Feasting on Precarity

He had effectively been fired on the spot by an algorithm. If you are managed by an algorithm, there is nothing to suggest you are less of an employee. The riders came to the conclusion that Ramon was driving drunk and reported it in their review. Drivers must accept over 85 percent of the rides offered or face deactivation. It is what we call the “lean corporation.” Assets like factories and stockpiles of goods are a drag. In a paper called “Does Uber Redefine the Firm?” law scholar Julia Tomassetti argues that companies like Uber aren’t really that new or different. Being fired for a debatable mistake mattered to Ramon because driving a cab was his livelihood. It’s important to remember that Uber’s misclassification of workers is contingent on the public, investors, and the courts thinking that Uber is so new and different that it is exempt from the laws that govern this country. If this seems confusing, uroboric, or like a contortionist’s exercise in semantics, it is. To answer the question of Uber drivers’ true place in the economy, she asks us to question the official story that Uber tells us about itself. He loves the flexibility of his schedule but every time he wants to quit for the night or go pick up his daughter, often another ride pops up. Uber, at different times, has asserted it is a technology company, a logistics firm (whatever that means), and a broker between two parties. In Ramon’s case, being terminated by an algorithm was equally consequential as being fired by a human. Uber is a trough that feeds those who can’t get enough to eat at home, but leaves those who rely on it exclusively starving. Many workplaces allow their workers flexibility in where and when they work, while still managing to pay them as employees. And for drivers like Ramon, finding an answer to that question is imperative. It has few employees and fewer assets. Labor historian Louis Hyman has referred to Uber as the “waste product of the service economy,” which is pretty much right on, but it is also a waste producer. So what’s really going on? Uber’s necessity springs from 50 years of stagnant wages — a failure of our political and economic system. In New York, for example, a worker must have certain freedoms and responsibilities to be considered self-employed. They grant the employees who work these assets great power, because the employees are necessary to use them. Ramon was immediately deactivated from Uber. They are founded on what she calls “regulatory arbitrage.” Uber is regulated like a tech company, while getting the profits of transit firms. Snapchat once tried to tell the story that it was a camera company, to distract from the fact that it was truly a social media company, one who looked much more puny compared to Facebook and Twitter instead of Kodak and Nikon. Uber drivers don’t set the rates for riders or get to choose what vehicles they use. It grew fat by feasting on the precarity that wage stagnation wrought. This has opened up a fissure in labor law, which Uber, for the time being, has exploited. Uber does this because it knows that if it left the decision up to drivers, the market might deny some riders service. The problem is the misclassification of drivers as customers and independent contractors. Another problem is that Uber doesn’t let him see the details of the ride before he accepts it. Rosenblat’s book is a combination of sociological analysis, excerpts from Uber-driver online forums, communications with Uber executives and employees, and an avalanche of in-person interviews with drivers from all over the United States and Canada. And so it came to be in the 1980s that being a technology company, as opposed to a huge manufacturing corporation like General Motors, was the best way to sell yourself. In fact, Uber considers its drivers to be everything but employees. The market is setting the price.”
But Rosenblat shows us that the everyday experience of a driver would make you question whether Uber is an impartial broker in a free market. Her analysis isn’t a polemic; it is balanced and measured. Do they deserve the fundamental protections that employees get in this country, like the right to organize, workers’ compensation, minimum wage, or any number of other rights? However, this influx of workers needing a second job because their first job is unstable destabilizes the field of cab driving for those who intend to drive full-time. So algorithmic management doesn’t fundamentally change the employer/employee relationship. But is it possible that Uber drivers are independent contractors? Another part of Uber’s story about being a technology company is its algorithm, which manages a great number of people and imposes strict rules on their conduct during work. Uber isn’t really the problem. Rosenblat’s book is rife with many testimonials from Uber drivers who truly enjoy driving for the company. So is their flexible schedule, their theoretical ability to log in and out of work, enough to qualify them as self-employed? This is an important question that Rosenblat’s new book asks. He might have to drive 45 minutes to pick up a rider (which drivers refer to as “deadhead” rides because they don’t get paid for the time they spend getting to a client), and then drive them to an area that has relatively few riders, which forces him to make another uncompensated drive back to a busier area. But algorithmic management is still management. It seems to be everything but a taxi-cab company. If he declines the ride, he will blow his bonus and might not even cover his expenses of driving for that night. However, Uber doesn’t consider Ramon to be an employee. It provides workers with what Rosenblat calls “good bad jobs”: part-time work for those whose full-time income is not enough. Uber is the proud owner of zero cabs. Rosenblat’s book urges us to wipe the techno-enthusiasm from our eyes and see Uber isn’t much different than any other major corporation with obligations to scores of employees. When drivers get a notification they have received a ride, Uber gives them 15 seconds to respond. It’s a vicious cycle. Questioning the official story that Uber tells is important because the stories frame our understanding and guide our expectations about companies. The story that Uber tells is one of a technology company that only owns a proprietary software and algorithm. Software’s great promise was the abolition of necessary employees. Investors think of Uber as simply a broker between two parties: riders and drivers. ¤
Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein is a journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. A driver named Tim tells Rosenblat about how Uber will give him a bonus if he accepts over 90 percent of the rides in a shift. Owning no assets and having few employees has become the holy grail of business in the last 50 years. Ramon is diabetic, which makes it very difficult (though not impossible) to drink to intoxication. Ramon jerked the car to one side in an attempt to avoid a crash. Uber drivers end up footing the cost of the extra gas, because Uber wants to ensure riders can get a fare from anywhere. Simultaneously, and really for the same reason, corporations began hiring temps instead of full-time employees, who are entitled to all kinds of protections dreamed up in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression, and by the 1950s came to expect pensions and vacation time. As sociologist Alex Rosenblat explains in her new investigative book, Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work, many other factors would give Ramon this impression too:
The company determines the types of cars that are eligible on its platform, and it sometimes modifies the list of acceptable types at will; sets and changes the pay rates as it wishes; controls the dispatch; targets drivers unevenly with incentives; retains the full power to suspend or fire drivers without recourse; and mediates and resolves conflicts at its discretion. As co-founder Travis Kalanick once said, “We are not setting the price. If they don’t respond (because they are say, in traffic and legally can’t use their phones) they are considered to have declined the ride. Being a “technology” company theoretically avoids all that. Are Uber drivers employees, clients, or customers? For lean corporations, the fewer full-time employees, the better. Uber sells this vision to investors, for whom Uber often seems like a technology company because it owns so few assets and has so few employees. While Uber once advertised that drivers might make up $90,000 a year, Rosenblat cites studies that indicate most drivers are making way less, closer to $10 an hour. Software requires close to zero space to store and zero cost to ship. Uber’s story obscures what it really is: an international taxi company with thousands of employees. In fact, he drove so much, he wouldn’t be faulted for believing that he worked for Uber and that Uber was his employer. JANUARY 14, 2019
IN 2017, a man with the first name Ramon was driving for Uber in the suburbs of Atlanta. Kalanick is breathtakingly wrong: to serve one of its customers (the riders) Uber needs to regulate and totally control its market. During one of these late-night rides, a driver swerved into his lane. They must be able to set their own schedule, to negotiate their own rate, and pay for and choose their own tools. It shows that people need Uber, and if you don’t mind sitting down all day and talking with strangers, it’s great. He worked the late shift, ferrying intoxicated passengers around, often until early in the morning. Ramon’s cab likely reeked of alcohol from his myriad riders. They can affect how those companies are regulated, bought, and sold. They are simultaneously customers of Uber’s proprietary software and private contractors providing the company a service (they also provide a service to another group of Uber’s customers, the riders).