Michael Ryan's Blog

The Cheapest Way to Get Nowhere Good … and Somewhere to Stay When You Get There

Uber and Airbnb are perhaps the best known and most heavily used of the new corporate online business platforms that profit from a whole new form of marginalized labour – the permanent subcontractor.  The two may seem as different as day an night, but what they share tells us what we can expect as this new form of work muscles its way into an increasing number of areas.  As Conor Dougherty and Mike Isaac write in the New York Times, “Companies like Airbnb and Uber have become multibillion-dollar companies by employing a kind of guerrilla growth strategy in which they set up a modest team of workers in a city and immediately start providing their services to the public, whether local laws allow them to or not.”[1]

This disregard for the law has allowed Uber to set up in 250 cities in forty-six countries[2] in a few short years, with 100 of those cities located in the U.S. and Canada.[3] In 2015, it expanded from 160,000 drivers to 450,000 drives in the U.S. alone.[4] With numbers like that, there’s a lot of cash at play.  In November 2015, Dougherty and Isaac placed Uber’s value at $50 billion,[5] but a mere month later, Mike Isaac, this time writing with Leslie Picker, tells us that a new round venture capital investment “will value the company at $62.5 billion.”[6]  Steven Hill, who places Uber’s market value at $51 billion, points out that by comparison Delta Airlines is worth $39 billion, United Airlines $26 billion, and General Motors $52.6 billion.[7]

How does a company that has fewer than 2000 actual employees[8] and virtually no solid infrastructure come out of nowhere to fly into the upper echelons of U.S. corporate capitalism virtually overnight?  If the aforementioned indifference to local laws, regulations and customs is one important part of the answer, an even more important part is the fact that “Low labor costs enable the company to undercut competitors and win business.”[9]  The low labour costs in this case results from the fact that Uber contracts all of its drivers, sparing it the expense of employer contributions to social programmes like unemployment insurance, health care and pension plans, as well as the purchase, upkeep and insuring of the vehicles used.  In fact, Uber goes so far as to assert that its customers are the drivers who use its app, and that by extension the riders are the clients of the drivers, each of whom is “the CEO of his own driving business.”[10]  It ends up that increasingly the drivers demur.

As Berhane Alemayoh, an Uber driver in Dallas, put it, “We started realizing we’re not contractors, we’re more like employees.  They tell us what kind of car to drive.  They kick you out if a customer accused you of not having a clean car.[11]  They started to tighten the rope.  Gradually, we can’t breathe any more.”[12]  It’s difficult to see how you can call Uber drivers CEOs of their own businesses in a situation where a third party, neither the driver nor the rider, in this case Uber, can terminate the drivers contract at will.  It’s axiomatic; if you can fire me, I’m your employee.

Uber also sets the prices, which it changes at will.  For example, in North America, Uber lowered its prices in January 2016 by as much as 20% – even 30% is some cities.[13]  Uber defends the practice:  “(Uber CEO) Mr. (Travis) Kalanick posted a memo onto his Facebook page showing that the previous cuts had increased the average driver’s gross hourly wages from $28 to $37. On Tuesday, (Uber General Manager) Mr. (Josh) Mohrer released numbers indicating that from the three weeks before the last round of cuts to the three weeks after, drivers’ wages went up by 17 percent.”  Drivers counter that Kalanick and Mohrer’s figures fail to address the whole picture:

(A) driver named Mustafa, who declined to give his last name because he feared reprisals from Uber, said he expected to make about $40 an hour after the cuts. But that was before he paid for higher costs of maintenance, gas and washes; for his car lease, insurance and sales and income taxes; for emissions inspections and the 2.5 percent of earnings he gives each year to the Black Car Fund, a drivers’ trade group, for workers’ compensation; and, of course, for his commissions.

He concluded, “When you put it together, the numbers don’t add up.  I’m taking home less than minimum wage.”  To this, Uber driver Abdoul Diallo adds that “Uber’s aggressive hiring has flooded the city with too many drivers chasing too few fares,” going on to say, “People can’t make a living.  They’re picking up $8 fares.  They’re driving their cars into the ground.  Collectively, there’s a lot of money coming in, but no one individual is making much.”[14]  Mohammed Rahman sums it up this way:  “Before, we made little, not much – but enough to feed the family.  But this is really, really bad.”[15]

Along with controlling fares, Uber also determines and imposes its own fees and commission:  “Uber is already taking higher percentages from its drivers’ fares (this number is reported to have gone up from 20% to 30%), while also trying to pass on more costs related to background checks and safety education directly to its drivers (through the so-called safe rides fee).”[16]

On April 12, 2016, Uber driver Thomas Garrett Hewes II, writing on the question-and-answer website Quora, broke down the impact of price cuts and commissions on a typical Uber fare this way:

(U)ber takes a $1.10 rider fee then 20% of the remaining gross from my fares.  Minimum fare $5.25 – 1.10 = $4.15 – 20% = $3.32, that’s it.  I’ve heard some drivers and new drivers here are charged 25% instead of 20%.  The fare reduction is what really hurt. It started at $2.00 initial start at pick up, $1.75 per mile and $.25 per minute.  When they cut it to $1.25 pick up, $1.05 per mile and $.15 per minute my typical runs bottom lined at 50%, YES, HALF of what it was.  My $14.00 net runs turned to $7.00.[17]

