The Delete Uber Drive

New Orleans   There’s an old saying that “what goes around, comes around,” and that was never truer that the huge hit that the arrogant, bullying, worker exploiting Uber ride sharing service has taken since the company once again tripped over its own greed this last weekend when it showed its true colors once again in the wake of President Trump’s immigrant bashing ban.

I started out calling this one a little wrong. I could tell on social media that there was a “delete Uber” drive that was going viral, but at first I just thought they were simply getting outshone by their competitor, Lyft, which had shrewdly ridden the wave of protest and opposition and garnered publicity worth many times the value of their contribution by dropping a cool million on the ACLU to help in its legal fights to break the ban. They weren’t alone, since ACLU collected $20 million total over the weekend, proving that there are rewards for doing the right thing.

One of my Facebook friends clued me in that the Uber fury was based on their strikebreaking. I had known that the well regarded, 18,000 member New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a quasi-union affiliated with the AFL-CIO, had called a one-hour strike around New York’s JFK Airport to protest the Muslim-ban. Many of its members are immigrants, including a fair number of Muslims, so this was a righteous action for them.

Almost all of us who travel have succumbed to Uber somewhere or another, in my case it was in Mexico City, Christmas, 2015, when it was the only way I could get a ride for my family to the airport to head home at 430 AM in the morning, after I was defeated by the cab company and in desperation. So, we know about the way “surge” pricing works. The price of the fare goes up when demand goes up. Demand goes up during sporting events, parades, rain, snow, and it turns out taxi worker strikes. Halfway during the one-hour strike, Uber turned off its surge so that people could get a ride from JFK during the protests more cheaply. Later when they realized they had also run into a wall of protest, they dissembled with some “alternative facts,” claiming that they had turned off the surge to make it easier for people to get to JFK in order to protest. The real facts were that they left their surge on getting to the airport and turned it off for those leaving the airport. Sounds like strike breaking and boost the ban activity, doesn’t it? Now thousands have surged to delete Uber from their smartphones in protest.

Uber is getting all the trouble it has earned. The Uber CEO Travis Kalanick then was forced to try to explain why he has been all cozied up to Trump since the election, including agreeing to serve on a transportation committee appointed by the White House. He responded that he would “work with anyone” trying to deal with transportation. Anyone is a broad list which includes most of the autocrats and dictators around the world, many of whom have already seemed to close to Uber, since bullies like bullies sometimes in a birds of a feather kind of thing.

Whatever problems Uber is having now couldn’t happened to a more deserving gang of folks. Now, we’ll see how they like a little disruption and a lot of deletion.

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Uber Deal with Machinists is Worrisome

uberNew Orleans   Uber, the ride-sharing service, has announced that it has come to an agreement with the International Association of Machinists (IAM) to create a guild or association of some sorts that it will informally recognize for its drivers in New York City. James Conigliaro Jr., the guild founder and assistant director and general counsel at the International Association of Machinists District 15, which represents workers in the Northeastern US, said, “…we’ve successfully come to agreement with Uber to represent the 35,000 drivers using Uber in New York City to enhance their earning ability and benefits.”

I’m a big advocate of majority unionism and alternative organizing models and techniques, but whatever this is, it doesn’t quite smell right to me. Uber is still maintaining that its drivers are not employees, yet the union is claiming, based on an “agreement” with the company, that it can “represent” all of the workers. The Machinists are also claiming that they can improve their wages and benefits without offering details about how that will happen other than the fact that they now have a five (5), yes five year, agreement that provides for monthly meetings of some bodies with somebody from Uber.

So, if I get this right, a company without workers is signing an agreement on behalf of those workers with a union without members among those workers to create a way to talk about wages, hours and conditions of employment. Except for the fact that everyone has agreed to play-pretend that the drivers are not real Uber employees, under the National Labor Relations Act this would pretty much categorically constitute an 8(a)2 violation or what is known commonly as a “company union.”

