Tag Archives: next:economy

Taxi Versus Lyft, Part Four: A Nutcase and a Traitor

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[Part Four of a preliminary discussion between Driver 8, a former taxi driver turned Lyft driver, and Kelly Dessaint, former Lyft driver turned taxi driver, moderated by Lauren Smiley in November 2015, before the Lyft vs. Taxi Thunderdome live debate on Backchannel. Read the backstory here.]


 

A NUTCASE AND A TRAITOR

Lauren: Kelly, do you think Driver 8 is a traitor for switching to Lyft?

Kelly: Not at all, I think Driver 8 made a valid point in his last Medium post. That was a very powerful statement and one that echoes the sentiments of many cab drivers I’ve spoken to who have switched to the TNC model. Everyone has their breaking point. I had mine with Uber and Lyft and that’s why I switched to taxi. But when I drove for Uber and Lyft, I knew I was a scab. I knew I was doing something wrong. I was a rat, so I drove like one. My goal was to never have an encounter with a cab driver, to never seem like a Lyft or Uber car on the road. I never used the “trade dress,” the pink mustache or the U placard, and cringed any time somebody got in the back, which happened so much with Uber. Because then it would be obvious I was an Uber driver.

While I have a level of pragmatism about the situation, to most cab drivers, Driver 8 is definitely a traitor. When I posted his latest column in a Facebook group for cab drivers in SF, the vitriol was astounding. Even through the internet, you can just see the spit flying from their mouths as they type.

Lauren: Driver 8, do you think Kelly is a nutcase for switching to cabs?

Driver 8: Hey, to each his own. As I said in my first piece on Medium, driving a cab was the first job I ever truly loved, so I can understand the appeal. People make decisions about tech every day – choosing a book over a Kindle, a bar over Tinder, vinyl over digital, or a written letter over a Facebook post for example. Like many young cab drivers, Kelly may not be as concerned with the long-term viability of the job, and can be satisfied with what it offers him today. Now, if he were to consider plunking down $250,000 to buy a taxi medallion, then yes, I would start to question his sanity.

About his time as a Lyft/Uber driver, Kelly wrote he knew he was a rat, and most cab drivers think I’m a traitor. Yet, when asked directly if he thinks I’m a traitor, he replied, “Not at all.” That’s disingenuous at best. I don’t buy it. Why did he feel the need to post my Medium column in the Facebook group for SF cab drivers? Why intentionally draw the attention of my ex- coworkers, employers, and friends, to something that he knew would raise their ire towards me? The act felt malicious. I further submit that it demonstrates his real feelings about my decision, and a personal resentment towards me.

Kelly: Or it could be that I’m just a troublemaker.

You wrote your name at the end of your latest post. Your name was advertised with the conference. I had no sense you wanted to remain anonymous. It would have ended up on Facebook anyway. I certainly didn’t post it out of resentment. Why should I resent you? What stake do I have in all this? I drive a cab to pay my bills, like anyone else, although perhaps I have more options than other people who end up in this industry. I could work at Trader Joe’s. As I wrote in one of my columns, I stumbled into this transportation war. And as a writer, I was inclined to document it. That’s all I’m doing.

Driver 8: It’s one thing to choose to give up my anonymity, however, it’s another thing to go directly to the city’s cab drivers, as a group, and hold me up to them as a target. Do you really think that, if even one of them agreed with just one thing I wrote, they’d be willing to say so, and to face the same scorn being leveled upon me? Intentionally or not, posting my piece on THEIR Facebook page invited a group-think, mob mentality, and created an “us vs. him” dynamic. You mentioned “the spit flying from their mouths.” Were you surprised, or did you anticipate this reaction? Let me tell you, I have a whole new appreciation for cyber bullying after this experience.

Kelly: The drivers in the group disagree with each other all the time on these issues. Just yesterday, a woman cab driver was complaining about those stickers that say, “Lyft and Uber: finally a job for sexual offenders.” A few people ganged up on her and I was quick to side with her because I do agree that those stickers, including the ones about getting hammered, are distasteful, petty and reinforce every negative stereotype people have against cab drivers.