Drivers argue that Uber’s strategy is to destroy its competition by slashing prices, which amounts to securing its expansion at the drivers’ expense, and the available data would suggest that they are right.  Writing at Alternet, Evgeny Morozov tells us:

A recent article in The Information, a tech news site, suggests that during the first three quarters of 2015 Uber lost $1.7bn while booking $1.2bn in revenue.  The company has so much money that, in at least some North American locations, it has been offering rides at rates so low that they didn’t even cover the combined cost of fuel and vehicle depreciation. [18]

With investors that include Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Robin Sloan Bechtel of Bechtel Ventures, Napster’s Shawn Fanning, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, and an entire cast of celebrities,[19] as well as corporate investors that include the likes of Goldman Sachs and Microsoft[20] (and this only scratches the surface of this tremendous concentration of personal and corporate wealth), we’re talking about people with lots of money to burn in this industry takeover bid.  Clearly, the strategy is working.  Long-time New York City cab driver Rajko Ljutica observes that “Uber is like a spreading cancer, killing the yellow cab industry and other car services.”[21]

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has gone out of his way to indicate his dreams of monopoly domination and his total lack of concern about either taxi drivers or the hundreds of thousands of drivers working for his corporation.  “He aims to make Uber’s network of drivers – and eventually, he hopes, driverless cars – a logistics platform monopoly on which businesses can send packages, food and other products.  It’s about making ‘car ownership a thing of the past,’ says Kalanick.”[22]  It is in his plan for “driverless cars” that Kalanick shows the degree to which the drivers are a mere steppingstone in his designs for world domination:

The reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car – you’re paying for the other dude in the car.  When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle.  So the magic there is, you basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away.[23]

The disdain and indifference couldn’t get much clearer than that, could it, dude?[24]

In the face of these working conditions, Uber drivers are increasingly turning to traditional labour tactics.  For example when drivers at Dallas’s high-end UberBlack car service received an e-mail from Uber informing them that they had to begin picking riders for UberX, the low-end option, dozens of drivers descended on Uber’s downtown Dallas office.  The drivers, whose vehicles cost upwards of $35,000[25] argued that UberX rates would not cover the costs associated with their car payments, gas, wear and tear, etc.  Following a three-day standoff, Uber folded and created an opt-out policy.[26]

Meanwhile, in February, Tampa drivers responded to an almost 50% rate cut in less than a year, from $1.20 per mile to 65¢, with what is effectively a limited strike.  They began logging out for two peak weekend hours every week.  They didn’t, however, simply logout; in the hope of winning public support, they continued to circulate in the city with messages denouncing their unliveable wages scrawled on the windows of their cars.  A network of some 700 drivers is now involved in the protest.[27]

In New York City, drivers adopted a similar strategy when Uber reduced rates by 15%.  As well as protests held outside Uber’s Long Island office and at La Guardia Airport, many drivers withdrew their services on Super Bowl Sunday, a time when thousands of New Yorkers were looking for transit services.  Participating drivers spread out across the city and ordered Uber rides.  When an Uber driver showed up, they paid the fee and encouraged the driver to join their “strike.”[28]

The claim made by Uber drivers that they are not simply contractors, but are effectively employees being denied their rights has not fallen entirely on deaf ears.  In December 2015, Seattle City Council vote unanimously to approve a bill allowing Uber drivers and drivers for other app-based ride-hailing services to unionize. [29]  As well, class action lawsuits have also been launched to have Uber drivers recognized as employees in a number of states.  On April 21, cases were settled in both California and Massachusetts.  Uber will pay $100 million to settle with drivers in those two states and will make a number of minor concessions, “including giving more information on how and why drivers are barred from using the app, as well as aiding in creating new ‘drivers associations’ in both states.”  On the more important question, however, the drivers lost; in both states, the drivers will continue to be classified as contract workers.[30]

However, a recent ruling of in San Diego puts a dent in Uber’s argument that drivers are not employees.  California’s Employment Development Department was ordered to pay former Uber driver Patrick Ely $9,308 in unemployment benefits, a ruling that is tantamount to declaring Uber drivers employees with the requisite rights.[31]

Obviously, the traditional taxi industry has not greeted Uber with open arms.  In fact, it has declared open war, and often directly targets the drivers.  London offers a poignant example of this conflict.  London cab drivers must pass the gruelling Knowledge test, requiring them to memorize “25,000 streets and 20,000-plus landmarks, including hotels, hospitals, theaters, museums, stadiums, housing estates, schools, universities, parks, pubs, police stations, prisons and places of worship.  It takes, on average, three years to complete – about the same time as a law degree.”  On the other hand, it only takes an Uber driver armed with a GPS three months to be licensed.  The outcome is that the city’s 25,000 black cab drivers – a number that has remained stable for years – now face competition from 92,000 private-hire drivers, 20,000 of them Uber drivers.  Steve McNamara, the general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, who refers to Uber drivers as “cowboys running around clogging up our streets,” tells us that Uber has reduced “traditional cabbies’ earnings by about 10 percent in the daytime and by up to 25 percent at night.”  There can be little doubt that Uber’s ability to undercut its competition at will plays no small role in this decline:  “A recent trip in a black cab from the Waterloo train station to Heathrow Airport cost $102.  The same trip via Uber cost $68.”[32]

