Saba Waheed: From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, we bring you Re:work. I’m Saba Waheed
Veena Hampapur: And I’m Veena Hampapur. Ten years ago, I could not imagine jumping into a stranger’s car and driving across town with them. You basically needed to own a car or you could ride the bus. But now ridehailing companies like Uber and Lyft have completely changed how we get around.
Saba Waheed: When you open up that app, you see a driver’s picture, the car’s model and a license plate number. But what do you really know about that person on the other side of that phone? What brought them to the work? What’s it like to drive?
Veena Hampapur: On today’s episode of Re:Work, Alexandra Carbone takes us on a journey that led her to drive for Uber and Lyft.
Saba Waheed: Alex grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. It’s like the preppy capital of the world. It’s not a normal place, it’s Ivy league.
Alexandra Carbone: I grew up around a lot of privilege and I always had one foot in kind of both worlds. My dad’s an artist. While I was growing up, he ran a ceramic studio on an army base in Bayonne. So I was between Princeton and the Bayonne army base.
My parents had a pretty horrible divorce and saw them fighting a lot and making these categorical statements like, “I never did the dishes, your mother always did the I had to do all the housework, your mother never did any of it.” And her saying the exact opposite and being seven and being like, “How can you not remember who did the dishes?” It just made me really question what even is true? How can people believe what’s not true? All these questions of epistemology and psychology. It was just very, it was right there for me to be curious about.
Saba Waheed: As she grew older and went off to college, that thoughtfulness and curiosity led her into the field of philosophy.
Alexandra Carbone: All the stuff that I learned with my philosophy professor, Professor [Koslin], had a huge impact on me about ethics. I was more in my inner world and so I think trying to understand people’s motivations. Aristotle and Plato, I still think about that basically any time I have to make a decision. Just like Nietzsche, the master morality, slave morality. It just gives me these frameworks to understand where people are coming from. Like blueprints, myths almost.
Veena Hampapur: Alex loved philosophy but after graduating she wanted to tap into another side of herself.
Alexandra Carbone: I finished college, but I was kind of sad that had been so academic, I was like, “I should go back to art school,” and I got into a few art schools and at the same time I got offered this job to paint signs, so I was like, “Wow, okay. Well, I guess I’ll just paint the signs and get paid to do art instead of going into debt to do art.” I painted signs at this really awesome place called Zingerman’s.”This is our monthly coffee that’s going to be on special, try this olive oil.” I was like, “You’re paying me to listen to music and paint all day? How is this real?” Like, “Is this real life?” So it was great.
Veena Hampapur: But then in 2007, Alex had to leave that job. Her husband who had just graduated from law school had landed a one-year clerkship with a federal judge in Puerto Rico.
Alexandra Carbone: I was like, “Cool, my husband’s a lawyer. We’re going to be making six figures. My life’s going to be awesome.” He was interviewing after his clerkship was over for all these positions, he got interviewed the day the DOW dropped.
Archival footage: This is one of the worst hit days in financial markets history. It was a manic monday in the financial markets. The DOW tumbled more than 500 points after two pillars of the Street tumbled over the weekend.
Alexandra Carbone: It was like a bloodbath. Then all these people who interviewed him weren’t even there. And he had a recruiter who eventually told him,”Sorry, there’s just no jobs right now for someone with one year of experience.”
Saba Waheed: The recession hit them hard and one year in Puerto Rico turned into four. They couldn’t find a way back into the job market.
Alexandra Carbone: Everyone’s sort of moving down. If you had one year of experience, you were trying to do an unpaid internship just to keep your foot in the door in the law department. We couldn’t really do that. We had two kids, we were in Puerto Rico. Yeah, so that’s when things got financially really bad and really hard and just like credit cards, creditors. I hadn’t been worried about money because I was like, “Whatever, it’s just this year and then I’ll be fine.” We were kind of in debt, but it was something that was going to be solved at the first thing, and then it was like boom, “Sorry, I can’t pay any of this back, and I’m poor, and I had to move in with my mother-in-law.”
Veena Hampapur: During the recession, stable work became scarce and many people had to hustle to make ends meet. This was also the time that ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft came onto the market. Alex and her husband did what they could to sustain themselves.
Alexandra Carbone: He was an adjunct professor at the time, working in four different schools, hustling to get his classes filled, and we couldn’t even pay rent. That’s when I was just like, “Wow, this is really messed up. I guess I had known people who didn’t have a lot of money, but I didn’t understand it until living through it.