Still, another driver who had switched to Lyft and then came back to taxi was commenting the other day about how much fun it was and that he used to make decent money. The responses were very antagonistic, naturally, and he defended himself by saying that he was speaking the truth. And he’s right. Lyft driving was fun, until the fares went so low it was impossible to justify it anymore. I thought about chiming in and admitting it was fun too, but I didn’t want to face the same scorn. So I understand where you’re coming from. But hey, it’s Facebook. I just don’t take it as seriously as some, I guess. I get attacked all the time. It’s the nature of the game, though. If you’re going to put yourself out there as a writer, you will be judged. I’m sorry, but that is just the cold hard reality of writing. You set yourself up for criticism and rejection. And scorn. And with the internet, you are subjected to some of the meanest things people can say. I avoid Reddit, for instance, because that’s where the lowest scum in the world lurk.

I’m sorry you didn’t appreciate that I shared your post, but it got people reading your work and that’s what really matters. Unless it’s not. But then, why do it?

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For a little taste of what I experienced, which is very similar to what you happened, you can read this Medium piece about what happened when someone, unconnected to me, posted my very first Medium article, criticizing and making fun of Lyft drivers, on a Lyft driver group.

Personally, I think all cab drivers need to stop longing for the old days or complaining that if the industry had only been run better they wouldn’t be in this mess. Things are changing rapidly. Whether it’s for the better or the worse, that remains to be seen. We are, after all, dealing with a corrupt city government that has no problem selling out its citizens to tech companies through tax breaks, not protecting the most vulnerable people from being evicted by greedy landlords, letting Silicon Valley companies, who are in a different county, utilize our vastly limited resources (i.e., Google buses on crowded streets) and seemingly making civic decisions either by shrugging their shoulders (“Why the hell not?”) or based on who brings the fattest envelope to the table. So why should they care about a bunch of cab drivers? Without a doubt, though, less regulation of transportation is NOT the answer.


 

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

Taxi Versus Lyft, Part Three: Transportation as a Public Service

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[Part Three of a preliminary discussion between Driver 8, a former taxi driver turned Lyft driver, and Kelly Dessaint, former Lyft driver turned taxi driver, moderated by Lauren Smiley in November 2015, before the Lyft vs. Taxi Thunderdome live debate on Backchannel. Read the backstory here.]


 

TRANSPORTATION AS A PUBLIC SERVICE

Lauren: Kelly, will you share a couple of the fertile fishing holes for taxi fares in the Uberscape?

Kelly: There certainly aren’t many. The Opera House has a designated driveway for cabs, which encourages drivers to line up for guaranteed fares. The hotels in Union Square have designated cabstands. Pier 39. Anything involving tourists. The Caltrain station is good, although Uber and Lyft cars also dominate there. Driver 8 pointed out in his last Medium post that he used to be able to park in front of the Rickshaw Stop and get fares. Then, with Uber and Lyft, he was passed up. I have never once picked up a fare at the Rickshaw Stop in a cab. Never. Even though I drive past it multiple times a night as I head to Soma from points west. When I drove for Uber and Lyft, though, I dropped off and picked up there constantly. It amazes me just how many places there are that I used to regularly work as an Uber/Lyft driver but never deal with anymore now, as a cab driver. Places like the Rickshaw Stop, Urban Putt, DNA, Dear Mom, Double Dutch, Lucky 13, Blondies, Zeitgeist… There are so many…

Unlike Uber and Lyft, though, we are able to accept paratransit cards and work with the disabled. My company, National, has dedicated accounts at numerous financial and law firms in the Financial… After two years of driving, one of those years for Uber and Lyft and one year in taxis, I see that it’s the young people who are taking advantage of Uber and Lyft. Most don’t even know how to hail a cab. I often think: “Are you saying ‘Hi’ or do you want a ride?” Professionals and people who really need to be somewhere are still taking cabs. If you’re just going out to party, who cares how you get there and back? At 2am? 3am? Who even remembers the next morning?

