Uber and the Gig Economy

Uber and the Gig Economy


Uber entered D.C. with an exemption to District rules governing taxis, and over time has enjoyed a cozy relationship with local officials. This relationship compounds the power imbalance between drivers and the company. By allowing Uber and other platform companies to self-regulate, local officials have not only hurt workers but also D.C. at large. Learn more about Uber, the gig economy and how cities manage their place in global capitalism. This session covers how DC became a legislative model for Uber; how Uber became an institutional actor in the city; and what such an arrangement means for thinking about urban politics.

This session was led by Katie Wells, an Urban Studies Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. In addition to covering the broader history of the gig economy in D.C., the presentation makes consistent reference to a study on D.C.’s gig-economy: The Uber Workforce in D.C..

Below, you will find a recording of the session, a recommended reading list, and a truncated summary of the session, with timestamps provided so you can listen to the topics explained in more detail.


Reading List

“’We’re building their data’: Labor, alienation, and idiocy in the smart city” by Kafui Attoh, Katie Wells and Declan Cullen, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.

“Taking Back the Wheel” by Declan Cullen, Kafui Attoh, and Katie Wells, Dissent Magazine.

Gigged: The end of the job and the future of work by Sarah Kessler.

Our daily bread: Wages, workers, and the political economy of the American West by Geoff Mann.

The gig economy: a critical introduction by Jamie Woodcock and Mark Graham

“The Uber Workplace” A report for Georgetown University’s D.C. Public Policy Initiative and the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor.

illustration of lightning bolt striking a rose on top of U.S. Capitol Building
illustration of lightning bolt striking a rose on top of U.S. Capitol Building

Uber Triumphant (2:30)

In D.C., Uber regulations were first prompted in early 2012, when D.C. Taxi Commissioner (which still existed at the time) Ron Linton set up a sting operation which implicated one of Uber’s drivers. Ron was frustrated that official channels in D.C. government were not properly ensuring that Uber was following existing taxi regulations, and so he took matters into his own hands. The action set off a city-wide debate about public transportation, new technologies, and government regulatory power.

In 2012, D.C. officials awarded uber its own business category, which exempted it from existing taxi regulations and oversight. But the battle between the city and Uber were hardly settled: the city would go on to reintroduce Uber legislation in 2014 and 2018.

The onset of Covid-19 has fostered a new dimension to the regulatory debate, where Uber’s workforce has come to be labelled as “essential employees.” As stated by one of the drivers interviewed: “the pandemic adds another layer to the feeling of being inadequate that happens when you take a job because you have no other choice.” Inaction on the part of Uber to address inequities in workforce protection have contributed to the regulatory debate surrounding Uber and companies like it. In response to the pandemic, platforms are propelling the idea that workers deserve applause rather than decent pay and workplace protections.

The city has shown that it is capable of platform intervention. In early June, DC officials adopted a cap on commission that on-demand platforms can take from restaurants in food delivery commissions. However, while they flexed their regulatory muscles on the part of business owners, they failed to protect the commission that workers receive in performing this labor. The city is protecting the essential services, but not the workers – evidence of how regulatory action to limit the power of tech companies does not necessarily imply instituting proper safeguards for workers.

Ultimately, private tech platforms are becoming institutional actors inside cities and changing the shape of urban governance in the process. Regulatory choices illustrate the character of policy making in the 21st century: a moment where policymakers need to contend with the promise of new technologies, the legacies of underfunded public infrastructure, and the pressures of responsible development in cities beset with deep racial and economic inequalities.

The Regulatory Environment (7:40)

In 2016, lobbyists for Uber and Lyft outnumbered those for Amazon, Microsoft and Walmart *combined. * The presence of these entities in cities has taken the form of partnerships with federal, state and local governments. When Uber started, its motto was “your own private driver.” Today, its “transportation as reliable as running water.” Platform companies are presenting themselves as indelible partners for urban governments, which could have major implications on how government power is executed, and whose interests are prioritized.

For those concerned about the working class – or as the pandemic has relabeled them, essential workers – there are significant implications to these changes in urban governments. These actions are shifting government practices beyond public-private partnerships, which now seem quaint in comparison, to more speculative strategies where the city relinquishes regulatory power all together. As stated by Professor Wells: “Platforms are the chariots for a set of socio-spatial relations where the public good is of less and less importance. And regulation as a safeguard for that public good is considered antiquated.”

