In the parking lot of Uber’s driver hub in Southwest Philadelphia on Wednesday, at the ride-share drivers’ rally, there were no scripted remarks or program, and no politicians.

Instead, using a microphone hooked up to an amplifier in the backseat of a car, drivers gave sprawling remarks about unfair deactivations, wage cuts, and Uber’s forthcoming initial public stock offering to a crowd of about 80, as others, who seemed to be using a bullhorn for the first time, yelled chants like “Invest in drivers, not in stock!” and “Surge pay everyday!” A Spanish-speaking contingent chanted. Fliers listing the drivers’ demands were translated into not just Spanish, but Urdu, Hindi, and Arabic. At one point, when they were about to give papers listing their five demands to an Uber manager, they couldn’t find the last one.

In other words, it was an unconventional labor rally — unpolished, racially and ethnically diverse, and organized and led by the workers themselves.

The rally — organized by the Philadelphia Drivers Union and the Philadelphia Limousine Association — was part of a global day of action protesting wages and working conditions for ride-share drivers, two days before Uber is to go public. With drivers in more than two dozen cities and countries participating across five continents, it was the biggest coordinated gig economy action of its kind, said Todd Wolfson, a Rutgers University professor who studies gig worker organizing.

The action varied from city to city. Some drivers, like those in New York led by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, went on strike for a set period Wednesday, while in Philadelphia, because drivers said they couldn’t afford to miss any time off, they rallied. In Melbourne, Australia, protesters conducted a “drive around,” a caravan of ride-sharing cars during peak hours.

Protestors gather in front of the Uber Green Light Hub near the Philadelphia Airport Wednesday, May 8, 2019. Uber drivers and their supporters rallied to fight for fair wages and they delivered a set of five demands to the manager at Philadelphia's Uber Green Light Hub.
MARGO REED / For the Inquirer
Protestors gather in front of the Uber Green Light Hub near the Philadelphia Airport Wednesday, May 8, 2019. Uber drivers and their supporters rallied to fight for fair wages and they delivered a set of five demands to the manager at Philadelphia's Uber Green Light Hub.

Ride-share drivers in Philadelphia and across the globe have grown frustrated with Uber and its main competitor Lyft because of what they describe as pay cuts over the years and unfair working conditions.

“You’re working harder, and you’re getting less," said Rasheedah Ahmad, an Uber and Lyft driver who told The Inquirer last month she used to be able to bring home $1,000 in a weekend when she started driving in 2016. Now she says she can’t make that in seven days.

Ride-share drivers’ income — calculated through a set rate per minute and per mile — varies widely depending on where, when, and how often they work, making it hard to calculate how their pay has changed over time. A number of studies have found drivers’ pay is close to minimum wage after expenses, though ride-share companies have taken issue with those reports’ methodologies.

Drivers say their pay drop comes as Uber and Lyft seek to become profitable and attractive to investors. Both companies reported losses in their SEC filings: Uber said it lost $1.8 billion in 2018 on revenue of $11.3 billion. Lyft, which went public in March, said it lost $1.14 billion in the first quarter of 2019. Meanwhile, Uber’s top five executives made a total of $143 million in 2018.

In Uber’s S-1 filing, it said that the amount that it makes on each ride increased to 21 percent in 2017 from 16 percent in 2016 “as a result of declining driver incentives,” Quartz reporter Alison Griswold reported last month in her newsletter Oversharing. It increased again, Griswold wrote, to 22 percent in 2018 on “increases to booking fees in select markets.”

“They make so much crazy money,” said Asad Iqbal, a 32-year-old Uber and Lyft driver from Peshawar, Pakistan, who attended the rally with his uncle, who is also a ride-share driver. “We deserve some, too.”

Cindy Lou, who was rallying in support of Uber drivers but is not a driver herself, stands on the lawn next to Bartram Ave. in front of the Uber Green Light Hub near the Philadelphia Airport Wednesday, May 8, 2019. Uber drivers and their supporters rallied to fight for fair wages and they delivered a set of five demands to the manager at Philadelphia's Uber Green Light Hub.
MARGO REED / For the Inquirer
Cindy Lou, who was rallying in support of Uber drivers but is not a driver herself, stands on the lawn next to Bartram Ave. in front of the Uber Green Light Hub near the Philadelphia Airport Wednesday, May 8, 2019. Uber drivers and their supporters rallied to fight for fair wages and they delivered a set of five demands to the manager at Philadelphia's Uber Green Light Hub.

Wednesday’s day of action was significant because it had been widely accepted that gig workers, who are independent, are nearly impossible to organize. But in the last few years, these workers, from ride-sharing drivers to delivery couriers and domestic workers such as house cleaners and nannies, have changed that narrative, organizing strikes, creating support networks via social media, and winning legal rights.

>> READ MORE: What Philly can learn from some of the biggest victories around the world by on-demand gig workers

Still, it’s been hard to organize the roughly 25,000 ride-sharing drivers in Philadelphia without the backing of a traditional union or the support of full-time non-worker organizers.

“When you’re poor and you’re struggling just to pay rent, you don’t have the time, the emotional energy, or the access to resources to be able to organize,” said Angela Vogel, an Uber Black driver leader with the Philadelphia Drivers Union.

Martha DeFilippo is one of the Uber and Lyft drivers who helps organize for the Philadelphia Drivers Union in her spare time. DeFilippo, 53, who lives in southern Chester County and has driven for the ride-sharing companies for nearly a year, was making the rounds before the rally began with a clipboard in tow, getting people’s emails and phone numbers like a union organizer would.

She also spent time at Philadelphia International Airport and West Chester University getting the word out about the rally and was surprised to find so many drivers had no idea about the Philadelphia Drivers Union. But she said it hasn’t been a hard sell.

“Who doesn’t want to get more money?” she said.

The demands of the Philadelphia Drivers Union and the Philadelphia Limousine Association include:

  • An 80 percent/20 percent split of gross passenger receipts between the drivers (80) and the ridesharing services (20).
  • A minimum wage of $20 an hour after expenses.
  • Transparency and a voice around deactivations, which happens when drivers are kicked off the platform for low ratings and sometimes unknown factors.

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.