Driver 8: I’m so glad you brought up paratransit, and the disabled, as this was something that deeply troubled me in my final days in the cab business. I became seriously disenchanted and disgusted watching taxi after taxi refuse to pick up elderly passengers attempting to use their paratransit cards (due to the 10% tip maximum), and of driving past people on crutches, or in collapsible wheelchairs, because of the time they’d lose in assisting those passengers in and out of the cab. Sure – now that so few calls come into dispatch and there are so few flags on the street – drivers have no choice but to rely upon these fares to make a living. If paratransit and disabled people are now receiving better service, they have Uber to thank.

That’s only the half of it. Taxi companies and the MTA just love to blast the TNCs for not having ramp vans (wheelchair accessible vans) like they do. Yet, those vans are almost exclusively used for airport runs, due to their extra space for luggage. Work in a dispatch office as I did, and you will hear the passengers requiring ramp vans being told that none are available because they’re all at the airport, or they aren’t even on the street. You’ll regularly hear these customers calling back after waiting for one or two hours, and still not having been picked up. You’ll hear exacerbated dispatchers instructing them to try calling Yellow, or Luxor, because they do not have, or cannot get, a ramp driver to pick them up.

These ramp (wheelchair accessible) vans end up being leased out at a discount to drivers who don’t have the required certification to actually transport wheelchair passengers – meaning they aren’t allowed to pick these disabled passengers even if they wanted to! Despite their higher gas costs – with no additional seating capacity – and their louder, rougher ride (due to the wheelchair ramp modifications), some cab drivers will rent the ramp vans, and their corresponding ramp taxi medallions, in order to get a taxi to drive at a discounted rate. Cab companies will offer these discounts, just to get the ramp vans rented, and out on the street. Many taxi companies have simply returned their special ramp van medallions to the city because they cannot get anyone to drive the ramp vans. It’s disgusting.

Still, I don’t blame the cab companies or the drivers. I blame the city for foisting this important service onto the for-profit taxi companies, and upon the drivers who are then expected to sacrifice earning potential, and to serve this community out of the sheer goodness of their hearts. It’s an incredibly disgraceful and shameful shirking of responsibility on the part of the city, and the MTA.

While we’re on this topic, I’d add that the taxi system also allows for discrimination against minorities, gays, and people with service animals – all of whom have been historically and routinely refused service by many San Francisco taxi drivers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed a black man, in a suit and tie, trying to flag a cab in the financial district, only to be passed up by a torrent of empty taxis. I can’t tell you how many gay men have recounted stories to me of being kicked out of cabs – in San Francisco!– because of their sexuality. This is a HUGE reason for my preference to drive for Lyft: the combination of driver ratings, acceptance rate requirements, and accountability, ensure that drivers engaging in this type of behavior will be deactivated, not just quickly, but in real time. Whereas, in Kelly’s own words, cabbies don’t have to worry about providing adequate service to customers except to get a tip.

Kelly: Since I went to Ruach Graffis’s taxi school, who is wheelchair-bound herself, you can imagine how much of the class was devoted to studying the ADA. I went into cab driving knowing how important it is to service passengers in need. The way I looked at it, I’d been driving drunks who were pretty much incapacitated for Uber, so the idea of helping people with real problems seemed more rewarding.

I know ramp vans go to the airport because they get to bypass other cabs in line when there are too many suitcases to fit into a regular sedan. It also seems weird to see them trolling Polk Street on a Friday night looking for fares. But I rarely see the disabled left on the side of the road. In fact, I see people in wheelchairs picked up all the time. I went into cab driving with the belief that it is a public utility and it’s my duty to transport the public.

As a night driver, I don’t deal with paratransit as much, but I gladly take paratransit passengers without hesitation.

A few months back, I was on a panel during Labor Fest with a disabled activist who discussed how hard it is to get a taxi to pick him up at his house. He talked about how long he had to wait and how he tried to get the phone numbers of drivers he trusted, only to have the drivers leave the business and being forced to secure another reliable driver. But Uber and Lyft don’t make things any better for the disabled. They don’t have any ramp vehicles at all, much less trained drivers to run them and deal with the disabled.

