The old economy charges $45 for a cab ride from the airport, while the new economy charges only $25. Something’s bound to break, and right now it’s the workers.
A few weeks ago, I took a cab home from the airport and made the mistake of asking the driver: Hey, how’s the cab business going?
Out came a torrent of four-letter words. By which I mean: Uber, Uber, Uber, Uber.
To my surprise, the driver patiently detailed what a fool I had been to get into his cab. He was going to charge me, by regulation, about $45 for the half-hour trip. With Uber, he said, it would have been $25, maybe $30 tops.
But Uber’s regular service isn’t allowed to pick up passengers at the airport, I said.
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Ah, but there’s a dodge for that, he explained, as if I was the Okie from Muskogee. You just head to the airport light-rail station, take the elevator down to the street and voilà — there will be 5 to 15 Uber cars, waiting to take you wherever you want to go.
To change the subject from my own obliviousness, I asked him: So if Uber’s taking all your business, why don’t you go drive for them?
Because their drivers don’t make any money, he said.
He whistled old jazz standards the rest of the way, while I watched the meter ticking up and up.
Well it turns out the Uber driver we featured in the newspaper on Monday, Takele Gobena, is one of those Sea-Tac airport passenger poachers. And he revealed the flip-side of those $25 airport fares — namely that after expenses, insurance and paying off Uber, Gobena ended up making only about $3 an hour last year.
“Your cabdriver was right,” Gobena told me Tuesday. “Uber’s squeezing the cab companies, so we’re taking away their business. But Uber’s also squeezing its drivers. Uber makes money. Nobody else is.”
This is what an article in Fortune magazine about Uber sarcastically dubbed “How to Make a Fortune Without ‘Doing’ Anything.”
Gobena, a student at the UW in international business, appeared at City Councilman Mike O’Brien’s news conference Monday calling for legislation to allow Uber drivers, who are independent contractors, to form labor associations so they can collectively bargain with the tech company.
Prophetically, Gobena was quoted as saying: “I know Uber will probably deactivate me tomorrow, but I’m ready because this is worth fighting for.”
It didn’t even take until tomorrow. At 6:50 that same night, Gobena was “deactivated” — Uber-speak for cutting a driver off its app-based passenger-assignment system.
Did the company retaliate against him for union agitating?
“I don’t know, but I’d guess they don’t want any more drivers like him standing up with me at news conferences,” O’Brien told me Tuesday. “So maybe you deactivate one of them, and see if the rest of them get the message.”
A company spokeswoman who nevertheless insisted she couldn’t be quoted told me it was a coincidence. Gobena had an out-of-date insurance form on file, she said (though he showed me his insurance was active through December). The system is constantly updating driver activations in this manner.
She suggested it would be crazy for Uber to go around cutting off drivers who speak out at news conferences. I think this was on the theory that such naked retaliation would only demonstrate the drivers’ overall point — that maybe they really do need some job protections.
Still, even if they didn’t retaliate in this case, this is the same company whose vice president last winter recommended “fighting back against the press” by hiring private investigators to snoop into reporters’ personal lives. So they sure sound like a company that thinks about it.
In any event, Gobena was reactivated and back on his job Tuesday afternoon. He is a 4.7 out of 5-stars driver, so it seems riders love his cheap and convenient service. And who wouldn’t — he’s undercutting the cabs by nearly half the fare.
But if he’s really making 1980s wages, it can’t last. There’s so much tension between the $45 old economy cab ride and the $25 new economy price that something’s bound to break.
The betting has been that it will be the stodgy old way that crumbles. But this little story makes me suspect some cracks are beginning to form in the new as well.