We’re still honestly coming out of that, 10 years later. Things are kind of just starting to turn around.
Saba Waheed: Alex and her family moved to San Diego to live with her mother. Neither one of them had a job.
Alexandra Carbone: It wasn’t easy. I was coming off of having a baby and living in Puerto Rico and my husband was coming off of being an adjunct law professor, and our kids were really young. There was one time with my daughter, she’s just kind of being silly, a little bit of a tired toddler mode, and so she threw her pillow down, she tried to jump on it and she landed on her chin. I just remember her being so scared, there being so much blood and just wanting to take care of her. My husband and I were kind of freaking out. He was like, “She needs stitches. What are we going to do? We can’t afford to go to the emergency room. We don’t have $500.” That’s a ridiculous situation to put parents in or put anybody in.”
Veena Hampapur: Even as the economy started to rebound from the recession, many people were forced to take on lower wage work. Despite having a college degree and previous work experience, it was challenging for Alex to find a job.
Alexandra Carbone: So I really was going to the unemployment centers and working the program. They had all these workshops you had to get through and then they’d help you find jobs.
Saba Waheed: She finally found a job making signs for a food retailer in La Jolla. The company had a focus on healthy foods and it reminded her of her time working for Zingerman’s.
Alexandra Carbone: When I first went there, I was so into it. I was like, conscious capitalism. Yeah, this is just like Zingerman’s and you can be a job creator and do it ethically. We’re having such a great impact on the food system. I was a true believer for a while, and it felt so good to be working and making money finally.
Veena Hampapur: With her new job, Alex and her family were able to move into their own apartment. Eventually, she transferred to Los Angeles where discovered urban gardening. I was like, “I want there to be a farm. It’s going to be so cool. I would love to be the one who does that.” And then I realized I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to grow. So I started actually an internship and I had a cool boss. She was letting me come in, adjust my hours so that I could work around it.
Saba Waheed: Alex’s role as a sign maker was unique and she often had access to the corporate side of the store. She started to notice things.
Alexandra Carbone: They were starting to hire more and more part timers. They were adjusting their percentage so there’d be more part-timers and less full-timers. I was noticing that the benefits were getting worse every year. And I was noticing that they really didn’t want people to be in a union, and they had this whole thing in the team leader meeting about what to do if you’re approached by someone who wants to be in a union and it’s like don’t even touch the paper. Don’t touch it. Let them drop it on the floor.
Veena Hampapur: The changes disturbed Alex. This was not the conscious capitalism she had envisioned. Pretty soon, the company started to lay off workers.
Alexandra Carbone: I felt like my head was on a chopping block and this was probably the best deal I was going to get, was to get a severance and get out of there, so I left. I got really depressed. I watched Pride and Prejudice for like a month. All the different versions. I felt really bad that I didn’t try to unionize because that’s what needed to happen. They would have been able to gain a foothold in the good parts of that company where they really did try to take care of people and be decent. I was like, “The ethical thing to do would have been to use my privilege and my education and my intelligence to spread the word and get this out to people and figure it out.”
Saba Waheed: Alex finished her internship at a Pasadena farm and started to volunteer at a school garden. She had found her passion, but it didn’t cover the bills. She still needed to find work.
Alexandra Carbone: And my husband was driving. He did Instacart for a while, then he did Uber and Lyft. He got me in on that.
For Lyft, it was a huge bonus, I had to get 1000 rides in 90 days, which is working full-time, I would get a $5000 bonus so that was like amazing. We saw that, and we were like, “Okay, you’ve got to do this.”
Veena Hampapur: The bonuses were good, and so were certain aspects of the job.
Alexandra Carbone: The things that are good about it are actually good about it. You can drive whenever you want to, that’s cool. You get to meet a lot of different people, that’s fun. You get to see the place that you live in. You get to know it really well. I know all the neighborhoods really well, and I talk to people who’ve lived here a long time, but they really only know their neighborhood. I was talking to somebody who was trying to write a TV show and he was talking about his character who lives in LA, and I was like, “Okay, but what kind of LA. Where does this person live? What neighborhood? Are they like Santa Monica, are they like Highland Park?” They just sort of looked at me blankly like, “I don’t really know what that means,” and he’d been here for like ever. But I knew because I’ve been driving.
I could do my gardening and drive and I could pursue all these interests and do freelance, and if I didn’t have a freelance project come through I could make up that money driving. You know, so that’s really good and it’s even kind of addictive because I drove all kinds of people around. I drove boring people around. I drove celebrities around, I drove drug dealers around, I drove prostitutes around, I drove Republicans around.