The changes need to be made through the SFMTA, not abandoned for this new technology that leaves more people out of the equation than just the disabled, i.e., poor people without credit cards and those not willing to have a third-party company have access to their personal details.

What about the people who think Uber is deplorable? The people who want trained drivers, licensed by the city? What happens to those customers if the taxi system is abolished, and Uber and Lyft are the only game in town?

As far as cab drivers refusing service to passengers, you should search “Uber Reviews” on Twitter. Uber is no better. People suck, pure and simple. And as far as not providing service past the point of a good tip: I like big tips. I like making money. So I provide great service. And most of the cab drivers I talk to feel the same way.

The fact is, there is just as much potential for bad service with Uber and Lyft as there is with taxi. Because even if they’re deactivated in real time, there are dozens and dozens of new drivers, just as untrained and biased, to replace them on the conveyor belt of Uber and Lyft driving

Driver 8: You (and I, when I drove a taxi) are an exception to the rule. You must know that. Yes, I have heard equally deplorable stories about Uber drivers (for one, the Uber driver who would only transport a woman’s service dog in the trunk of his car!). My point is that using the ADA, paratransit, and wheelchair accessible vehicles as an argument is sheer hypocrisy on the part of the San Francisco MTA. But, more to your point about leaving people behind, I recently heard an alarming statistic about the digital divide here, in San Francisco of all places! On one hand, I do worry about people who may not have a smartphone, and cannot access a TNC as a result. However, I wonder if these same people have the ability to pay for a taxi? There is no reason (other than further harm to the cab business) why Uber and Lyft could not be allowed and/or required to accept paratransit cards – city subsidized method of payment for transportation – just as taxis do. Still, that leaves the problem of access, which, I agree, needs to be addressed.

Kelly: The decision to not have a smartphone comes down to more than just affordability, since there are programs that give them out for free to people with low incomes. I know a few cab drivers who took advantage of the program. Ultimately, people should have the choice on whether to add technology to their life. And there are older people who have a hard time adjusting to new technology. As I’ve said before, the day when an elderly couple from Missouri flies into San Francisco and have to purchase a smartphone as well as download an app to get a ride into the city is the day we can officially say this city has lost its soul.

It also has to be acknowledged that solving the transportation problems in this city is not easy. It’s never been. Prior to the 1940s, three different companies ran the streetcars on Market before a measure was written to incorporate them into one city held company to make them run better. This is the beginning of the MTA. And since then, things have only become more complicated. In San Francisco, there are always going to be transportation problems because of how the city was designed. Nobody seems to have any solutions that solve all the problems.


 

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

Taxi Versus Lyft, Part Two: Accidental Casualties and The Illusion of Safety

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[Part Two of a preliminary discussion between Driver 8, a former taxi driver turned Lyft driver, and Kelly Dessaint, former Lyft driver turned taxi driver, moderated by Lauren Smiley in November 2015, before the Lyft vs. Taxi Thunderdome live debate on Backchannel. Read the backstory here.]


 

ACCIDENTAL CASUALTIES

Lauren: Kelly, you mentioned that some other professions associated with taxis are also feeling the pinch from the ride of Uber and Lyft. Like hotel doormen. Can you explain that?

Kelly: I’ve heard that doormen are making less because they’re not putting as many people into cabs anymore and receiving the customary tips for their services. I think the same situation would be happening to valets at restaurants and clubs. If people are taking Uber and Lyft to go out and not driving their own cars anymore (I guess this would be more of a reality in cities like Los Angeles), there’s less demand for valets. Or anywhere that usually has someone to open doors, park cars and flag down taxis for customers and then receive tips in return.

