“I have a love hate relationship with this company,” says Johnston. “They deserve it. They have abused drivers.”
He says he makes pretty good money driving for the ride-hailing giant — about $50,000 a year, and he's completed more than 7,000 rides. But he has grown upset with how the company treats him and other Pittsburgh area drivers and felt compelled to act.
The Uber and Lyft strike will involve thousands of drivers in more than a dozen cities across the globe. Large coalitions have organized strikes in Philadelphia, New York, London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other large cities. Drivers in New York plan to log off the Uber and Lyft apps from 7-9 a.m. on Wednesday. In other cities, the strike will go on for longer. The date coincides with Uber's push to be publicly traded on the stock market for an estimated valuation of $90 billion.
Given the potentially mammoth evaluation, drivers are striking to call for higher pay, health and disability benefits, more transparency, and more say in how the companies shape working conditions. Uber and Lyft drivers are technically not employees of the large tech companies, but independent contractors. This has led to long hours, and many drivers feeling shafted by the companies, even though they are both worth billions of dollars.
As the word has spread, some individual drivers, like Johnston, have decided to strike that day too. The Pittsburgh Uber and Lyft strike doesn’t appear to have a large organization coordinating a large scale strike in the area, but according to an online forum of Pittsburgh Uber drivers, at least four have committed to striking tomorrow. (Uber also operates autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh but stopped picking up passengers following a fatal crash in Arizona in 2018.) Pittsburgh drivers appear to be striking for the entire day.
This is an extremely small number of drivers, as one driver who posted on the forum who goes by MasterKNinja estimates that there are between 7,500-10,000 ride-hail drivers in the Pittsburgh region. But MasterKNinja wrote the amount of striking drivers could grow if the word gets out that Pittsburgh drivers are striking.
“If any driver hears about it via the news media & feels some solidarity, which I’m sure most who’ve done this gig for a while,” wrote MasterKNinja, who added that Uber has cut drivers’ rates multiple times over the years.
Johnston says Uber has been manipulating his pay, causing him confusion over how much a ride is actually worth. He also used to drive for Lyft, and he says both Uber and Lyft have not treated drivers fairly.
“Uber and Lyft are very manipulative,” says Johnston. “They want you to drive when they want you to drive, even though they tell you have the freedom.”
Johnston, who also sells real estate in Pittsburgh, says one example of when he felt taken advantage of by Uber was when he drove two riders from Cranberry to Toronto for a Drake concert. The Uber app calculated a $388 fee for the ride, so he figured he would pull in about $378 for the ride.
But the Uber app calculated the distance as a straight shot, not factoring in that drivers have to drive around two Great Lakes to get to Toronto from the Pittsburgh area, so he made a lot less.
“They charged it as the crow flies, so they stiffed me,” says Johnston. “They do stuff like this all the time.”
In a statement to CNBC, a Lyft spokesperson said driver earnings have risen over the last two years and that many drivers only work part-time for Lyft.
“We know that access to flexible, extra income makes a big difference for millions of people, and we’re constantly working to improve how we can best serve our driver community,” said the Lyft spokesperson.
Also in a statement to CNBC, an Uber spokesperson said the company provides “consistent earnings” and has insurance to drivers, as well has funding four-year degrees at Arizona State University online.
“Drivers are at the heart of our service — we can’t succeed without them — and thousands of people come into work at Uber every day focused on how to make their experience better, on and off the road,” said the Uber spokesperson.
But Johnston says the Uber perks are not really worth all that much. He says the classes as part of the ASU online program are very limited. He just wants to be treated better as an Uber driver.
“They manipulate you to not go offline, and they manipulate the surge pricing,” says Johnston. “It is coming back to bite them. It may only hurt for day, but it is going to hurt.”
Some Pittsburgh-area politicians have lent their vocal support and solidarity to the striking drivers in Pittsburgh and around the globe. State Reps. Sara Innamorato (D-Lawrenceville) and Summer Lee (D-Swissvale) urged Pittsburgh riders to avoid riding in an Uber or Lyft during the two-hour strike as a way to avoid crossing the metaphorical picket line.
Don’t cross the picket line tomorrow — stand in solidarity with Lyft and Uber drivers.— Sara Innamorato 🌕🦇 (@Innamo) May 7, 2019
Other transit options to get around Pittsburgh include zTrip, the ride-hailing app of the Pittsburgh's Yellow Cab service, and Scoobi electric scooter share. People unfamiliar with the region’s public transit, Port Authority of Allegheny County, can find an easy time discovering their bus or light-rail route by using the Transit App. Healthy Ride bike share is also widely available in many Pittsburgh neighborhoods, and riders can use their Port Authority ConnectCards for free 15-minute rides.
Lee also supports people hailing jitneys, where drivers in personal vehicles pick up passengers, which originated because many taxis wouldn't serve Black neighborhoods.
Also, don’t cross the picket line.— Summer Lee (@SummerForPA) May 6, 2019
In Pgh you can support your local jitney...you know the industry that existed decades before Uber came along and profited wildly off the idea.
"Obviously it would be nice if they paid more, and they have more resources that they could share, but at the end of the day, employment is a voluntary thing," said Waters.
Another Uber driver also contacted CP after publication and said he was striking today. Zeke, who asked that is last name be withheld, said that his wages were recently cut by 35 percent while driving for Uber. He said he is upset that he wasn't notified this would be occurring.
"This crosses the independent contractor line," said Zeke. "No notice, no acceptance that we are employees."
Any other Uber or Lyft drivers that plan to strike on May 8 can email City Paper Senior Writer Ryan Deto at firstname.lastname@example.org, and CP will update this story.