What the heck is an Uber?


Uber Brooke Steger
Uber’s Seattle general manager Brooke Steger speaks to Portland City Council at the final hearing on legalizing Uber.

Uber is a privately-held company founded in San Francisco in 2009, and now backed by $5.9 billion from 36 investors—from Goldman Sachs and Blackrock, to Google Ventures and the sovereign wealth fund of the Emir of Qatar.

Now operating legally in Portland, Uber says its name comes from German word for “around.” But more often the German word über translates as “over” or “above,” as in “übermensch,” “Deutschland Über Alles,” or “above the law.” Uber operates in defiance of local ordinances around the world, and is the defendant in several class action lawsuits by drivers.

Daniel Ajema, now a prosecutor with King County in Seattle, drove for Uber while in law school. He was so bothered by conditions — and changes in terms and conditions without notice or appeal — that in 2014 he helped organize a group of several hundred Uber drivers.

“The company has huge control over the way we do business, so we wanted to form an association, a sort of labor union,” Ajema recalls. “We were quite naive. We thought the company would talk to us.”

Ajema says he and other leaders elected by the driver group met with Uber’s Seattle general manager Brooke Steger, but the next day the company sent an email warning drivers not to talk with them. Drivers were told if they have an issue, they’d have to address it individually. The company would not be recognizing any association.

Uber doesn’t even recognize drivers as employees. Uber drivers are independent contractors, working for themselves … under terms that are dictated by Uber and changeable by Uber at any time.

In fact, Uber says it’s a software company, not a transportation company. [Right, a software company that dictates the fares and terminates its “partners” if they get less than stellar customer ratings.]

Scroll through Uber’s 4,600-word user agreement (Last Updated: April 8, 2015) and you’ll see in all caps: “YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THAT UBER DOES NOT PROVIDE TRANSPORTATION OR LOGISTICS SERVICES OR FUNCTION AS A TRANSPORTATION CARRIER.”

That’s so Uber can discriminate against you if you’re disabled. The Americans for Disabilities Act prohibits “common carriers” in transportation from refusing rides to people in wheelchairs. But Uber doesn’t provide rides, it says. Its drop-in, drop-out “partners” do. So sue the drivers. Just don’t expect Uber to cooperate when you do.

Uber says its product is “ridesharing,” but that’s pure spin. Uber doesn’t share rides — it sells them. With driver “partners” providing the vehicles and labor, Uber takes 20 percent off the top. It’s the top-dog labor broker for a new informal economy of unmarked taxis.


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