Driver 8: I don’t know that I agree with this contention. Doormen in SF were notorious for extorting money from cabbies, and limo drivers too. There were large hotels in the city that I, and many other taxi drivers, avoided because we refused to pay the required bribe to the doormen for rides to the airport. As I alluded to as in one of my articles, should we be concerned about doormen getting tips for hailing taxis – something any hotel guest could do for themselves – or, should we be concerned about providing more reliable, more efficient, less expensive, and (arguably) more pleasant transportation to those hotel guests?  Should we not celebrate the fact that doormen no longer have the ability to extort money from working-class cab drivers?

In fact, I am making more as a Lyft driver than I did as a cab driver, and that is after taking every possible expense I incur into account. Further, the non-financial improvements to my working conditions and job satisfaction would still make me choose it over driving a taxi, even if it did mean earning a little less. Regardless, should we be more concerned about the amount of money cab drivers couldbe making if we were to return to the old days, when getting a cab in San Francisco could be an impossible proposition, when service levels were unsatisfactory (to be kind), and when demand far outstripped supply – artificially constrained by government regulation? Or, should we be more concerned with providing efficient, safe, reliable, and affordable transportation, and allow drivers to make their own determination as to whether or not the earning potential is worth doing the job for? If not, no one is forcing them to be an Uber or Lyft driver. Meanwhile, can the same be said of taxi medallion owners, when the city is making it impossible for them to sell their medallions, and exit the taxi business?

Kelly: I don’t feel much pity for the doormen either. And as Uber became to dominate more of the market, they would laugh at the cab drivers. But now they can’t extort as much money from cab drivers for airport rides because people are using Uber, so they’re making less. Does it bother me? A little. Think of Tom Sweeney, the doorman at the Sir Francis Drake, who has been there for forty years. Or the bearded guy at the St. Francis who runs that cabstand like a general. There are and will continue to be causalities as these new technologies develop and make positions obsolete.

Before Uber and Lyft, cab drivers were able to have middle class lives and, through the medallion system (at least under Prop K), have a pension for when they are no longer able to drive. I know many cab drivers who own homes – some more than one – because of cab driving. I know taxi drivers who put their spouses and children through college… taxi drivers who have traveled the world. All because of cab driving. Can you imagine anyone who doesn’t already have those opportunities being able to do that with Uber and Lyft driving?

And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget that cab drivers know more about the city and its streets than most people. I take great pride in being able to transport tourists around the city and offer historical facts and anecdotes about the places we drive past. Cab drivers who have been at this 20 to 30 years know the city like the back of their hands, and they collect a vast array of fascinating stories that add to the mythology of a great city like San Francisco. San Francisco will lose more than just a formally lucrative form of employment if Uber and Lyft take over. Because the old time cab drivers won’t go to Uber and Lyft. They’ll leave the business and take their vast knowledge and experience (and amazing stories) with them, instead of passing it down to new drivers who can share it with their passengers and on and on…


 

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THE ILLUSION OF SAFETY

Lauren: Driver 8, you’ve mentioned that you feel safer in Lyft than you did in a cab. But at the same time, you had a crazy episode of a Lyft passenger beating you and stealing your phone. How do you reconcile those two things?

Driver 8: If something nefarious were to occur in a Lyft, or an Uber, there is a record of everything  –  name, date, time, home address, phone number, GPS location, etc. If something happens, the police know exactly what door to go knock on in order to make an arrest –  this goes for drivers and passengers. Plus, the driver isn’t carrying a thick wad of cash in his pocket, making him a target for anyone in desperate need of some quick cash. I believe these are huge deterrents, which give me peace and comfort when I’m working.

In a taxi, however, passengers are predominantly anonymous. They may call from a payphone, or flag you from the shadows  – you have no idea who you’re letting into your car with you  –  and I’ve ended up with plenty of threatening taxi passengers over the years. A few times, I was fairly certain no one would ever see me again. Everyone knows that cab drivers are carrying cash money, and I’ve known a few that were even robbed on their way home after their shift. Even the cameras in all SF taxis do nothing to protect the passenger if they fail to note the cab number, which no one ever does. When driving a taxi, I was always aware of the dangers, and was always on guard.