Meanwhile, certainly known to the Machinists, more than 5000 real Uber drivers have already signed authorization cards seeking to be represented by the Transport Workers’ Union in New York City. Both the IAM and the TWU are members of the AFL-CIO, so how does this not constitute an Article XX violation of the AFL-CIO’s constitution or what is known commonly as “raiding?” If not raiding, it’s certain interference.

On Uber’s part they already are familiar with direct unionization efforts in Seattle, San Francisco and other cities. Their recent settlement of a class action suit in California was widely seen as an effort to buy time for the company’s effort to continue to pretend that its drivers are not employees, and they agreed in that settlement to also begin meeting in some form or fashion with their drivers on issues as part of the settlement.

All of this also smells a little like the company was union “shopping” for a partner here. The Machinists certainly do a bit of organizing, though that is not their primary reputation. According to NLRB statistics for the five years between 2008 and 2012 they had an excellent win rate and ranked in the top ten, but during that period they only gained 11869 workers in units they won, which isn’t much over 2000 workers per year, if they converted all of them into members, which never happens. Their organizing totals were five times less than the NLRB results for either the Teamsters or the Service Employees and half as many as the Food and Commercial Workers. Meanwhile they have fallen from 730673 members in 2000 to 570,423 in 2013. I’m not saying they won’t try to take this lemon and make lemonade, but when Uber was looking for a partner, Uber would have known the Machinists were “needy” and desperate to grow, one way or another.

When it comes to benefits, still without either talking to the drivers or the Machinists, Uber also announced that it has contracted, yes, contracted, with the so-called Freelancers’ Union in order to see what they can cook up in terms of portable benefits and the like.

It is easy to see that Uber wants, and is getting, huge cover from all of this, but when the workers are on the sideline reading the news in the paper or getting alerts on their smartphones, it seems more like a scam that something substantial for the workers.

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Magic Math Won’t Beat Money In-Hand on Airbnb Urban Battles

Wall Street Journal 2015 numbers

Wall Street Journal 2015 numbers

New Orleans    Airbnb, Uber, Twitter, Facebook, whatever, you pick what new phone app-driven techno billionaire wannabes, you worry about, and I’ll pick mine. Deep in your heart, you know Uber is taking advantage of its drivers and ripping everyone off on taxes and Social Security, but perhaps more deeply, the taxicab industry seemed be asking for it. Airbnb is worrisome in a different way, but once again, who can defend the low-wage, tip-based exploitation of workers that is at the heart of the hotel industry, especially in a city like New Orleans where the hospitality industry drives the economy, making the per capita income for the city among the lowest for the largest one-hundred cities in the United States.

All of which brought me to watch and listen to an interview being organized by the Lens,  a local internet news operation, that was billed as an opportunity to get at the heart of the controversy. Sadly, the reporter was interviewing a stone cold anti-advocate, and that’s fine, here we defend advocates of all stripes and sizes without reservation, but he was so confused about whether he was a reporter or an advocate himself with his own axes to grind, that there were nothing but softballs thrown, and no challenge to even the most preposterous comments. That’s life, sometime we win, and sometimes we lose, but we still have to show up, and I did.

I also learned some things inadvertently that were disturbing and, unfortunately, convinced me that Airbnb, come what may, is going to win most of these fights wherever it goes. The unassailable proposition for the anti-Airbnb folks is that no one wants to wake up one day and find that their block is now populated by revolving door mini-motels. On that we can probably all agree, but after that, when the fur starts flying, we’re going downhill trying to hold Airbnb in check, and that’s not just because there’s no clear target or face of the enemy like there is in most corporate fights, but it doesn’t help that the dividing line of the anti’s is also against many of their own neighbors, who aren’t running underground motels, but are renting out spare rooms from time to time.

Where the anti’s are going to fall hard is trying to use magic math to fight the company against its promises of cash on the barrel to money-starved cities, like New Orleans.

