Uber drivers strike and the future of labor: 4 essential reads

Uber drivers across the globe logged out of their company’s app for several hours on May 8 to protest its compensation policies.

Strikes occurred in at least eight U.S. cities including New York and San Francisco as well as places as far-flung as London and Melbourne. They were timed to coincide with Uber’s initial public offering, which is expected to raise US$90 billion for the ride-hailing app on May 10.

Drivers are demanding better job security and higher wages. Their status as independent contractors often denies them some employee rights. And studies show many drivers earn less than $10 an hour after expenses.

The walkout raises questions about the future of worker mobilization in the age of the gig economy. Here are four stories from The Conversation archive that offer lessons for today’s worker activists.

1. 1919 Seattle strike offers hope

A century ago, 35,000 shipyard workers and 25,000 other union members – roughly a fifth of Seattle’s population – walked off their jobs to demand higher wages.

The Seattle General Strike of 1919 shut down a major U.S. city, inspired a rock opera, provoked fears Russian Bolsheviks were trying to overthrow American capitalism and, ultimately, was an abject failure in achieving its ends, wrote University of Oregon history professor Steven C. Beda. Yet the incident offers “surprisingly hopeful” lessons for today’s striking teachers, Uber drivers and others, he argued.

“It had proven to workers, both in Seattle and elsewhere, that there was power in unity, however fleeting,” Beda recalled. “For five days, workers had shut down the city and then run it themselves.

“For today’s workers tired of decades of wage stagnation and fleeting benefits in the gig economy, the Seattle General Strike offers an important lesson about the power of organized laborers: When united, workers can take on the most powerful foes,” he wrote.

2. Google and the power of customers

Late last year, thousands of Google employees staged a walkout to demand changes to the way their company handles sexual harassment complaints. The company pledged to overhaul its policies.

The grievances that motivated the protest, the first of its kind by well-paid and benefit-rich high-tech workers, were “emblematic of what’s prompting millions of American workers to feel they have lost their voice,” argued Thomas Kochan, a professor of management at MIT.