You can now read 10 articles a month for free. Read as much as you want anywhere and anytime for just 99¢.

Innovation Economy

An on-call workforce at the market’s mercy

Uber, a ride-sharing service, has lowered its rates in response to increased competition

Uber, a ride-sharing service, has lowered its rates in response to increased competition

This is a story about a strike that didn’t happen, the man who says he didn’t call for it, and what it means to be an independent contractor in an increasingly fluid, on-demand, app-driven economy.

The story involves Uber, the transportation startup that lets you summon a range of chauffeured vehicles with a smartphone and pay with a credit card on file. On Oct. 23, I opened the Uber app on my iPhone for a lift to a meeting near Quincy Market. It was the day of Game 1 of the World Series at Fenway, so I was surprised when my driver mentioned that Boston’s UberX drivers — the independent contractors who drive late-model sedans and small SUVs and get their work through the app — were planning to strike that afternoon.

Continue reading below

My driver said many of the 500 drivers in that UberX category (others drive town cars and taxis), were unhappy that the company had recently announced a major fare cut, in part to respond to competitors. The minimum fare for an UberX ride, for instance, dropped to $4 from $10.

The strike never materialized. In a blog post responding to the planned strike, Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick asserted there were more cars on the road that afternoon than the same time a week before. Kalanick’s post also said the price cut had resulted in a 40 percent jump in customer usage of the UberX vehicle class, with drivers on average earning 22 percent more per hour because of increased business.

Uber drivers are independent contractors.

Uber drivers are independent contractors.

I figured the strike talk had just been bluster on the part of drivers worried, irrationally, about taking a hit to their income.

But a few weeks later, Mehmet Yildiz e-mailed me. He is a Melrose resident who holds a master’s degree from Northeastern University in transportation engineering. He says when he first heard about Uber, he was convinced it was a big idea that would transform urban living.

He paid about $20,000 for a black 2012 Toyota Camry. He got a vanity plate that reads “UberX,” formed a company, and started using the Uber app to get jobs.

And he told me that Uber had cut him off — “fired” doesn’t seem like the right word for someone who was never an employee — in late October for his role in trying to organize a group of drivers and create something he called the Uber Partners Organization.

Yildiz said he and other drivers felt that the price cut, in part a response to new ride services such as Lyft and Sidecar, meant that “to earn the same money, you would have to work harder and drive more.”

There was a heated meeting with UberX drivers at Uber’s Boston offices. Then Yildiz and others tried to organize a group of fellow drivers. There was no office lunchroom or factory parking lot to hand out fliers, so they used the map on Uber’s smartphone app to find drivers who were parked, waiting for their next passengers.

They also requested rides themselves, using that as an opportunity to talk to drivers about the fledgling Uber Partners Organization. When the subject of a strike came up, Yildiz says he was against it: “Why fight Uber? We love Uber. Let’s come together and tell them we’re not happy.”

Yildiz was then working part time as a consultant and driving the Camry part time. “The best part of the job was the flexibility,” he says. “Some days I don’t work, others I work 12 to 15 hours. You feel happy, because you choose when to work.”

But suddenly, the week the World Series began, Yildiz found he could no longer log into Uber’s app to pick up passengers. He says he didn’t hear from the company for 10 days, at which point he was told that his contract had been terminated. He wasn’t given a reason.

In mid-November, he decided to survey about 104 Uber drivers. Seventy-two percent told him they were earning less money, even though they were spending more time in their vehicles. Just 7 percent said they were earning more. Two UberX drivers with whom I spoke confirmed that they were working more to try to match their income before the price cut. One said he was planning to quit driving and return to his full-time office job.

Meghan Joyce, general manager of Uber’s Boston office, disputed Yildiz’s data. She said drivers are now making 10 percent more “across the board” for every hour they work. The idea of the strike, she says, came from “a loud, vocal, but very small minority of people who hadn’t yet gotten out and driven with the new rates.” Since the fare cut, Joyce says, “The overwhelming feedback has been that [drivers’] businesses are stronger than ever.”

Uber isn’t the only startup trying to attract hordes of worker bees who pick up jobs using a smartphone app. Task Rabbit, founded in Boston but now based in San Francisco, will find someone to paint your guest room or assemble an Ikea desk. Postmates will dispatch a courier to pick up lunch from a restaurant that doesn’t deliver.

We haven’t yet seen how these smartphone-wielding workers, basically on-call freelancers, will organize themselves. The National Labor Relations Act, a 1935 law that protects the right of private sector employees to unionize, probably doesn’t recognize them as employees, says Tom Kochan, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “The distributed and fluid nature of this workforce is a big challenge,” Kochan says. “You probably won’t see traditional union rallies, or collective bargaining on a periodic basis.”

But I’m betting that we will see something new emerge, in the aftermath of the World Series nonstrike in Boston.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
Loading comments...

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week