You mentioned the incident where, ironically, I was assaulted and robbed of my iPhone during a Lyft ride. It’s important to note that this was not done by the passenger ordering the Lyft, but by someone who was traveling with him. But, the thing is, bad things can happen anywhere: at home, on the bus, at work, in the park, in a bar, etc. It’s an unfortunate fact that we are never 100% safe, should someone decide to do harm to us. However, we can make choices that limit the potential for harm, and I feel the choice to be a Lyft driver reduces that likelihood much more so than choosing to drive a taxicab.

Kelly: A passenger can use a fake account or steal someone else’s phone. Nothing is ever truly safe while driving for hire. It’s an inherently dangerous profession. And yeah, I never thought twice about who I was picking up while driving for Uber and Lyft. (Remember when it was called peer-to-peer transportation?)

As I transitioned into taxi, I naturally worried about being robbed or assaulted. But I was trained in taxi school how to deal with certain situations (like getting out of the car), keeping a spare wallet to give to a potential robber and I’ve had enough veteran cab drivers tell me how rare it is these days for drivers to get robbed. Even though it still happens. A fellow driver at National was on the news several months back when he was assaulted by a passenger with a padlock. Around that time, there were other instances of attacks on cab drivers in the news…

I have picked up passengers that other drivers wouldn’t pick up and so far –  knock on wood – I haven’t had any problems. But part of being a cab driver is knowing how to deal with any situation that may arise. I like that about the job. I don’t fear the unknown and embrace the challenge. When a passenger gives me the heebie-jeebies, I just start talking. I try to figure out what the situation is and what’s going on in their head. People can walk into a liquor store, rob the place, shoot the cashier and, even with video, never get caught. Like you said, bad things can happen anywhere. But I feel safer knowing my dispatcher is on the other end of the radio and he can summon help immediately and that there are other drivers on the road who have my back.


 

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

[Illustration by David Foldvari]

What It’s Like Driving for Uber & Lyft

The Drivers Panel at Next:Economy 2015

The full video of the driver panel at the Next:Economy conference on November 12, 2015. Courtesy of O’Reilly Media.

Read my coverage of the event here.

Marching Backwards into the Next Economy

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[Part of this article originally appeared in my I Drive S.F. column for the S.F. Examiner. This expanded version is from the zine Behind the Wheel 3: From Uber/Lyft to Taxi. To watch the video of the event click here.]

When I agreed to be on a drivers panel for the Next:Economy forum, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting myself into. I knew there would be three of us on the hot seat: a cab driver turned Lyft driver, a fulltime Uber driver and me, the Uber/Lyft driver who became a “cabbie.” 

Since making it clear to the moderator during our preliminary interview that I was no fan of the on-demand economy, I figured I was there to be the lone naysayer, or to provide some requisite objectivity. Other speakers at the conference included the CEOs of Kickstarter, GE and Lyft, as well as David Plouffe, Uber’s Chief Adviser. 

On Thursday morning, I woke up hungover with a mysterious gash in my forehead. After a quick shower, I put on a grey suit, a black shirt and my Florsheims. If I’m going to be a dancing monkey, I should at least wear a shiny red hat. 

While on BART, I received word from my friend Maya that her husband had lost his battle with cancer. Even though I knew he’d been fighting the disease for a while, news of his passing hit me hard. 

Bill Doyle, who used the nom de guerre Guss Dolan in his activism on the web, was a hero of mine. A major advocate for progressive politics in The City, he railed against the negative changes he saw happening around him as tech money displaced his friends and the new Silicon Valley workers took over neighborhood after neighborhood and threatened his own ability to remain in the city he loved. He spoke at public hearings about the impact of Google buses and rabidly opposed Airbnb and the rest of the so-called “sharing economy.” 

I admired his tenacity and ferocious wit. When I started challenging Uber and Lyft, Bill’s encouragement meant the most to me. So while my train barreled through the Transbay Tube, I kept thinking, San Francisco lost a true citizen today. 

