How Uber’s Alliance with Montréal Drivers Turns Labo[u]r’s Tactics On Its Head

Are The Physical Sites of Labour Protests Changing Through App-Employment?

Sample union rat from a protest against Verizon. No higher resolution rat available.

I was talking with Tom Igoe earlier about Uber’s alliance with its drivers in Montréal, where Uber is illegal and contested. Uber driver cars are a primary site of protest for taxi drivers, in addition to public demonstrations in the downtown core. Uber’s higher management is physically located far away, at corporate headquarters in San Francisco, though there is a local driver recruiting centre (Uber, 1751 Rue Richardson, Suite 7, Montréal). Irate taxi drivers turn on the rank-and-file instead, blockading Uber drivers’ cars, reportedly insisting passengers leave their Uber and enter a taxi, in some cases, or more commonly, glowering at them angrily, photographing their license plates, or honking to intimidate them.

As Tom observed to me, the physical site of labour protests shift in app-based employment.

(Although Seattle presents a different case study, where the focus is on unionizing drivers).

Tom points out that where unions decide to place the large inflatable rats that they use to alert the public to their protest against an employer, usually at the business headquarters of the corporation they’re protesting, indicates a protest against higher management. They might consider the rank-and-file who enter the building to be scabs, but it’s understood that the protest is aimed at the epicenter from which corporate practices flow. By way of analogy, protesting Exxon at a local gas station would be relatively fruitless; protests are staged at their headquarters.

For employment that emerges through software, protests turn on the workers themselves, the visible representations of the company franchise.

The Uber driver’s car is a primary site of protest. Effectively, Uber drivers are alienated from Labour (the strong taxi lobby) and allied with Uber.

Allies

In Montréal, drivers perceive that Uber has their back. No drivers in New York would say that, unless- maybe -they were new and inexperienced. When inspectors fine Uber drivers for operating illegally, or impound their vehicles, Uber will pay their fines and sometimes find them a replacement rental until their car is released about 15 days later.

This alliance between Uber and its drivers is part of the evolutionary stages of being an Uber driver: when Uber is new, it fosters favorable working conditions for drivers as it battles regulators and other opponents; later, when it’s got a working arrangement with cities and regulators, it turns on drivers, such as by lowering the rates at which drivers earn their wages.

Locally, drivers in Montreal are only dimly aware of the evolving working conditions of drivers across the U.S., where Uber has longer-term operations.

Although they sometimes have a friend in New York who will relay something back. Their closest comparative working group is in Toronto.

Uber drivers protest rate cuts in NYC.

A few have expressed envy for Toronto drivers because they can operate freely and legally.

One Montréal Uber driver said he’s looking forward to Uber becoming legal so that he can pay his income taxes; he doesn’t want to submit his earnings statement to the government because he perceives this will be proof of his illegal activity.

Drivers in Montréal are in hiding.

Hari, a Montréal Uber driver, was referred to Uber by a friend, and he drives full-time while he looks for another job, to support his wife and 4 children, ages 6 through 14. I observe he has no phone mount for his iPhone, which balances precariously on his leg, and, like all Montréal Uber drivers, he has no Uber placards on the dash or windows. He comments, “No, we cannot. We are hiding.” As we talk, he elaborates:

“It’s a little dangerous because we just have a tension. Just know to be careful when they are there, and sometimes, okay what happens is what I judge. After 3:00 in the morning, they say nothing because they are very busy, they are running, okay? At 3:30, all the bars, discos, everything is closed, so then they are free. Then they are starting to giving us a problem, you know. That’s what happened to me. It was 4:00am, and they were just turning on the street, doing nothing. The person who called me, they didn’t know I was an Uber driver because I was hiding everything. But she was looking at her cell phone, so they said oh, she is waiting for Uber. The moment I came, they came right in front and the back of me.” — Hari

A concert or event where Uber drivers gather in anticipation of fares provides another site of protest, but the protest isn’t aimed at the concert, as Tom points out — taxi drivers would protest the Uber drivers. Uber drivers, meanwhile, can summon the police, but they risk being fined and having their car impounded for operating illegally.

Taxis protesting Uber.

In cities where drivers have experienced consecutive years of perennial rate cuts, like New York, Uber drivers are very unlikely to articulate a sentiment like “Uber has my back,” which I’ve heard from several Montréal drivers. Instead, drivers are frustrated by their working conditions, and efforts to unionize drivers are gaining traction. The company goes from ally in the fight against regulators and taxi or limo companies, to foe.

The Early Stages

There’s no Uber in Vancouver (nor Lyft in Canada), but some drivers are already signed up to drive when they arrive, and eager to begin. A Vancouver taxi driver showed me the driver app on his phone, and grinned optimistically, looking forward to the switch.

And yet…

For social/hobbyist drivers, there really aren’t any significant considerations around Uber/Lyft as ally or foes. They’re just happy to do it. Steven, who immigrated to Toronto 30 years ago from South Africa, drives his Mercedes for Uber. He worked in a few businesses very successfully, and his children are all married and out of the house he owns with his wife in a well-off, suburban neighborhood of Toronto.

Stock Mercedes in Toronto photo.
“I’m just retired basically, so I decided to this as a part-time. It’s for fun, absolutely for fun. I really enjoy it. It keeps me busy, is really the whole idea of doing it. I get to meet such a variety of people, and in this industry, it’s all walks of life, you know. You just keep going and wherever you get to, it’s a whole different ball game. Some of it’s for work, some of it’s for pleasure…there’s no concept of what’s going to happen. The bell [passenger request or ping] goes, I arrive. It’s exciting. I’m loving it.” — Steven, Toronto Uber driver

In other words, the social drivers for Uber and other ridehail companies, like Lyft, aren’t likely to object to business practices that hurt their profitability, for example.

They’re hobbyists, not rats.