Even for regular schmucks with no background in economics or labour law, one of the glaring problems with Uber’s claim that its drivers are independent contractors rather than employees is that Uber sets the price of rides. Without the ability to set their own rates, or a contract drivers have any power to negotiate the terms of, the whole argument sort of falls apart, doesn’t it?
But, bless its heart, that doesn’t stop Uber from trying. Now, as part of its long-running scheme of evading pesky expenses like minimum wage, Uber is running an experiment on every driver in the US state it’s most likely to be regulated in: California.
As NBC reported Friday, Uber is expanding a limited pilot programme it rolled out in January that allow drivers to set their own rates* to every driver in the state. Again, the entire purpose of the experiment is to dodge a state Supreme Court ruling, a state law, and several lawsuits all of which unequivocally seek to reclassify Uber drivers as employees. (*some restrictions apply)
At least in the way it was implemented in the pilot, this new rate option didn’t actually give drivers the freedom to charge anything they wanted. Instead, they could increase or decrease Uber’s estimated fare in 10% increments, with a 5x ceiling and a 1/10th floor. “So maybe people will pay more for drivers with a better rating,” you might smartly surmise. Sorry, meritocracy is a lie, and the system instead matched riders with whoever was willing to drive for the least amount of money. Unsurprisingly, this sort of scheme seems poised to create a toxic race to the bottom. (That is, if the parameters of the rollout are identical. Uber has not responded to a request for information on this subject.)
Is it possible Uber learned something valuable about this pricing system between January and now? If it has, it certainly hasn’t been willing to share that information. Personally, I doubt any useful data exists at all, as the pilot programme only applied to trips from three airports in California; about two weeks after it was announced, the U.S. started putting coronavirus-related travel restrictions in place.
A larger cell doesn’t make one less of a prisoner, and the freedom to earn less money isn’t freedom at all. This bit of pageantry is not likely to pull the wool over judges’ eyes and, at this point, is just heaping more financial precariousness onto an already perilous class of workers struggling through a historically bad economic crash.
I know that times are hard right now. No one wants to be without an income. But I have to wonder how the rank-and-file Uber workers can continue to silently carry out the hideous machinations of their C-suite bosses knowing those same things are being intentionally and systematically denied to the people who make their incomes possible.
Yes, I do actually want to know. If you work for Uber, email me.
Featured image: Drew Angerer (Getty Images)