalists has only gotten more attention.

But the controversy that will rage on is Uber’s questionable treatment of drivers. Despite massive driver protests last month, the labor issues surrounding Uber haven’t quite amassed the same public outrage as the company’s bullying of journalists. That may be because customers aren’t always as in tune to issues that don’t directly affect them, one Uber driver speculated.

“The public, they’re getting a nice ride in a nice car,” Victor, a Chicago-based Uber driver who used a pseudonym for fear of retaliation, told ThinkProgress. “They don’t really care, they’re dealing with their own issues in life, they’re not aware of it. But journalists are.” And now that the media has latched onto the story, journalists are going to take a more critical look at the bubbling labor tensions within Uber, Victor hopes.

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Uber’s own drivers have been protesting against those same low fares because it eats into their earnings. Uber drivers have sued the company in Boston and its home city of San Francisco, alleging that Uber is illegally pocketing portions of the drivers’ tip built into a rider’s fare. Drivers also say Uber wrongly classifies them as independent contractors instead of employees, a common practice that allows companies to avoid paying benefits and circumvent labor regulations.

Another gripe among UberX drivers is a failure to honor its guaranteed wage policy. Drivers can earn a set hourly rate that can amount to more than what they can make from fares alone during set hours. To get the guaranteed hourly rate, drivers have to accept a certain percentage of their ride requests. But drivers get denied the rate even when they hit the mark.

For example, Friday night drivers might be eligible to make $24 an hour if they pick up 90 percent of their ride requests between 1 am and 3 am. But drivers complain that even when they take all their fares, Uber won’t always honor the guaranteed rate without a fight, Victor said. Uber did not return requests for comment.

Uber, which was recently valued at $18 billion, advertises that drivers can make up to $5000 a month driving full-time. But after the company’s cut — $2 per rider for taxi and credit card processing fees and 10 percent commission — drivers only end up with a few dollars per ride to pay for gas, insurance, and other expenses. Following intense protests, Uber launched its Momentum rewards program through which drivers can get discounts on wireless plans and vehicle maintenance. The program also comes with a tool to help find affordable health care.

Drivers also complain that Uber’s price slashing and no-tip policy made it hard to earn a living, a concern that could be compounded by Uber’s subprime lending program, which is currently under investigation.

The fate of Uber most likely lays with the core of its business — its drivers.

“The drivers are very concerned with how this is going to end up,” Victor said about drivers starting to organize to confront the company about its policies. This week’s news will “blow over” on its own, he said, but the internal issues will remain.