Uber, but for being able to pay the rent

Here in New York, Mayor de Blasio signed major legislation that reigns in the unchecked growth of ride-hailing apps, which have latched on to American infrastructure and workers like a greedy, slickly designed succubus. The law freezes the number of new Uber and Lyft drivers for a year while the city studies the effects of the massive increase in drivers on the road — there are nearly 40,000 more “cab” drivers since 2015, and at any given time, 40% of those on the road do not have any passengers.

The flood of drivers with nothing to do has cut deeply into the earnings of traditional cab drivers, and Uber and Lyft drivers have fared no better, earning about $11 an hour thanks to the flood of drivers. Because they’re still considered independent contractors, they get no benefits from Uber or Lyft, either. So the new law also establishes a minimum wage for the drivers in the city, which will hopefully help the cycle of false hope, poverty, and all too often, suicide, which has become an epidemic here.

I’m not a cab driver, but the Uber problem is not limited to the livery industry. The “Uber for” construct of startup pitches became so ubiquitous a few years ago that it became a punchline, but the impact has been real. As a writer, even with a good full-time job, I am always looking for ways to supplement my income, largely to pay off medical bills. (I’ve had four heart surgeries and even with insurance, medicine costs hundreds a month and a quick annual checkup runs $500. Donate to my Patreon here?) I often look to pick up freelance work, whether it’s journalism unrelated to my day job or copywriting.

The latter is kind of a murky industry, but it has moved more and more towards platforms like Upwork, which function as a mass job posting board. Which would be fine, but the mechanics of the thing and the desperation of writers has led to an incredible plunge in payment rates — we are talking a dollar for a thousand words. It’s brutal. It feels more and more like this is the future — I’ve seen a lot of friends laid off from journalism jobs over the last few years. The uptick in digital media unionization at least gives me some hope. Right now editorial employees from Thrillist, the network of travel and culture sites, are striking after a year of management refusal to recognize and negotiate with their union.

The hard part is that you can’t blame the Upwork writers, just as you can’t blame the drivers. People don’t work for those rates for fun. And you can’t even blame many of the very small businesses and individuals that hire writers on the cheap — times are tight; wages after inflation are down. In the same way, you can’t blame people who take Uber and Lyft — I’d be a real hypocrite if I did that, since I’ve used both myself, especially when the subways were down. Regulating, not eliminating, the platforms is key, so that convenience doesn’t destroy sustenance.

The real solution to the Uber problem would be a more reliable mass transit system, but as New Yorkers and anyone who follows us on Twitter know, that does not appear imminent. It’s one of the big issues animating state elections this fall, which we’ve covered heavily here.

But those frustrating infrastructure battles aside, this really is a momentous occasion. Silicon Valley employs fleets of lobbyists and Uber has especially leaned into trying to shape public policy and opinion. Their ads plaster the subways and they bombard the media with AstroTurf campaigns. It has largely avoided regulation — and been able to get the few laws that have passed repealed — but their money and aggression did not work in New York.

Instead, defiant unions and progressive activists won the day. It’s a landmark event, and already lawmakers elsewhere are taking notice, with aldermen in Chicago also now suggesting a minimum wage for drivers.

Regulating the gig and sharing economy is a national priority for progressives, even if they aren’t linked on it the way Medicare for All has become a unified cause. And without that urgency, it’s an uphill climb. The GOP hates regulation already and states are largely controlled by Republicans. Should the midterm elections go our way, we could see a lot more of these kinds of laws, though even a lot of Democrats are sympathetic to tech interests, even as scrappy startups become international behemoths without much interest in the public good.

This New York Times piece is a great look at the fight Facebook and other internet monopolies put up against even a modest set of regulations. Airbnb is also an aggressive lobbying force, waging rhetorical and financial war against any legislator that dares suggest perhaps it’s not a great idea to have every home available for rent. Neighborhoods are being transformed and housing is at a premium thanks to gentrification, and landlords are frequently kicking people out of their homes in order to turn them into pseudo-hotel rooms. Rents go up with every Airbnb unit; one study found that “New York City renters had to pay an additional $616 million in 2016 due to price pressures created by Airbnb.”

Again, it’s complicated, because Airbnb does make things easier for travelers, and it’s nice side income for some people. But it’s the exploitation that makes it troublesome. Every good idea comes with bad actors who try to take advantage of the system.

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