Saba Waheed: Pretty soon, both Alex and her husband were driving full time.
Alexandra Carbone: It was our main source of income for two years we were both basically driving full time, and we tried different ways to work it. So at one point it got kind of crazy with one car trying to get the kids to their schools and everything. Four people, one car, and that was the source of income. So I rented a car for a little bit and that was really stressful because it was like I had to get 85 rides a week, which you can figure each ride takes about a half hour. It was, I think 250 bucks a week for that car and I was taking home maybe 700. So that’s not a lot of money per week to be working full time to take home. You could just feel yourself getting deeper and deeper in debt and harder and harder to pay things. They kept cutting the rates. I probably wasn’t making minimum wage, even though it felt like I was because there’s all this money churning and they keep making it worse.
And every time they make it worse, they say that it’s going to be better for you. That’s if you don’t get into an accident, that’s if your car doesn’t break down and then you don’t have any way to earn money while it gets fixed or you don’t have any money saved up to pay for it to be fixed. There’s no security to it. And you don’t have insurance when you don’t have the app on, so I was pretty unclear about how covered I was, so that was really scary. I was trying to always keep the app on. My car has 150,000 miles on it right now and I still have like $9000 to pay on it. I just found out I have $2000 of repairs I have to do it. We basically just burned through that car and don’t have a lot to show for it.
All the time we were driving, and we have cheap rent for LA, we would still bottom out. I had rides where I had a dollar in my pocket and I needed to buy gas and I was really hungry and I was going out for my shift and I was like good thing I’m in Compton so I can go down to this little shop and buy a concha and a coffee for a dollar. That’ll get me through till hopefully I’ll end up with some money at the end of the day.
Saba Waheed: People use their personal cars and the trust system is built through the app, it’s largely up to drivers to manage their own safety.
Alexandra Carbone: There’s also a lot of pressure about when and where to drive – the more lucrative times are often the unsafe ones. You lose money when there’s traffic because you’re sitting in it and you get paid per mile. You get paid per minute too, but it’s a really low rate. 2:00 AM you can make it from downtown to Beverly Hills in 20 minutes and get a decent payout for it. I would do the night shift a lot too because of the surge. Then actually at some point they divorced the surge from even what they’re paying people, so now when there’s a surge the driver isn’t necessarily seeing that. They’re seeing a small percentage of that.
It’s funny, a lot of tough guys would be like, “You know, your husband lets you do this? Do you carry a knife?” They ask me stuff like that. “Do you carry mace, do you carry pepper spray?” I never did, and actually you’re not supposed to carry a weapon. I did have a couple situations where men would hit on me. My tactic was to find some way to dispel it before it went down that road. Sometimes I would say I was married. That would be a pretty blunt force way to do it. I also started dressing different too. I was like, “Okay, even though it’s more comfortable, I’m definitely not doing this in a skirt.”
This one point I was wearing a tank top. It was not super late at night, but maybe nine o’clock, 10 o’clock, and I picked up some guys from a bar, like a car full of guys. The guy immediately grabbed like, “Oh, I love this song.” And he put the volume up. That was immediately a red flag. You don’t just go in someone’s car and touch it, he’s crossing boundaries already. You start to see little red flags like that. So I was already like, “Yeah, Erykah Badu. You’ve got to love it.” Then a couple of minutes later the guy in the backseat’s like, “I like your biceps.” I wearing a tanktop and I was like, I do kickboxing.” Which is a total lie. I don’t do kickboxing. He was like, “Oh, I thought that was more like a leg thing.” I was like, “Oh no, we punch a lot, and are punching the bag every day.” That just really made them all back off.
Not to say I’m this master of manipulation. If I run into someone who really wanted to hurt me, there’s very little I could have done about it. It’s hard too because you don’t really get a read on someone before they’re in your car. Then once they’re in your car, is the safest thing to do to be like, “Get out?” Probably not, you know what I mean? How extreme does it have to be for you to be like, “I’m leaving my car and running away from this.” If you get a weird vibe, the best thing to do is just be very reserved, figure out where they’re going, get them there, make it happen. Be as nice as possible and appease them as much as possible and then just get out of there.