The tripping point that catches anti’s is that they start their argument against the company around the lack of data, and then use fabricated data to make their case. That’s not a winning tactic! In thirty minutes, I heard wild claims that Airbnb folk make $250 a night: heck, hotels in New Orleans don’t even do that well! People pretended that folks in the French Quarter have not bemoaned the “loss of neighborhood” for the last 50 years or more, which certainly they have. Some claimed bed-and-breakfasts were upright, licensed taxpayers, which has been an issue in the city – and with the hotel industry — for decades. And, the notion that a huge part of the city’s population hasn’t tried to rent out spare rooms or whole houses for Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, and Super Bowls in New Orleans since before smartphones or apps were even invented is just crazy. Couple that with the common knowledge that Katrina doubled rents – and housing prices, and they have stayed that way, especially in unflooded neighborhoods, and no one sober is going to believe that it’s Airbnb that has accelerated gentrification and pushed many affordable units into the stratosphere. Mix all that in the gumbo with exaggerated claims based on a Brooklyn-based website called Inside Airbnb on the number of properties and the percentage that were full houses, and what do you have?

A lot of this magic math falls apart if anyone takes the time to actually see how Airbnb works. The listed or hoped for price, is not the same as the price someone gets if they book a guest. Furthermore, if anyone monitors this, the prices have gone down because Airbnb now gives recommended prices that often differ from the “list” price, just like hotels do, obviously. Furthermore, it seems almost anyone who wants to list a place with more than one bedroom in a funny twist of the Airbnb system, almost has to list the property as a full house, throwing off all the so-called statistics yet again. In our coffeehouses we see a lot of younger people, and we are located in some of the “hot” neighborhoods in the city. There’s no question that anyone who thinks that they might have even a shot at having a guest, lists with Airbnb, but talking to many of them, even if they are part of the “listed” statistics, they have never had a paying guest in over a year.

Meanwhile, when Airbnb offers a city a “deal” that they will collect the taxes on actual rents, slap on some rules, and turn over the money every month, who believes they won’t take it? The city ends up ahead with a minimum of expenditure on staffing and enforcement, which they are failing at anyway, especially when other, richer cities are reporting abysmal enforcement rates. That’s going to be a hard argument to beat with magic math, exaggerations, random stories, and finger pointing. To have a chance with something like Airbnb, we need an “app for that” works better than yelling that the sky is falling.

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Apps Might Revolutionize Foreign Travel

application-voyage-live-trekker-screenshot4Mexico City   Looking at three different websites, Mexico City was either the 5th, 10th, or 18th largest city in the world, but wherever we place it on the lists of huge, global population hubs, it’s big, but on Christmas Day the streets are virtually deserted, almost everything is closed that can manage to be closed, and even the Zocalo was relatively sparsely populated. Diligent research by one of our tribe had found a restaurant open in a neighborhood not terribly far away from our guesthouse, if we could get there by 5 PM before it closed at 6 PM. Not thinking far enough ahead we stepped out on the street 40 minutes early, and then it hit us: how do we get there?

We walked to the busiest street nearby. We talked to a woman who had been waiting at the corner ahead of us for some time. We waved at the four-lanes of almost empty traffic at every passing car and the few pink-and-white cabs speeding by already filled with people. Finally, we swallowed hard and hit the Uber-app.

I’m not an Uber-fan. I think they are ripping off their drivers. I think they are pushing regular cabbies out of their livelihoods. I think they are political and lobbying bullies and mavericks who flaunt the law and snub local authorities.

But, what are you going to do in a giant city, a long way from a Metro stop, on Christmas Day? The Uber-driver was there within 3 minutes. It cost about three dollars US. Walking around the neighborhood after we had eaten, we strolled through a park, rubbernecking as we went along. We found a cabstand with three cabs waiting, so no Uber for us. The cabbie wanted to charge us double the normal fare. Seven minutes later Uber picked us up wordlessly, the fare already paid via the app, a hearty thanks and Feliz Navidad without debating the tip, and we had turned the drama of travel in a big city on a holiday into banality.

