A protest over fare cuts by Uber drivers is threatening to disrupt traffic around San Francisco International airport on Super Bowl Sunday, a move that could be embarrassing for the transport company in its home town area.
San Francisco-based Uber, currently the most valuable private tech company in the world, has angered drivers with fare cuts which they say have hit their ability to make a living.
Hundreds of drivers participated in protests in San Francisco and New York last week. The same organisers are planning multiple protests today in the Bay Area and at nearby Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara where the Carolina Panthers meet the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
Uber had hoped the football highlight would generate positive publicity for the company. However, any disruption would be particularly embarrassing because Uber is a sponsor of the Super Bowl Host Committee, and this is the first time it has had a legal drop-off spot at a Super Bowl stadium.
In the days leading up to the event, Uber’s marketing campaigns have included bringing “Puppy Bowl” to offices and tie-ups with football stars. And a new Super Bowl service will take fans between the stadium and nearby train stations.
Uber’s relationship with drivers has frayed after repeated fare cuts, which typically take place in January. The company is also facing a class-action lawsuit over its decision to classify drivers as independent contractors, who do not qualify for benefits such as paid time off, instead of full-time employees.
“Drivers now are clearly making less than they have ever made,” said Harry Campbell, a driver for Uber and Lyft and founder of the Rideshare Guy blog. He says that two years ago he made $20-$30 per hour, whereas now he makes about $10-$15, before expenses such as gas.
The latest fare cuts lowered prices in the Bay Area by 20 per cent and in San Francisco by 10 per cent, and added a minimum income guarantee in San Francisco during peak hours. Uber 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.”
As independent contractors, Uber drivers are not afforded the legal protections of collective bargaining such as strike protection. The only exception in the US is Seattle, where the city council recently granted drivers for Uber and Lyft the right to organise.
One challenge for organisers is that Uber drivers typically communicate only with the company and rarely with each other. Previous calls for strikes on social media have largely petered out.
Sam Pal, an Uber driver in Oakland, said he had not heard of the protests and did not plan to take part, even though he was unhappy about the “ridiculous” fare cuts.
“I understand that they provide a job for us, but the cuts are too much,” he said. Uber had raised its take rate to 25 per cent from 20 per cent for many rides, he said.
Organisers had initially threatened to block the highways leading to Levi’s Stadium, but backed down on Saturday.
The longer-term problem for Uber will be how to maintain the quality and size of its fleet if driver relations deteriorate.
“Uber is growing, so not only do they need to replace the drivers who leave, they also need to recruit new drivers,” said Mr Campbell. “The question is, if they keep scraping the bottom of the barrel, how will they be able to maintain quality?”
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