Britain’s cab drivers have responded to this encroachment by taking their protest to the streets.  In early February of this year, “taxi drivers brought downtown London to a standstill during a protest against Uber… Thousands of taxi drivers shut down the city’s main streets and the area around Prime Minister David Cameron’s house for 90 minutes.”  They are not alone.  Similar demos have taken place in cities around the world, including Paris, Hong Kong and Miami.[33]

Meanwhile, in Montréal, where I live, Uber has been the source of much tension.  The taxi industry accuses Uber of “engaging in unfair competition, since its drivers do not hold expensive permits required of taxi drivers.  Permits are issued by the Commission des transports du Québec, a provincial body, and sell on the second-hand market for nearly $200,000.”  The expenses don’t stop there:

Drivers for major taxi companies must also pay upward of $500 per month to have a radio that receives calls, insurance, which ranges from $1,500 to $3,000 per year and $1,500 per year for a special taxi licence plate.  They must also pay for two inspections of the car and meter per year, at $60 each.  Twice-yearly mechanical inspections cost $75 each, and training for all taxi drivers costs more than $100 every two years.

For drivers this means a sixty- to seventy-hour workweek just to scrape by. Counter-intuitively, both the city of Montréal and the province of Québec have responded to this crisis by imposing more conditions on cab drivers.  They must now accept credit cards and debit cards and open doors for passengers, and a dress code is in the works, all of which will be enforced with fines.[34]

With approximately 20,000 Montréalers downloading Uber’s app every month, the taxi industry is feeling the pinch.  Drivers interviewed by the Gazette claimed that “their earnings have dropped between 30 and 35 per cent since Uber came to Montreal only two years ago.”  In concrete terms, taxi driver Farhat Dan says that this means, “My gross salary used to be about $35,000 and now it’s about $24,000 or $21,000.”[35]  This anecdotal evidence is supported by hard data.  Jacques Nantel, a marketing professor at the École des hautes études commerciales de Montréal (HEC) tells us that “Uber is taking 10 to 15 per cent of the market.”[36]

Montréal Taxi drivers have used a mix of traditional protest techniques and legal initiatives to address their Uber problem.  In February, taxi drivers engaged in a series of disruptions blocking major downtown streets to deliver their anti-Uber message, and, on at least one occasion, descended on Montréal’s Trudeau Airport.[37]  On February 16, taxi drivers swarmed Uber’s Montréal office, egging the building and even a couple of Uber cars, while one driver used a megaphone to shout, “Uber, this is our friendly warning.”[38]  Most recently, On April 8, hundreds or taxi drivers gathered in the Ville Saint-Laurent neighbourhood of Montréal, before heading downtown in a police-led cavalcade to protest outside the offices of Québec Premier Philippe Couillard.[39]

Parallel to these protests meant to draw public attention, Uber faces a number of legal challenges in Québec.  In February, the Regroupement des travailleurs autonomes-Métallos, a union representing taxi drivers in Montreal, filed an injunction “asking a judge to order Uber to cease operations in the province since its drivers do not hold valid taxi licences,” and then, in March, “filed a request in court … for permission to launch a class-action suit against the upstart mobile ride-hailing application Uber.”  Union representative Benoit Jugand said they would be asking for “tens of millions of dollars” in damages to compensate affected taxi drivers.[40]

Uber drivers are also being directly targeted.  With the tacit support of governmental officials, the Montreal Taxi Bureau has been seizing Uber cars.  When a driver’s car is seized, she or he is fined $500 and must pay $1000 to get the car out of impound.[41]  On February 10, as part of their protest, taxi drivers tracked down Uber drivers and denounced them to the authorities.[42]  Approximately, 1000 vehicles have been seized since Uber set up in Montréal in 2014.  Uber has countered by providing lawyers to challenge the seizures in court.[43]  Clearly, however, in the light of Kalanick’s driverless cars plan, the concern is not the drivers themselves, but Uber’s market share and its ultimate hope of monopolizing the automobile-based transit industry.

At an official level, the wind is not blowing in taxi drivers’ favour.  Former Minister of Transport Robert Poëti considered Uber flat-out illegal, a position put him at odds with Premier Couillard, and on January 28 he was replaced by the more flexible Jacques Daoust, who has said, “I think there’s a consensus that we won’t be able to avoid these technologies, but we’ll have to (regulate) them.  That’s the direction I’m taking, with that perspective in mind.”[44]  In late February, “Germain Belzile from the HEC business school and Vincent Geloso, a PhD student at the London School of Economics, recommended the province open up the market to new technologies and buy back permits from taxi drivers ‘at a reasonable price,’” a position close to that of Montréal Mayor Denis Coderre.[45]

In March, Edmonton became the first Canadian city to legalize ride-sharing companies.  Uber will pay $70,000 per year to operate in the city, pocket change to a corporation valued at between $50 and $65 billion dollars.  Drivers will need commercial insurance, and the city will get 6¢ a trip out of the driver’s end.  Uber drivers will share with taxi drivers the minimum $3.25 per trip, but will not be allowed to pick up street hails or use taxi stands.[46]