At the Montgomery station, I climbed the escalator and walked right into the majestic Palace hotel, where the conference was being held. In the green room, I met Eric Barajas, the Uber driver, who, it turned out, organized the protest at Uber HQ in October and is just as disgruntled as I was last year, stuck in a vicious cycle with Uber, barely making enough to survive, but never enough to move on to something better. 

While we waited backstage, I watched the CEO of TaskRabbit on the monitor. She seemed to be selling her company to the audience, which I thought was odd. During the Q&A, a woman asked if “Taskers” were being adequately protected from their clients. 

Huh? 

Who cares about workers these days?

When it was time for our panel, I walked through the curtain into the glare of stage lights. The next twenty minutes were a blur. I just imagined what Bill would say if he’d had the opportunity to voice his dissent at an event like this. 

I ragged on all the proponents of the gig economy. Surprisingly, I got laughs. Both Eric and I trashed Uber. At one point, much to the audience’s delight, I got into a heated argument with Jon Kessler, the third driver, who saw the writing on the wall a year ago and leased a car to do Lyft after six years of taxi driving. 

Eventually, we were ushered off stage and released into a crowded room of networkers who congratulated us on our lively panel, some comparing it to The Jerry Springer Show. 

After talking to several dozen attendees, who paid $3,500 to be there, I realized the conference wasn’t a celebration of the on-demand economy. It was more of an examination of how these advances in technology will impact labor and shape the future of work. Most people I talked to were affiliated with labor organizations or non-profits. I even ran into Steven Hill, whose latest book Raw Deal: How the Uber Economy and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers rips these on-demand companies a new asshole. 

Still, tech was in the air. The CEOs were there to pitch their disruptive technologies and most of what they said was obvious doublespeak. If the future of work means the end of professionalism and less need for workers, what do we do with all these people being born each day? Isn’t this what Marshall McLuhan meant when he wrote about how we’re driving into the future using only our rear view mirror?

Throughout the afternoon, I took advantage of the open bar, sampled the free food and marveled at the vaulted ceilings, ornate fixtures and chandeliers. The combined experience was Orwellian and surreal.

After the conventioneers went to lunch, I wandered down Market Street with Eric and Nikko to get Chinese food by the pound at Lee’s. Nikko is a filmmaker whom I met at an Uber protest the previous year. He was at the convention as Eric’s guest.

Over chow mein and fried rice, we talked about feeling out of place at the convention. As much as these people seemed to like us because of our performance, there was something off-putting about their acknowledgment. It was obvious they weren’t around real workers much, despite claiming to fight for the rights of workers. 

Then we discussed David Plouffe’s segment the next day and how great it would be to confront him during the Q&A session that would follow. On video.

Hahaha. We all laughed. That would be awesome! 

But wait! Don’t we have badges for the entire convention? They told us we could come back the next day. 

The more we talked about it the more we realized this opportunity was too good to pass up. A plan began to form quickly. We went back to the Palace and, in the extravagant lobby, hatched the plan. 

After spitballing a bunch of ideas, we concluded that Eric should do the talking. He should just get up and speak his mind. No script. The confrontation would have more of an impact if Eric questioned Uber’s claims of helping working people when working people like himself weren’t able to survive driving for Uber. 

Eric was the real deal. He came off as a genuine hard-working parent effortlessly, because that’s who he is. Eric lives in Fairfield. Sometimes, he gets so tired, instead of driving home, he sleeps in his car. When he wakes up, he starts driving again. He doesn’t see his wife or his kids as much as he’d like because he’s too busy trying to fulfill the promise of this “flexible job” to be able to tuck his kids in at night. 

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The next morning, I headed into The City. Nikko and Eric were already there, ready to go. After watching a few presentations, including the CEO of Microsoft talk about “augmented workers,” it was time for Plouffe to hit the stage. 

There was something surreal about seeing his smug face in person, as he bragged about how Uber changes peoples’ lives for the better, how they’re helping the middle class earn extra money, how the flexibility of driving for Uber is great for people with regular jobs so they can tuck their kids in at night… I resisted the urge to shout rebuttals. 

“We’ve onboarded thousands of drivers,” he said proudly. “And in the process helped the environment by taking cars off the road.” 