Uber’s Regulatory Coup (11:47)

When Uber rolled out UberX in 2013 (its low-cost option for transit that is now ubiquitous to the platform’s identification)– the D.C. Taxi Commission introduced new regulations to ban the service. But District Council ran to Uber’s rescue, using emergency regulation to block the Taxi Commission’s actions. Uber also began an aggressive influence campaign on the District government – in the first half of 2014, Uber spent nearly $ 300,000 to lobby the District Council, arranged a wide array of meetings with legislators and their aides, coordinated 5,000 customer emails to be sent to the Council for consideration, and organized a PR campaign meant to tar anti-Uber policy-makers as out-dated know-nothings.

At the time, the loudest opposition to Uber came from the local disability rights community (who were concerned with accessibility issues), and taxi drivers (concerned with facing unfair competition). But protest and lobbying efforts lost out. The “Vehicles-for-Hire Innovation Amendment Act of 2014” eliminated the Taxi Commission entirely and created a new department that only had the power to sanction and fine platform companies. However, the new department could not access important data that described the activities of ride-share platforms, such as: how many vehicles were on the road, how many rides were happening, and how any registered riders were operating on the platform. In fact, a critical piece of the legislation represented a wholesale regulatory coup: any data collected by the new department could not be shared with the public – including legislators. *The legislation also made ride-hailing data immune from FOIA requests.

Nonetheless, D.C.’s mayor would go on to celebrate the city’s warm welcome for Uber. Together, Uber and D.C. officials created promotional materials, PR events, and collaborated on transit plans. Why did the city celebrate such an arrangement? By the time Uber came to D.C., the city had already started to position itself as an alternative to 20th century transit planning. The local government had already begun experimenting with alternative transportation systems – such as accommodating Zipcars and the country’s first bike-sharing program in Capital Bikeshare. Yet, the D.C. had a rail system in dire need of repair (which had been entertaining calls for privatization for some time) as the short-comings of the taxi industry had been widely publicized (and in some cases, heavily exaggerated) in the press. Uber presented itself as an easy fix to this wicked problems, and so D.C. laid out the legislative carpet.

All the while, Uber continued to widely publicize the utility of its services – extolling its service as a public utility that provided great benefit to the District and its residents. Uber argued that its service would provide more reliable transit solutions, Black residents would have a refuge from the institutional discrimination in the taxi industry, wheel-chair accessible rides would be available on its platforms, and that cuts to driver compensation would result in increased earnings. However, because Uber’s data was restricted from public access, very few of these claims could be challenged or qualified.

An interview conducted with an Uber lobbyist reveals the obvious key to Uber’s success: “…D.C. adopted our view of the world…[one where] Uber set the standards…we can do all the functions that a regulator would, but we can do it at the pace of business.”

In considering this quote, session attendees were asked to consider their responses to a series of questions:

  • How do you see local regulation or city government shaping your own life?
  • What is your world view and how does government fit into it?
  • How has the COVID-19 pandemic shaped, if at all, these ideas?

The Gig Economy (29:05)

The gig economy, also named the platform economy, dates back to the 2008 Economic collapse. At this point, many governments, D.C. included, welcomed a slew of on-demand businesses that would bolster city coffers and reduce unemployment. These businesses expanded and extended the on-call rhythms that were long afoot in the retail and restaurant industries.

How does scholarship explain the nature of the gig economy? One view frames it as a break from the recent past, a return to lax labor protections that existed before the modern labor movement. Another frames it as a maniacal extension of past labor practices – a continuation of the long-fissuring of work and labor exploitation. Some suggest it is a geographical manifestation – working conditions long afoot in the global south (contingent non-standard work) are finally “filtering up” to the global north. And finally, a corporate friendly perspective has attempted to sell the gig economy as personal freedom. This perspective has been stylized into the language of business ownership or entrepreneurship, as demonstrated by ads such as this one staring Spike Lee.

A Fraying Relationship (33:54)

D.C.’s cozy relationship with Uber began to wear in 2018. That year, the District Council passed a provision in its budget which introduced a tax on ride-hailing companies in order to raise funding for the Metro. The regulations incited some local drama, but it hardly compared to the invective of previous policy debates. By this time, the reputation of ride-sharing companies had changed and city officials were no longer afraid of staring down tech titans such as Uber. And so, the “Private Vehicle-for-Hire Data Sharing Amendment of 2018,” was passed, opening up ride-hailing companies’ data to legislators.