The city of Toronto failed in its effort to get an injunction against Uber in 2015.  “(T)he Ontario Superior Court ruled that Uber doesn’t assign rides to drivers, and so it doesn’t meet the definition of a taxi company.  The court ruled Uber is a software networking tool that helps drivers and passengers get in touch with each other.”[47]  In early April, the city of Toronto legalized Uber with certain regulations:  Uber drivers will not require a taxi permit; Uber will pay a $20,000 per year operating fee and an additional $10 per year per driver registered on its platform (again, an amount of money that barely seems to matter in the context); users will pay a 20¢ fee per ride; every Uber car will be inspected annually by a certified garage; drivers will be obliged to hold insurance policies that cover $2,000,000 in cases of injury, death or property damage; Uber drivers cannot pick up street hails or use taxi stands; wheelchair accessible cars must be available within the same time delay as other Uber cars.  In the case of taxi drivers, lower fairs will be negotiable in some circumstances, low-pollution vehicles and winter tries will no longer be mandatory, and driver training will be made optional.

It seems inevitable that with its deep pockets and the tendency at a state level to regulate rather than ban ride-sharing companies, Uber will prevail in what amounts to an aggressive neoliberal assault on the taxi industry.  What, however, is largely overlooked in this debate is that to do so, Uber is advancing its winner-take-all ideology by pitting two groups of marginalized labour against each other – its own massively exploited contract workers vs. taxi drivers scuffling to get by.  While Uber drivers struggle make ends meet by undercutting taxi drivers and taxi drivers and their union directly target Uber drivers for retribution, the corporate behemoth compromises when necessary, parries in the courts and continues to grow, seemingly unstoppably, dreaming of the day when its driverless cars will make the whole debate irrelevant.

Uber, however, is not an end in itself; it’s more of a test case for a particular form of renegade capitalism.  In late October 2015, a group of tech billionaires, including Uber investors Jeff Bezos and Garrett Camp and eBay founder and now owner of PayPal Pierre Omidyar, turned their attention to deregulating yet another established industry, trucking.  With a start-up, they call Convoy, their goal is “doing to the trucking industry what Uber has done for taxis.”[48]  Their initial investors are a veritable who’s who of neoliberal capitalism:  “billionaires Marc Benioff, Drew Houston, Henry Kravis; former Starbucks CEO Howard Behar; angel investors Ali and Hadi Partovi; Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi; and the secretive investment bank Allen & Co, which hosts the annual Sun Valley billionaires’ retreat, and which features ex-CIA chief George Tenet as managing director.”  In the case of Bezos and Omidyar, in particular, this amounts to extending what is essentially a scorched earth economic strategy.  Bezos’s Amazon laid to waste much of the bookstore and publishing industry, before moving on to consumer durables in general, while Omidyar’s eBay effectively squashed the classified ad industry, depriving newspapers in general, and smaller community newspapers in particular, of much-needed income.  It would not be unreasonable to suggest that this group of online plutocrats dream of Uberizing the consumer economy overall.


Airbnb has effectively done to the hotel industry what Uber is doing to the taxi industry, and again we find among the investors a mix of financial corporations, celebrities, including Ashton Kutcher, and tech billionaires, with a couple of familiar names popping up, including the ubiquitous Jeff Bezos and Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman.[49]  Like Uber, Airbnb has expanded at a dizzying rate since it was founded in 2008.  Currently valued at $24 billion – more that Marriott International – it is established in 34,000 cities and has housed more than 60 million people.[50]

A recent study shows that in a one-year period in New York City alone Airbnb reduced hotel industry revenues by close to a half a billion dollars.  When the impact on ancillary industries, such as food and beverage and construction, is factored in, the total loss to business during that period is an estimated $2.1 billion, costing the local, state and federal governments $226 million in taxes and leading to the elimination of 2800 jobs. [51]  This is the result of Airbnb providing the equivalent of 2.9 million room nights, most of which would otherwise have gone to the hotel industry at an estimated $157 per night.  At its current rate of growth, it is estimated that Airbnb will double its room-revenue by 2018.[52]

Just as is the case with Uber, Airbnb attempts to sidestep any legal obligation by minimizing its role, arguing that “they operate in so many places they cannot possibly get into the specifics of local policy; they are merely private businesses offering services to consumers. So it is up to … cities to devise their own regulations, and up to users to follow them,” and it’s up to Airbnb to … well … do nothing but make money.[53]

Airbnb’s Pontius Pilate approach to its business also opens the way for a variety of abuses that were they to occur in the hotel industry would be legally actionable.  For example, “A survey of more than 6,000 hosts in five US cities concluded that names that sounded African-American were about 16% less likely to get a positive response to a request for a room when compared against white-sounding names.”  The study conducted in Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, St Louis and Washington DC found that with “white-sounding names like Todd and Allison, there was a 50% success rate for a positive response,” while “with the black-sounding names – such as Darnell and Tamika – that figure dropped to 42%.”  When the results of this study are compared to similar studies, we see an overall opening for racism that will be difficult to regulate with app-driven and online businesses.  For example, a study of Craigslist found that “buyers were less likely to respond to an advert selling an iPod if the accompanying picture showed the device being held by a black hand rather than white.”[54]

It ends up that Airbnb’s MO also opens the way to violations of international law.  Case in point:  “the Airbnb website turns up dozens of cheap rooms and homes with pastoral views and many just a short drive from Jerusalem”[55] – a short drive from an illegal Israeli West Bank settlements, it ends up.  Some of these listings even take the extra step of disingenuously (or ideologically) referring to the location of these Airbnb listings as “Israel.”  Most international law experts agree that any West Bank listing “facilitates the commission of a crime” – “profiting off illegal settlements.”[56]  When PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat wrote the Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky accusing the company of “effectively promoting the illegal Israeli colonization of occupied land,” Airbnb countered in a statement to the Associated Press that it “follows law and regulations where it can do business”[57] – except for that one teeny weeny international law, apparently.