I wanted to scream, You can’t add thousands of cars TO the road while taking thousands OFF the road at the same time! It’s one or the other! 

He spoke at length about the independent contractor business model, pointing out that they aren’t the first to use it. And that based on their “research” drivers prefer flexibility over a set schedule.

When asked about disrupting the taxi industry, he said, “That’s not something they even think about.”

When Tim O’Reilly, the moderator, brought up our panel from the previous day, Plouffe evaded the question. He was there to sell an idea and anything that contradicted his narrative was irrelevant. Plouffe is a compelling speaker. His carefully crafted presentation was proof that if you tell a lie long enough and tell it well enough, people will believe it, no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary.

When it came time for the Q&A, Eric got up quickly to be the first in line to ask a question. 

“I just wanted to ask how it’s possible Uber is helping the economy when I’m working full time, eleven hour days, six days a week, and I am barely making minimum wage. After all the expenses are factored in, I don’t know whether to pay my phone bill or my PG&E bill.” 

Plouffe, slightly taken aback, suggested that he get together with Uber and talk about options… 

Eric expressed concern that he would be deactivated for speaking out. But Plouffe assured him he wouldn’t be deactivated for speaking his mind, pointing out that the rating system was only used to determine driver quality. Not for retaliation. 

After Plouffe left the stage, everyone wanted a piece of Eric. Champions of workers’ rights and labor reformers wanted him to join their cause. One woman wanted him to speak at a Wal-Mart workers’ rally later in the month. 

I faded into the background. Eric is a compelling figure: the perfect example of a hard working family man just trying to survive in the world. 

After that, we had lunch in the ballroom. They put out quite a spread. We started off with a Caesar salad, followed by salmon with a tasty lemon and butter sauce, white rice, two asparagus spears and some kind of couscous concoction. For desert, a chocolate tart and a cup of coffee. 

Once I’d finished eating, I said what I wish I’d said on stage, but even though I spoke loudly, only the people at our table could hear me: 

“A friend of mine died from cancer yesterday. For two days I’ve been listening to presenters tout this new technology that will outsource work to machines and amateurs and all I can think is, find a cure for cancer and then I’ll be fucking impressed.” 

With that, I wiped my mouth on the fancy cloth napkin, stood up, walked out of the Palace hotel and took BART back to Oakland. 

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The next day, Nikko called to tell me that Eric was kicked off the Uber platform. He was able to log in to the app, but he wasn’t receiving ride requests. He drove around The City for three hours without a single ride.

Unbelievable. Despite Plouffe’s claims on stage, in front of thousands of people, Uber retaliated. Even though several news sites, Business Insider, Fortune and the San Francisco Chronicle, had all written stories about the confrontation, they went ahead and cut him off. 

I immediately phoned Eric. He told me that some high level official at Uber was leaving him messages. They wanted him to come to Uber headquarters and “discuss his situation.” 

Eric didn’t trust them and didn’t want to go alone. He never returned their calls. He told Tim O’Reilly, the founder of the convention, about what happened and Tim offered to go to the Uber offices with him. 

Late that night, Eric went over to Nikko’s apartment. Nikko is also an active Uber driver and they opened their apps next to each other on video. While Nikko’s phone received request after request, Eric’s phone sat idle. 

With undisputable proof, the next day, I emailed Joe Fitzgerald at the Examiner. He got in touch with Eric. 

Joe contacted Uber. They made some bullshit excuse about a problem with his account, but it was obvious what happened. They’d blocked his access to the app for publically calling them out. 

After Joe’s story hit the internet, Eric started received ride requests again. 

As if nothing had ever happened.

Pretty fucked up, right?  

Well… just like every other negative story about Uber, as soon as the news cycle revolved, everyone moved on to the next routine atrocity… 

Still, Eric, Nikko and I all felt a tinge of pride that, even though we weren’t able to hurt Uber’s image, at least we gave them a black eye. 

[Images from the Next:Economy panel. Watch the entire panel discussion here.]