And, that’s not all. Somehow several of our gang had iPhones. Apple is only slightly behind the Uber renegades on my list, but they were able to get free access to certain functions in Mexico City, including Google Maps. Everywhere we walked, Google told us where to turn and how to get there. Better than that they puzzled out the Metro stops back and forth from our neighborhood to the Zocalo with no worries. One of our crew described this feature as a life-changer, and for travelers that’s hard to debate. Google Maps isn’t everywhere, but everywhere it is, how can you beat actually knowing where you are going so that you are only lost when you want to be?

Thinking about all of this and what the future might hold, I read about something almost as good, a French app called Live Trekker. It’s fans say they tap the app when they set off on foot and it draws a red line along every street you walk and through the parks and museums you visit, and later gives you a map accessible on your computer which allows you to zoom back in and see the physical landscape of where you have been to relive the experience. Wow!

Now if I can just find one of my kids and get them to put that on my phone and show me how it works, I’m set! There’s a revolution in travel coming right to my fingertips, if I can wise up enough to use the smartphone.

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Uber Down, Taxis Up?

uber-web-infographicweb_imgLittle Rock     Uber is supposedly worth $51 billion dollars according to Silicon Valley and some eyes-in-the-sky deep-pocketed investors. The company claims its business is providing an app on your phone or computer so you can summon a ride. Sometimes the ride is cheaper than a normal cab, since Uber is claiming not to be a cab, and sometimes it is more expensive than city fare regulations, once again because Uber is claiming not to be a cab but to use an algorithm for “peak pricing” or some such. Millennial and corporate users who are big fans of the service like it because the cars are bigger, newer, and cleaner, and they can summon them from nearby more quickly and without standing on the street with their hands in the air. Uber likes to present itself as a “disrupter,” allowing it to flaunt safety, insurance, and public carrier laws in cities around the world. It just rakes in a percentage of each fare. Central to its business model is the fact that it claims almost no employees and owns no cars.

Part of the reason some people like Uber is that they hate taxis. Taxis are hard to love. They aren’t cheap. They often aren’t available when you need them. They often are neither friendly nor clean. They are heavily regulated, but not well. Central to their business model is that they also claim almost no employees and usually own no cars.

Uber has some problems though. A judge in California ordered them to make whole a driver for shorting her on pay, insurance, repairs, and other items as an employee. In recent days another California federal judge has certified a class action lawsuit for all drivers of Uber, finding they were likely to prevail on the issues that they are drivers. The judge found their arguments ridiculous when the company argued that “legions” of their drivers preferred to be independent subcontractors rather than employees with wages and benefits. Uber’s hopes for worldwide domination are also in trouble in places like China where a similar company is eating their lunch and they are not able to recruit enough drivers to their scheme.

Betting odds would hold that Uber is going to lose on its fantasy arguments that its drivers are not employees, as rightly they should. Fair is fair though, they poached that same independent subcontractor scam from the taxi cab companies they were trying to disrupt, who for years have been claiming that cabdrivers were independent subcontractors and that they were just a dispatch company just like Uber is an app company and that the car owners or medallion owners of the cabs were perhaps the employers.

Fair is fair. It’s time to level the playing field and end this exploitative fiction and properly classify all of these drivers as direct employees of their companies, whether Uber or Whatever.

The Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board have both taken steps over recent years to clarify these issues. Uber is probably hoping it has some years in court so that it can catch a break and maybe convince policy makers and city officials that it’s play-pretend “new economy” is something real, rather than just a new twist on the oldest scam of pure exploitation of workers.