There’s no time to assess people or screen people. I don’t think that the companies assess or screen their passengers at all. Also, I’m driving sometimes people’s friends. A lot of times, “Oh, my friend’s too drunk take them home.” That’s a very unsafe position. I don’t even know their name. They told me the name of the person who ordered it. I think that shouldn’t be allowed, because it’s not safe.
I picked up this lady once, and she’s like well let me tell you something. I’m going to go home, I’m going to pick up some bags, but it’s going to take a little while, but I really need you to wait for me and take me to this other location because I’m leaving my boyfriend and he’s abusive. And I was like, “Oh my god”. I started running all this stuff I learned from college of like what’s the ethical thing to do in this situation, and also just empathetic stuff of like we’ve all been in these bad situations where someone helped us. I was kind of like, “Oh God, all right. Just get your bags.” She took forever getting these bags and I’m waiting like “oh my God”. The boyfriend’s going to show up. Right as we’re pulling out the driveway he comes up with his car and parks in front of it and they get out and they start talking.
I don’t know what this guy’s deal is. I don’t know if he’s going to pull a gun and shoot her in the face and me. She’s kind of trying to go in the car. She’s pulling on my door handle too and I’m like, “Oh man. They’re going to mess up the car.” Which is another thing I’m always really paranoid about because is Uber going to pay for that? If not,can I drive? I called 911. They said they were going to send a squad car. So I’m kind of waiting it out now. Then he starts talking to me. He’s like, “Please bring her back. Don’t take her away, just bring her back.” I was like, “Oh God. What am I going to do with this guy?” You really hone your intuition and street smarts. I really developed some modicum of smarts, which I had none growing up from Princeton. So I just looked at him and I was like, “Dude, I called the cops.” It ended up being the right thing to say because he backed off and closed the door and got freaked out. That was before the cops ever showed up. then I dropped her off and then picked up another ride and it was someone completely different. That’s what it’s like.
Veena Hampapur: After two years of driving, Alex’s ethical lens flared up.
Alexandra Carbone: From the perspective that I’ve gotten on it, they’re just not a good company. I gave them all that time and supported their project with my labor. I feel really dirty and used.
They’re a taxi company with an app. Taxis have been around. That’s why the regulations that exist, exist. They just kind of came in with their app and try to erase that, and there’s no reason they should get to do that at all. Technology’s not some magic wand that you wave and you get to flout whatever law you don’t want to follow. That’s ridiculous.
Saba Waheed: Another key issue within ridehailing is the classification of the drivers. Uber and Lyft drivers are classified as independent contractors — which means they don’t work for the company but their own businesses.
Alexandra Carbone: We’re not small business owners. They tell us that so we feel important, so we feel like we’re taking control of our futures and stuff, and so that they can not give us overtime, not give us a minimum wage, not paid time off, not give us unemployment, not give us worker’s comp. People want to have the freedom to turn the app on and turn the app off. That doesn’t necessarily have to go against being an employee. It could be an employee who does that. That fits within the model. You’re not really protected unless you’re an employee.
A lot of nights I worked I didn’t make money. It took me a while to figure it out. I grew up in Princeton, I went to college, I got a four in calculus. It took me a long time to figure it out. Eventually you do figure it out because your life isn’t functioning right. You’re having all this money coming in, but you’re not getting ahead, you’re getting behind. People need to realize again that they don’t just have to take whatever scraps are thrown to them and they don’t have to tolerate being treated this way because there’s more of them, and they can make demands, and they can have each other’s backs, and they can say, “This is not okay.”
Veena Hampapur: Unlike other jobs, ridehailing doesn’t have a common space where drivers can meet and discuss their experience. Alex would talk to her husband but she didn’t have contact with other drivers. Then one day, she saw a Facebook ad by a group called Rideshare Drivers United and she began attending their meetings.
Alexandra Carbone: I saw the ad and I was like, “Well, let me check that out.” And then they called me and I talked to them. That was pretty much when it was really barely starting up. I had a really good conversation with them and then I filled out their they have a we, I guess now. We have a survey that you fill out to say what issues matter to you most. That’s how we figured out democratically what people will care about and what they wanted to prioritize. You could even add your own in. They did a few meetings, which basically was like a support group everyone just had so much to get off their chest that we would all just be like, “And then this, and then that.” Eventually we kind of settled into a group that just works well together since the fall or winter, that’s when I started going to the meetings and really organizing, and we started doing actions. Doing outreach, it’s intense. I’ll leave things on windshields if I see the sticker. Sometimes I run into the people doing that. A lot of them, it’s crazy, are like, “Good. Yeah, we need this.” So many people are fired up about it.