Unsurprisingly, the racism found in the U.S. vis-à-vis “black-sounding names” is replicated in this situation with “Arab-sounding” names.  John Brown of +972 Blog reports:  “In order to test the theory, we created an online persona of an American citizen of Palestinian descent who wanted to come to visit and enjoy the quieter and cheaper option of staying in an Israeli settlement.”  Most potential hosts simply declined, although some were honest enough to say they would not rent to a person of Palestinian descent.  The one host willing to rent to Haled, a lister in Tekoa, said that Haled “would have to undergo a special security check at the entrance to the settlement.”[58]

In January, Airbnb took a “money talks” argument to the U.S. Mayors Conference.  Company representative, and former White House advisor, Chris Lehane called on the mayors to team up with Airbnb; in exchange Airbnb would begin to collect taxes.  While, “It now collects hotel, tourist and occupancy taxes, totaling around $42 million, in 16 cities and jurisdictions,” Lehane claimed, in the form of a sort of legalized bribery, that if the “50 biggest American cities teamed up with Airbnb, that number would rise to $200 million a year in taxes.”  Katherine Lugar, president of the hotel association, countered Airbnb’s offensive by presenting a study that shows “a tremendous growth of commercial operators who are exploiting sites like Airbnb to avoid paying taxes, following zoning rules and following basic laws for health and safety.”[59]

Although a number of cities throughout the world have passed laws to limit Airbnb operations, they have been of limited success.  Airbnb has done what it can to prevent effective policing of its operations.  One major barrier is the fact that “Listings on home-sharing platforms do not reveal specific names and addresses, and identifying and building cases against violators would involve considerable time and money.”  Indeed the only way to uncover violators would be to systematically contact and then visit each lister individually.  Airbnb refuses to cooperate and provide the information that would facilitate the process, arguing that “turning over such information would violate their users’ privacy.”  As touching as Airbnb’s alleged interest in people’s human rights (except in the West Bank, apparently) may be, when you consider that 40% of Airbnb’s revenue nationwide in the U.S. comes from “multiple-unit” operators (black-market hoteliers, essentially) – a practice that is illegal in almost every city that Airbnb operates in – you might begin to suspect that other more pecuniary interests are at play.  An American Hospitality and Lodging Association report released in January indicates, for example, that in San Francisco alone, $105 million of the $194 million the company made over the course of a year came from rentals occurring in 1884 illegal units.[60]

A study published in New York City in February indicates that Airbnb is also willing to out-and-out lie when it suits its interests.  When, on December 1, 2015, Airbnb turned over data of a “snapshot day” in New York City – November 17, 2015, being the chosen day – it provided consciously falsified data.  In the period leading up to November 17, it purged 1000 Entire Home listing, then claimed that only 10% of that category of listings belonged to multiple-unit listers.  Prior to the purge, the number had been 19%, and two months after the purge, the number had already returned to 13%.  Even during its purge, Airbnb did not kick commercial listers off its site altogether; instead, with a few exceptions, it just temporarily reduced them to one listing to obscure the reality at play. When, following the purge, Airbnb asserted that that “95% of our entire home hosts share only one listing,” it was, in fact, making a statement that was only true for two weeks in 2015. It is also worth noting that no similar purge took place in any other North American city[61] or anywhere else in the world where Airbnb operates.[62]  The fact of the matter is that these temporarily purged commercial multiple listers account for 41% of Airbnb’s New York City revenue.[63]  New York City is not an anomaly in this regard; in fact, it’s not even the worst example of the phenomenon:  “multi-hosts in Los Angeles have a share of the market that is twice as large as in New York City … and … in Miami they make up the majority of listings.”[64]

The authors’ conclusion:  “Airbnb’s data releases are part of a deliberate PR and lobbying strategy, intended to influence local governments, the media, and the broader public debate.”  To which they add:  “The Airbnb platform makes it easy for hosts to break the law.  Airbnb could choose to institute relatively simple in-platform compliance to city laws, but instead makes money from hosts who break the law, only expel them when their presence is a nuisance to the company.”[65]


Neither Uber nor Airbnb should be looked at as a stand-alone business model, nor should they be looked at as aberrations.  They are simply the most visible and contested examples of a new neoliberal business model that is gradually displacing work as we know it.  It is a model, which, in its general contours, reaches back to early online platforms like Amazon and eBay, and includes companies like Fiverr, TaskRabbit, Getaround, Turo, Parkatmyhouse, Simplist, Rentstuff, Zirtual, Skillshare, DogVacancy, Exec, WunWun, Postmates, FancyHands, Pro.com and on and on, growing constantly.  You might be bike courier, or perhaps you’ll be doing someone else’s googling, maybe you’ll be scrubbing their toilet, or renting them you parking space, or taking care of their dog, or picking up their takeout, or doing their filing, or tutoring their kid…  Whatever it is you end up doing, you’ll be undercutting a established industry and competing with other freelancers to drive the cost of labour down – hell, if you’re working for TaskRabbit, for example, you might be competing with some eleven-year-old to mow some suburbanite’s lawn.

