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Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Tale of Two Uber Studies: As Lawsuit Expands, Dueling Datasets Ask Whether Drivers Are Happy

Posted By on Thu, Dec 10, 2015 at 12:34 PM

Yesterday, a federal judge ruled that almost all of Uber’s 160,000 California drivers can potentially join in the class-action lawsuit against the ride-hail giant slated for trial next summer.

click to enlarge Happiness is a $62 billion valuation. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Happiness is a $62 billion valuation. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
If Uber loses, it would have to classify its California drivers as employees rather than contractors. Suits on behalf of drivers worldwide would inevitably follow, and God only knows the kind of back pay the $62 billion company would have to dole out. So, one can only assume that someone in Uber’s legal apparatus didn’t sleep last night.

Given all that, it’s not surprising that Uber is on a constant PR bender to depict its drivers as sunny-minded folks who love the freedom of working sans schedules and commitments. Hence a driver survey released this week.

Before even getting to the full results, the press materials tout the part where “drivers chose Uber to have more control over their time and their income.”

It continues: “[Drivers] want work that fits around their life, not the other way around,” This is only a shadow away from flatly saying, “They don’t want to be real employees, okay? Would you just drop it already?”

The terms used do seem a little vague and weaselly, though. 81 percent of drivers say they‘re satisfied with their job, for example. But in an earlier report, Uber copped that half of its workforce quits within a year, and 11 percent don‘t even last a month. So really, that’s only 81 percent of the drivers who are left. And of course they’re mostly satisfied, that’s why they’re still around to ask.

88 percent said they drove because the job suited them, not because they had no other options. But “no other options” may be a suspiciously broad standard. This just means that driving is (for the time being) more appealing than the worst other job available to them. That’s a fair point, but it doesn’t really have much oomph behind it.

Admittedly, this is a cynical reading. (I‘m hardly the first person to be cynical about big business.) The company obviously favors the sunnier side of its numbers, like the stat that 19 percent of drivers are women. On one hand, that’s really not very many. But it is a lot more than it used to be. So there’s that.

But compare these drivers’ attitudes with the ones in an independent study from earlier this year with the scintillating title “Uber’s Drivers: Information Asymmetries and Control in Dynamic Work” from the New York-based Data & Society Research Institute.

The DSRI tried to gauge the attitudes of Uber drivers (particularly malcontents like those suing now) by studying what they say, both via interviews and by monitoring the many online forums where drivers cluster around virtual water coolers to compare notes. The findings are practically a playbook for the suit.

Flexibility, for example, is in the eye of the beholder. Uber drivers can decide when they want to drive, but the study observes that it’s kind of a crapshoot: The company provides some guidance about the best times and places, but not about how many other drivers you’ll compete with there.

Uber always benefits when you drive, but drivers only benefit when their wiles or fortunes lead them to a night of good fares.

“Workers absorb the costs of being available, accessible and responsive without being guaranteed paid work. […] Risk is transferred to drivers as to when and where demand actually exists.”

Remember that the company can turn surge pricing on or off without warning. So the deal becomes, drive whenever and wherever you want, but if you want to make real money, drive where and when we want.

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: A driver can’t negotiate a better rate for his or herself, but they can negotiate lower rates. Why would anyone want to do that? Because it might net you a better rating, and potentially avoid deactivation. Riders, the study observes, are de facto “middle managers” for the company via ratings.

So freedom in the sharing economy seems to have a “the house always wins” flavor to it: You decide what you want to do, but the options are weighted in favor of the app.

Like Uber, the DSRI study may foster an agenda of its own. (Its research tends to favor left-wing causes like civil rights and, yes, labor.) But what’s potentially worrisome if you’re an Uber stakeholder is that winning next year’s suit depends on proving that drivers are independent entrepreneurs empowered to forge their destinies rather than hirelings who take orders.

The idea of indirect control, as revealed by the driver grousing aggregated in the study, could well telegraph the plaintiffs’ arguments (all potential 160,000 of them, as of yesterday), depicting the company as a slick Orwellian entity that pushes workers around without even really touching them.

How that will stand up to the burden of proof remains to be seen. But the counter argument, at least as revealed through Uber’s PR efforts, look a bit thin at first blush.


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Adam Brinklow

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