SAN FRANCISCO — I love to drive. Before Uber, I was a car service owner-operator for 10 years and got a thrill out of meeting new people while making my way around San Francisco, a place I’ve called home for over 30 years. I drove my black Mercedes sedan full-time five to six days a week, and counted myself lucky. When my wife died in 2011, I stopped, taking time to grieve.

I first heard about Uber when I came back in 2017. It seemed like a godsend. My friends in the car-service industry were quickly switching to the app, making as much money or more than when they were operating on their own. It felt like a win-win.

In hindsight, I can see it was a classic bait and switch. After undercutting the black-car and taxi industries to direct consumers (and drivers) to Uber, the company turned on us, cannibalizing the very market it helped create.

In my first couple of years driving, Uber announced driver rate cuts that meant the portion of the fare the company kept would be higher than what I took home. After accounting for waiting time and other expenses like gas and wear and tear on my car (all costs I have to cover), I’d be lucky if I got $10 per hour. That’s not even minimum wage in San Francisco. But going back into business for myself as an independent chauffeur wasn’t an option — Uber and other ride-hailing companies had effectively destroyed that job.

That’s why I and my fellow drivers were relieved when California legislators last year passed a law effectively requiring Uber, Lyft and similar companies to extend workplace benefits and protections to drivers, including a minimum wage and paid sick leave. But this is something the companies have refused to do, arguing that we are independent contractors.

Uber has refused to comply even after a California judge ordered it to follow the law. That order was stayed after Uber and Lyft appealed, though nothing about the facts on the ground has changed.

Uber is now spending $30 million on a November ballot initiative in California that would permanently exempt it from nearly every basic state and local labor law, including overtime, paid sick leave and unemployment insurance. On Friday, Uber and Lyft face a court deadline that will require their chief executives to swear, under oath, that they have plans to comply with state law if their ballot initiative fails and the court imposes the original order.

What I have experienced driving for Uber shows why basic worker protections are essential and why the fight over them is so crucial to our livelihoods.

Because of repeated pay cuts and an influx of drivers on the road, I saw friends working 80-hour weeks who could barely make enough money to pay rent. I know drivers who suffered positional stress injuries from hours sitting behind the wheel without a break, and who had no health insurance or workers’ compensation. When the pandemic hit, I saw fellow drivers struggle to navigate the unemployment system in California that Uber at one point argued shouldn’t be extended to us, even though the law clearly makes us eligible for benefits.

When workers have had the guts to demand the protections the law ensures, Uber and other ride-hailing companies trot out the familiar line that to improve working conditions, they’d have to reduce the number of drivers and increase fares. But this is clearly misdirection.

While Uber cries out that having to follow the law would hurt its business model, Uber’s leadership curiously neglects to mention the billions of dollars in cash reserves it has told investors it has available or the generous compensation packages offered to its executives.

Uber’s recent threat to suspend operations in California rather than obey a court order was heartless. That suspension didn’t happen because of the last-minute legal reprieve, but I have friends who would have lost their livelihoods and been left scrambling for new work if the company had followed through on its threat.

The company defended its actions by claiming that it was protecting the flexible work arrangements its drivers value. Yet nothing in the law prevents Uber from paying a living wage while offering flexibility.

Yes, being able to jump on the app when I wanted was attractive for a time and many other drivers will tell you the same. But as Uber continues to cut pay, drivers will have to work longer and longer shifts to make the same amount of money, undercutting the idea that the work is truly flexible.

I now suffer from diabetes, and have to undergo dialysis treatments during peak driving hours. Sure, I have the “flexibility” to not work during those times, when my illness prevents me from driving. But it’s a cold comfort since I have no paid leave. To Uber, drivers are just another business cost to be solved for, not human beings who deserve to work with dignity.

Healthy, well-paid drivers would be more loyal to the app, would provide a better passenger experience and could transform the company. I’ve met scores of other drivers who share my perspective. We all want to be able to earn a living wage, be protected at work and be treated fairly under the law.

Instead, Uber is treating us like cannon fodder in its war against regulation. Its threat to shut down was foolish and shortsighted. The company should instead take the long view, invest in its workers and use this moment, when demand is low, to re-envision how it operates.

Ride-hailing companies shouldn’t be allowed to violate our rights because their “business model” depends on it.

Derrick Baker is an Uber driver and organizer with Gig Workers Rising, which supports app workers pursuing better wages and working conditions.

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