This goes beyond the neoliberal dream of labour as an unregulated commodity sold at the minimum the market will bear.  Take, for example, the people using the Uber of Airbnb platforms.  They aren’t paid in any way shape or form by the companies; to the contrary, they provide a service using their own means and at their own expense, and for the privilege of using an app-based platform to do so, they kick back a not insubstantial fee.  In the case of Uber, this comes with the added affront of users not even choosing the price they charge, but instead having it imposed by a corporation that has not even bothered to conceal its indifference to the wellbeing of the people whose labour power it exploits or the welfare of the thousands of people it pushes into marginality as it guts an established industry.

This app-based industry is a major contributor to the much debated “income gap,” with it 1% and its 0.1%.  At one end, this app-based industry represents an increasing concentration of capital in a small number of hands, while, at the other end, you have a growing number of contract workers underbidding each other in a frenzied race to the bottom.  First desperate contractors play their essential role in undermining an established industry and the more-or-less secure employment it provides (pushing more people into the already highly competitive app-based industry, further deflating what any single worker can hope to make).  If the Bezos and Omidyars of the world have their way, the end result will be a nihilist Randian utopia where, as Margaret Thatcher once put it, “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”[66]  It is a society in which we will fight each other for bare survival doing intermittent work whenever there isn’t someone willing to underbid us; and in the dreams of the likes of Travis Kalanick, it is a world where we will all eventually be replaced by a button.  Oh well, at least those of us with a little cash left will be able to get a cheap cab ride and a bed in black market hotel that used to be somebody’s house.

[1] Conor Dougherty and Mike Isaac, “Airbnb and Uber Mobilize Vast User Base to Sway Policy,” New York Times (November 4, 2015), accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/05/technology/airbnb-and-uber-mobilize-vast-user-base-to-sway-policy.html?emc=edit_th_20151105&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=0

[2] Steven Hill, “The Ticking Time Bomb of Uber,” Truthout (December 24, 2015), accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/34167-the-ticking-time-bomb-of-uber; Others place the number of cities where Uber has established itself at more than 300, see:  Dougherty and Isaac, “Airbnb and Uber Mobilize Vast User Base to Sway Policy,” accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/05/technology/airbnb-and-uber-mobilize-vast-user-base-to-sway-policy.html?emc=edit_th_20151105&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=0

[3] Olivia Lowenberg, “Why Uber rides are getting cheaper,” Christian Science Monitor, (January 11, 2016), accessed at:http://www.csmonitor.com/layout/set/print/Business/2016/0111/Why-Uber-rides-are-getting-cheaper[4] Mike Isaac and Noam Scheiber, “Uber Settles Cases With Concessions, but Drivers Stay Freelancers”, New York Times (April 21, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/22/technology/uber-settles-cases-with-concessions-but-drivers-stay-freelancers.html?emc=edit_th_20160422&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733

[5] Dougherty and Isaac, “Airbnb and Uber Mobilize Vast User Base to Sway Policy,” accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/05/technology/airbnb-and-uber-mobilize-vast-user-base-to-sway-policy.html?emc=edit_th_20151105&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=0

[6] Mike Isaac and Leslie Picker, “Uber Valuation Put at $62.5 Billion After a New Investment Round,” New York Times (December 3, 2014), accessed at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/04/business/dealbook/uber-nears-investment-at-a-62-5-billion-valuation.html?emc=edit_th_20151204&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=0

[7] Hill, “The Ticking Time Bomb of Uber,” accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/34167-the-ticking-time-bomb-of-uber

[8] Christine Lagorio-Chafkin, “How Uber Is Going To Hire 1,000 People This Year,” Wire (Janaury 15, 2014), accessed at:  http://www.inc.com/christine-lagorio/how-uber-hires.html

[9] David Dayan, “Is the Uber Bubble About to Pop?” Alternet (November 3, 2015), accessed at:http://www.alternet.org/print/labor/uber-bubble-about-pop

[10] Hill, “The Ticking Time Bomb of Uber,” accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/34167-the-ticking-time-bomb-of-uber

[11] Uber drivers are required maintain a minimum 4.6 out of 5-star rating to avoid being “deactivated” – the very term chosen indicates the level of dehumanization that Uber has constructed into its relationship with its drivers.

[12] Noam Scheiber, “Uber Drivers and Others in the Gig Economy Take a Stand,” New York Times (February 2, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/03/business/uber-drivers-and-others-in-the-gig-economy-take-a-stand.html?emc=edit_th_20160203&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=0

[13] Lowenberg, “Why Uber rides are getting cheaper,” http://www.csmonitor.com/layout/set/print/Business/2016/0111/Why-Uber-rides-are-getting-cheaper

[14] Alan Feuer, “Uber Drivers Up Against the App,” New York Times (February 19, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/nyregion/uber-drivers-up-against-the-app.html?emc=edit_th_20160221&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733

[15] Verena Dobnik, “Uber drivers in NYC protest company’s fare cut,” Montreal Gazette (January 31, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.montrealgazette.com/business/uber+drivers+protest+companys+fare/11690239/story.html