Saba Waheed: By January 2019, Rideshare Drivers United was ready for its first action. Drivers rallied outside of the governor’s office to bring attention to the misclassification of drivers as independent contractors.
Alexandra Carbone: I felt really good to just be on the street and with a sign saying “this is wrong and we need help”, and we’re not being treated well. And then our second action was in March 25th and that was a strike and a protest, and that one got over 300 drivers out. And Bernie Sanders came out supporting us from that. And that was sort of for the Lyft IPO, it was right around the Lyft IPO. So we were like, “We have to say something before the Uber IPO, they’re even bigger than Lyft.”
Veena Hampapur: They decided to plan a national strike.
Alexandra Carbone: We had Chicago come in and New York, Atlanta, Boston, and then the UK got wind of it. And then I had people contacting me from Africa, from Nigeria. I was on a chat with people in Chile and Panama and Uruguay and in Brazil.
Veena Hampapur: Alex knew what her special contribution could be. It was coming up with that perfect sign.
Alexandra Carbone: I was trying to think of something that would be good on a sign, like short and I came up with “apps off,” it was inspired by Boots Riley’s movie Sorry to Bother Me because they say “phones down”. I was like, “Everyone gets really fired up in the movie when they all say phones down and I was like, “Hmm, maybe I could do apps off.”
The night before the strike in the airport, it was so exciting because right at midnight everybody got in their cars and made a line, and they were honking and yelling, “Apps off,” putting their fists out the windshield and stuff. I had no idea that was going to happen. That was probably the best most exciting moment of the organizing. It was just like, “Yes!” We were jumping up and down and stuff like, “That’s how you take out the trash.” I saw a picture from Brazil where someone had written “apps off” on their window shield, and I was just like, “Oh my God.”
For us it was a 24-hour airport strike, and we had picketing all day at the airport. We had about 500 people come through for picketing.
Archival footage: About a dozen Uber & Lyft drivers at LAX are urging customers and all drivers not on strike to turn off their apps for 24 hours.
Alexandra Carbone: I’ve heard estimates that we knocked a billion dollars off their valuation and it blew up even at the Democratic National, not convention, but they had some meeting recently and somebody stood up and was like, “Should we be taking money from Uber?” I don’t think that would happen if it wasn’t for our strike. People say, “Activism doesn’t work and your strike didn’t work. You didn’t hurt them. Not that many people struck, I can still get a car.” But it’s like none of that would have happened if we hadn’t have had a worldwide strike. It was pretty amazing. So now we’re just trying to stick to the more nitty gritty stuff of making sure AB5 goes through well, seeing what City Council can do, building relationships across the country so that we’re all on the same page.
Veena Hampapur: In Fall 2019, California passed AB5, a bill that would make gig workers employees. Uber is already fighting it.
Saba Waheed: Alex started to unpack the labor movement through her philosophy lens.
Alexandra Carbone: I’m really trying to get up to snuff on the history of labor movement. I never had any reason to think about that before and the meaning of work and hierarchy also because a lot of the problem is that board of directors of companies make all the decisions for the company, and these are probably a dozen completely out of touch people who haven’t had any level of financial difficulty in their life probably, most of them. They’re making these decisions about people they don’t have to see under circumstances that they don’t understand, or if they do they don’t have any empathy because one thing I learned through all my time is I don’t know if any philosopher ever said this but suffering creates empathy. I think a lot about that. At some point I realized I’m making less every year, this is total dead-end job, I’m not getting any younger. I need to figure something else out. I drive now if I have to I’ll take rides if I’m on my way somewhere because it will kind of offset the carpooling cost basically. But if I drive, I’m not making money. Everybody who can get out of it should if they possibly can.
Veena Hampapur: A special thanks to Alex Carbone for sharing her story. To learn more about the work of Rideshare Drivers United you can visit their website at drivers dash united dot org (drivers-united.org).
Saba Waheed: You’re listening to Re:Work, a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This week’s show was produced by Veena Hampapur and Saba Waheed.
Veena Hampapur: Editing by D’angelo Jones and Veena Hampapur. Subscribe to Re:Work Radio on Apple, Spotify, or Google. Visit our website at reworkradio.org or Facebook at forward slash reworkradio. You can also find us on Twitter and Instagram at rework underscore radio.
Saba Waheed: ‘Til next time, rethink rework.
Saba Waheed: From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, we bring you Re:work. I’m Saba Waheed