The legislation required ride hailing companies to submit quarterly compilations of data sets, the number of drivers, total miles driven (but not idling), average fares and distances, origin and destination date and time of pickup, and whether the ride was shared or pooled.

But onset of the pandemic has made D.C.’s data sharing victories seem cute, if not trivial, to the issues facing quarantine era workers. Access to archival data has not compelled the company to pay its workers a minimum wage, offer hazard pay compensation, provide PPE without cost to its workers, or contribute to a cent to the city’s unemployment compensation fund.

And some have even suggested that the battle for data may be a red-herring all-together. A transit official interviewed doubted the utility of these regulations in the first place:

We believe that we can make policy decisions if we have better data…[but] we get data from a third-party company because Uber, we can’t get it from, even though we have legislative requirements. The data we can get from them is not clean. We have to spend a lot of labor, resources, to clean the data.

Another quote, provided by a legislative aide in District government, adds to the idea of data as a misleading victory:

Researchers want data. Understandably. The government itself is not always…clamoring for data, because honestly, they don’t have the capacity to analyze it…Sometimes, I think the case for data at the government usefulness level – at least in the District government – is overstated.

But the failure of the government to adequately control and reign these platforms has motivated workers to strike from below. In the pacific northwest, organizers are trying to fight for the data they produce through their work, and sell it back to their local governments on their own – to ensure both the veracity of data provided and to realize the full fruits of their labor. Additionally, organizers in Spain and France are beginning to build unions and cooperative businesses in the on-demand work sector more broadly – creating a model for workers in the U.S. to fight back against the unchecked growth of corperate power.

The Gig Economy and Capitalism (47:10)

Why do these legislative acrobatics matter for understanding contemporary capitalism? In 1989, David Harvey recognized a paradigm shift in the way cities have functioned. At the time, fed government was retreating from its financial support for cities. In the midst of deindustrialization, a new politics was emerging at the city level, where local policy makers and elites were shifting away from their role as managers of the city into something else. In light of austerity, policy makers were aggressively searching for new forms of capital and profit-making ventures, usually acting in concert with the private sector. Cities did so competitively – competing against each other, and becoming what David Harvey called “entrepreneurial.” For Harvey, this entrepreneurialism was a strategy for cities that would upend urban life. Harvey identified three factors of this new world:

  • Cities began to engage in speculative ventures, such as stadiums, real estate projects and third-wave gentrification initiatives.
  • Cities began to rely on public-private partnerships to both save costs and decentralize control – a shift from government to governance. By governance, Harvey means all those messy structures, processes, stakeholders, and institutions that would shape the way cities worked.
  • Cities were shifting attention from investments across territories – like the creation of affordable housing – to investments in particular places (branding and place-marketing).

This shift, from a “managerial” to “entrepreneurial” mode, made Uber a pipedream for city officials and policy-makers. But how does his argument apply to contemporary policy-making practices? Harvey’s description works really well for thinking about how cites attract large tech-firms. In pursuit of vast economic growth, cities had given away the rights to data. Digitized landscapes have been optimized for capital accumulation with the government’s blessing. And in the digital world, data is capital.

But Harvey’s model does not chart how these platforms have become regulatory entrepreneurs in itself. A regulatory entrepreneur is someone who is rewriting laws, as opposed to currying favor through traditional lobbying. They are challenging regulation and influencing policy to better suit their goals of extraction and expansion. Desperate to curry favor with these technological forces, D.C. had engaged in speculative tactics meant to bring about a more efficient, “modern” government. But in the process, cities had ceded more and more legislative and regulatory control to the private sector in the process.

This is all evidence of what Erik Swyngedouw has called “governments beyond the state.” Uber has engaged in regulatory arbitrage – a practice that ignores, flouts, or reforms local laws. In taking on this role, Uber has emerged as a new institutional actor. Urban governance certainly has its roots in public-private partnerships, outsourcing, and a broad shift towards decentralized government. But there may be something different happening here. The entrepreneurial city has birthed the entrepreneur as the city. A city in which entrepreneurial capital becomes its own regulator.

It’s not surprising that Uber’s priorities have won out. But understanding how they won should be of interest to all fighting to build a radically different future.

Discussions and Questions (53:50)

The session ended by posing a series of questions to session attendees:

  • How do platforms like Uber play a role in your life? Do you see openings for organizing?
  • How could struggles to regulate platforms connect to broader anti-capitalist struggles?
  • If platforms are attacking the public good, what can we do in response, especially in the current pandemic?