[16] Evgeny Morozov, “Looking for a Cheap Car Ride? Then You Missed Uber’s True Cost,” Alternet (January 31, 2016), accessed at:http://www.alternet.org/print/labor/looking-cheap-car-ride-then-you-missed-ubers-true-cost

[17] Quora, accessed at:  https://www.quora.com/How-much-commission-are-Uber-and-Lyft-taking-from-drivers

[18] Morozov, “Looking for a Cheap Car Ride?” accessed at:http://www.alternet.org/print/labor/looking-cheap-car-ride-then-you-missed-ubers-true-cost[19] Biz Carson, “These 12 surprising investors in Uber are poised to get even richer,” Business Insider (July 5, 2015), accessed at:  http://www.businessinsider.com/uber-surprising-investors-2015-7

[20] Crunch Base, accessed at:  https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/uber/investors

[21] Dobnik, “Uber drivers in NYC protest company’s fare cut,” accessed at:  http://www.montrealgazette.com/business/uber+drivers+protest+companys+fare/11690239/story.html

[22] Hill, “The Ticking Time Bomb of Uber,” accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/34167-the-ticking-time-bomb-of-uber[23] Casey Newton, “Uber will eventually replace all its drivers with self-driving cars,” The Verge (May 28, 2014), accessed at:  http://www.theverge.com/2014/5/28/5758734/uber-will-eventually-replace-all-its-drivers-with-self-driving-cars

[24] None of this is surprising once you know that Kalanick “once chose the cover of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as his Twitter profile picture,” see:  Hill, “The Ticking Time Bomb of Uber,” accessed at:http://www.truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/34167-the-ticking-time-bomb-of-uber

[25] Many drivers found themselves obliged to purchase new vehicles in 2014, when Uber “decreed that drivers with cars made before 2008 would no longer be able to participate in UberBlack.”

[26] Scheiber, “Uber Drivers and Others in the Gig Economy Take a Stand,” accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/03/business/uber-drivers-and-others-in-the-gig-economy-take-a-stand.html?emc=edit_th_20160203&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=0

[27] Scheiber, “Uber Drivers and Others in the Gig Economy Take a Stand,” accessed at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/03/business/uber-drivers-and-others-in-the-gig-economy-take-a-stand.html?emc=edit_th_20160203&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=0

[28] Feuer, “Uber Drivers Up Against the App,” accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/nyregion/uber-drivers-up-against-the-app.html?emc=edit_th_20160221&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733

[29] Nick Wingfield, “Seattle Will Allow Uber and Lyft Drivers to Form Unions,” New York Times (December 14, 2015), accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/15/technology/seattle-clears-the-way-for-uber-drivers-to-form-a-union.html?emc=edit_th_20151215&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733

[30] Isaac and Noam Scheiber, “Uber Settles Cases With Concessions, but Drivers Stay Freelancers”, accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/22/technology/uber-settles-cases-with-concessions-but-drivers-stay-freelancers.html?emc=edit_th_20160422&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733

[31] Michael Arria, “Uber Faces Bitter Fight Against Unionization,” Alternet (March 8, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.alternet.org/labor/uber-starting-get-its-clock-cleaned-its-bitter-fight-against-unionization?akid=14046.7338.mbV_Gp&rd=1&src=newsletter1052260&t=26

[32] Karla Adams, “The rise of Uber means less love for London’s traditional black cabs,” Washington Post (December 31, 2015), accessed at:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/the-rise-of-uber-means-less-love-for-londons-iconic-black-cabs/2015/12/31/4b6bdf9c-a815-11e5-b596-113f59ee069a_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_headlines

[33] “London:  Thousands of Taxi Drivers Stall Traffic in Uber Protest,” Democracy Now! (February 11, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.democracynow.org/2016/2/11/headlines/london_thousands_of_taxi_drivers_stall_traffic_in_uber_protest?utm_source=Democracy+Now%21&utm_campaign=92a3623f84-Daily_Digest&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_fa2346a853-92a3623f84-191727937

[34] Jason Magder, “Who won 2015? Uber or taxis?” Montreal Gazette (December 30, 2015), accessed at:  http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/montreal-gazette-reporter-jason-magder-uber-vs-taxi-in-2015

[35] Katherine Wilton, “Taxi drivers seek court injunction to shut down Uber,” Montreal Gazette (January 31, 2016), accessed at:http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/taxi-drivers-seek-court-injunction-to-shut-down-rival-uber

[36] Andy Riga, “Uber uproar: The rage in Montreal and the strategies elsewhere,” Montreal Gazette (February 15, 2016), accessed at:  http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/uber-uproar-the-rage-in-montreal-and-the-strategies-elsewhere[37] “Montreal taxi drivers ‘occupy’ downtown in UberX protest,” CBC News (February 17, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/montreal-taxi-protest-1.3451174[38] Kevin Mio, “‘This is our first friendly warning’: Montreal taxi drivers egg Uber cars and offices,” National Post (February 18, 2016), accessed at:  http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/this-is-our-first-friendly-warning-montreal-taxi-drivers-egg-uber-cars-and-offices

[39] Jesse Feith, “Montreal taxi drivers protest, say they won’t ‘sit and wait’ for new laws on Uber,” Montreal Gazette (April 8, 2016), accessed at:  http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/quebec-taxi-limo-drivers-plan-anti-uber-protests-friday

