Uber drivers protest in front of their San Francisco headquarters, claiming they have not been treated fairly by the ride-sharing app. (Connor Hunt/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Uber swirls in local controversy, protests

More than 20 Uber drivers rallied outside Uber headquarters on Market Street on Friday morning, flanked by seven police officers.

The protest hit the same day as another local Uber controversy: Eve Batey, a writer for local news blog SFist, reported her Uber driver threatened via phone to rape and kill her when she cancelled a ride.

Both events also come on the heels of many changes for Uber and its drivers, locally and beyond.

One organizer, Abe Husein, claims he was wrongfully terminated as an Uber driver after he began to organize drivers in Kansas City.

“We’re making less and less money,” Husein shouted, through a bullhorn. “Making less than minimum wage.”

The action was part of a nation-wide Uber protests over the weekend with drivers in major cities across the U.S arguing a need for higher fares, higher cancellation fees, and tips to be instated. “Drivers: Do not turn your app on for this whole weekend!” read one flyer promoting the
protest. “Stand together as one voice!”

The protest came at a turning point for Uber drivers on a number of fronts. Last month a U.S. district judge granted class action status in a lawsuit filed against Uber by drivers. The outcome of the trial may determine if drivers are independent contractors, as Uber maintains, or employees, as some of its drivers claim.

If drivers are granted employee status, Uber may need to pay them medical insurance, severance pay, and other benefits customary to employees.

Uber and its rival, Lyft, are also now in negotiations with the California Public Utilities Commission, its regulators, over the state’s “Phase II” regulations — which may compel those  tech companies to better serve riders in wheelchairs, among myriad other changes.

Also on the horizon are driverless cars, which Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has publicly said will lead to lower prices for the company’s passengers, because Uber will not need to pay drivers.

There are at least 16,000 Uber drivers active in San Francisco, according to numbers released by the company. Uber’s investor valuation is estimated to be around $50 billion.

Back at the protest, drivers were reluctant to share their real names, fearing they would be banned from Uber’s app. “Sam” said he’s been driving with Uber for more than four years.

He said many Uber drivers are mired in debt due to excessive car loans. “Sam” has two children, ages 7 and 5, and also supports his wife and parents.

“I’m the main income,” he said, but now “it’s impossible to make it” with Uber.

Factoring in car maintenance, oil changes and other costs, many drivers told the Examiner they seldom make even minimum wage — though Uber was once more lucrative.

During the protest, a fire alarm sounded at Uber’s headquarters. Hundreds of employees walked past the protesters as they re-entered the building.

One man wearing a building badge, who identified himself as a contractor with Uber, would not give his name for fear of retribution from his employer. He said corporate contractors are not full employees, and are almost as bad off as drivers. “If you’re a contractor you don’t get benefits, or stock,” he said.

Of the protests, he said, “hating Uber is popular,” and workers tend to shrug off such complaints.

In response to the protest, an Uber spokesperson forwarded a statement from the company. “We always welcome feedback from driver-partners. Each week, tens of thousands of drivers across the U.S. begin using the Uber app to make money on their own time, to reach their own goals,” the statement read.

“Drivers say they value the flexibility and the chance to be their own boss, and choose Uber over other options because it fits around their life and works for them.”

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