Cab companies in some cases are trying to copy Uber and create an app to go with the dispatch, but does that make their workers any less employees or does it make them more so? Do they pick their hours? Of course not, the cab is supposedly only “rented” to them during certain periods. Do they determine their wages? No, the owner gets the rent and the city establishes the fare. Do they keep their tips? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no, and it is especially worth looking at how credit cards are handled. Do they set the standards for their dress, training, and use of GPS, cleanliness, or licensing? No, once again it’s a city-owner deal.

About the only independent discretion either of these drivers has is whether or not to be lost, because everyone will make them take the blame there, and whether or not to talk about the weather or the game last Sunday. It is time to bring all of these drivers up to the status of workers everywhere who know their pay, get social security, workman’s compensation, and unemployment benefits, and don’t have to be the fall guy for their companies on insurance, inspections, and a host of other issues.

There’s an app for that. It’s call the law.

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Waffle House, Roadie, and, Hey, Organizer, Are You Going My Way?

Roadie_App_screenshotsNew Orleans         I’m not an Uber-fan.  Cabdrivers have a rough road to travel and city regulations protect their safety and the passengers, so what Uber calls “disruption,” looks a lot like another corporate scam on workers and their communities.  On the other hand, I’m no fool.  And, when it looked impossible to catch a cab from Gatineau, Quebec to the Ottawa airport, I asked the Ottawa ACORN head organizer, Jill O’Reilly, and sure enough she could navigate the Uber-app, and minutes later I was sailing to the airport at half the price with no hassle with a driver from Delhi, talking about organizing there and Uber here.

On the other hand, neither am I stupid.  A huge amount of the cost of a union or any organization, usually about two-thirds, goes to keep organizers on staff, on the phone, and on the road.  There are bills in the Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana legislatures to repeal all payroll deductions.  Wisconsin and other states have instituted right-to-work laws in what used to be solid union country.  I recently finished reading an excellent book by political scientist, Mancur Olson, called The Logic of Collective Action.  Published in 1965, it’s a little dated, but he makes some important points, and one of the scariest is that he doesn’t believe that large scale labor unions can survive without compulsory dues collection systems.  So, if I’m still trying to figure out biodiesel, contemplating large scale dumpster diving, recycling schemes, and opening up a second Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, why wouldn’t I look real seriously at an Uber-style app used by a company called Roadie that has begun operations in the Southern states and recently announced a partnership with the 1750-store Waffle House chain which operates in half the country?

According to the Wall Street Journal, where I originally stumbled on the story, along with a bunch of other techie blogs and “oh, gee” stories in mainstream sources, here is the way Roadie wants to work.  They want to recruit itinerants, though they claim they are looking for students, which makes sense for their image I’m sure.  A bit like the old drive-away car deals, which I knew well back-in-the-day, you would hit the app and say you are going from say Atlanta to Jacksonville or maybe New Orleans to Shreveport and passing points on the way.  If they have a business that is trying to deliver a package and not pay UPS, FedEx or others the premium, they undercut the price.  The driver gets 80% of the money, minus one dollar for insurance or something, the company, like Uber, gets the rest, and everyone is happy, supposedly.

I can remember in the late 1970’s financing a trip to all of the ACORN western offices one summer with a driveway Mercedes that someone in New Orleans needed to return to their parents in the hills of Oakland.  They paid for the gas of course, and I hit all the offices in Texas, Arkansas, South Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona before pulling into a Bay Area driveway.

Here are some sample prices the Journal pulled from Roadie:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 5.06.40 PM

 

Some deliveries are door-to-door, but part of the buzz on this deal is the fact that Roadie has partnered with the ubiquitous Southern roadside feature, Waffle House, as a pickup and drop off point.  Heck, the House is even giving drivers a free waffle and a drink when they finish the job, which sounds like a heckuva deal.

So, hey, if organizers need to be on the road, why not throw something in the trunk with them and cover the cost of the trip?  We’re going to have to be creative to keep the wheels of progress – and people – moving!

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Please enjoy, Indigo Girls’ Happy in the Sorrow Key

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