[40] Jason Magder, “Taxi union files class-action request against Uber,” Montreal Gazette (March 11, 2016), accessed at:http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/taxi-union-files-class-action-request-against-uber

[41] Magder, “Who won 2015?” accessed at:  http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/montreal-gazette-reporter-jason-magder-uber-vs-taxi-in-2015

[42] Wilton, “Taxi drivers seek court injunction to shut down Uber,” accessed at:http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/taxi-drivers-seek-court-injunction-to-shut-down-rival-uber

[43] Magder, “Taxi union files class-action request against Uber,” accessed at:http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/taxi-union-files-class-action-request-against-uber

[44] Caroline Plante, “Taxi drivers, Uber summoned to National Assembly for special hearings,” Montreal Gazette (February 3, 2016), accessed at:http://montrealgazette.com/news/quebec/taxi-drivers-uber-summoned-to-national-assembly-for-special-hearings

[45] Caroline Plante, “Compensate taxi drivers if permits are abolished, Coderre tells National Assembly hearings,” Montreal Gazette (February 24, 2016), accessed at:  http://montrealgazette.com/news/quebec/compensate-taxi-drivers-if-permits-are-abolished-coderre-tells-national-assembly-hearings

[46] Andy Riga, “Uber uproar: The rage in Montreal and the strategies elsewhere,” Montreal Gazette (February 15, 2016), accessed at:  http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/uber-uproar-the-rage-in-montreal-and-the-strategies-elsewhere

[47] Jason Madger, “Montreal taxi drivers seek injunction against Uber,” Montreal Gazette (February 2, 2016), accessed at:http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/montreal-taxi-drivers-file-injunction-against-uber

[48] Mark Ames, “With ‘Convoy’ tech billionaires build another castle at another narrow in the stream,” Pando (November 4, 2015), accessed at:  https://pando.com/2015/11/04/convoy-tech-billionaires-build-another-castle-another-narrow-stream/365973ab88e3670880be85257f63a0f3ea83f04a/

[49] Crunch Base, accessed at:  https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/airbnb/investors

[50] Dougherty and Isaac, “Airbnb and Uber Mobilize Vast User Base to Sway Policy,” accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/05/technology/airbnb-and-uber-mobilize-vast-user-base-to-sway-policy.html?emc=edit_th_20151105&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=0

[51] HVS Consulting & Valuation, Airbnb and Impacts on the New York City Lodging Market and Economy (October 13, 2015), 2; New study confirms Airbnb’s negative impact on the hotel industry, Hotelmarketing.com (November 2, 2015), 2,3,5,24.

[52] HVS Consulting & Valuation, Airbnb and Impacts on the New York City Lodging Market and Economy, 5-6.

[53] Rob Walker, “Airbnb Pits Neighbor Against Neighbor in Tourist-Friendly New Orleans,” New York Times (March 5, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/news/14959998-123/bill-before-legislature-would-extend-hotel-taxes-to-short-term-rentals-bbs

[54] Dave Lee, “AirBnB racism claim:  African-Americans ‘less likely to get rooms’,” BBC News (December 12, 2015), accessed at:  http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-35077448

[55] John Brown, “Airbnb lets you vacation in illegal West Bank settlements,” +972 Blog (January 7, 2016), accessed at:http://972mag.com/airbnb-lets-you-vacation-in-illegal-west-bank-settlements/115666/

[56] Adam Johnson, “Airbnb in Hot Water Over Illegal Israeli Settlement Listings,” Alternet (January 13, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/airbnb-hot-water-over-illegal-israeli-settlement-listings?akid=13880.7338.UhNYt2&rd=1&src=newsletter1048857&t=24

[57] William Booth, “Airbnb slammed for offering rooms with a view in Jewish settlements,” Washington Post (February 1, 2016), accessed at:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/airbnb-slammed-for-offering-rooms-with-a-view-in-jewish-settlements/2016/02/01/fd1717ac-c39f-11e5-b933-31c93021392a_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_headlines

[58] Brown, “Airbnb lets you vacation in illegal West Bank settlements,” accessed at:http://972mag.com/airbnb-lets-you-vacation-in-illegal-west-bank-settlements/115666/

[59] Cecila Kang, “Airbnb Takes Its Case to U.S. Mayors Conference,” New York Times (January 21, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/technology/airbnb-takes-its-case-to-us-mayors-conference.html?emc=edit_th_20160122&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=73364733&_r=0[60] Tim Redmond, “Airbnb makes half its SF money with illegal listings,” 48hills (January 20, 2016), accessed at:  http://www.48hills.org/2016/01/20/airbnb-makes-half-sf-money-illegal-listings/

[61] Murray Cox and Tom Slee, “How Airbnb’s data hid the facts in New York City,” Inside Airbnb (February 10, 2016), 3-4.

[62] Cox and Slee, “How Airbnb’s data hid the facts in New York City,” 9.

[63] Cox and Slee, “How Airbnb’s data hid the facts in New York City,” 4.

[64] Cox and Slee, “How Airbnb’s data hid the facts in New York City,” 8-9.

[65] Cox and Slee, “How Airbnb’s data hid the facts in New York City,” 12-13.[66] Epitaph for the eighties? “there is no such thing as society,” Sunday Times, accessed at:  http://briandeer.com/social/thatcher-society.htm

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