Technological Disruption, Monopoly and Politics in the For-Hire Vehicle Industry

In the rapid growth of the online gig economy, especially with the unprecedented growth of Uber in the transportation industry, many workers feel squeezed and at times dehumanized by a business structure that promises independence but often leaves them at the mercy of increasingly powerful companies. There is nothing wrong with being an independent contractor or working in the "gig economy", but there is a problem when the entity in question is named Uber.

Drivers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied and disillusioned by Uber......and no wonder why. Because Uber is not the Salvation Army and is not out to create jobs, but is out to continue to overly inflate the value of their company and then cash out via an IPO. Don’t be foolish, Uber is not looking to be "your private driver", but looking to steal your money via surge pricing (and place you in danger in the interim), destroy full time jobs, destroy existing businesses and upend the for-hire vehicle industry for the worse. People may not be, or may never have been satisfied with yellow cabs, but at least they are regulated by the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission. This means that the vehicle has been inspected and deemed to be safe for operation and the driver has been vetted and deemed to not be a dangerous driver.

Ask any Uber driver in New York City and they will tell you that they have been relegated to being glorified taxi drivers and their recent protests and strikes are evidence of the cracks in the floor beneath Uber. Uber drivers have finally begun to speak out against the company that lies to them and the public. Uber makes false promises to its drivers and lulls the public into a false sense of security in the use of its service. Uber wants to have its cake and eat it too. They want to completely control their drivers, but keep them classified as independent contractors. This is so because if the Uber driver were classified as an employee, then Uber’s business model would be completely upended. Lawsuits against Uber have been filed all around the country, but the most prominent is one pending in Federal Court in San Francisco. Drivers there are claiming benefits under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which only applies to employees and not independent contractors. Whether the Uber drivers will ultimately prevail in the lawsuit is irrelevant because the reality is that Uber is likely to settle this case in the end. This is what will happen because Uber cannot afford to have an adverse ruling from the Courts that would threaten its muti billion-dollar venture.

By all definitions and in all reality, under New York law, Uber drivers are employees and are entitled to certain protections, but this would be the death knell to Uber, so in the meantime Uber will continue to churn its PR machine (via a former political strategist best known as the campaign manager for President Obama's 2008 presidential campaign) and will continue to pay its lobbyists for access to politicians who now favor Uber (after the political contribution is made) all with the intent on neutralizing the threat that Uber drivers currently pose to its business. Politicians are pro-Uber because they do not want to be seen as anti innovation, anti-competition and/or against technological advances. What these politicians should be focusing on is simple. They have been charged with protecting the health, safety and welfare of its citizens. Despite their clear obligation, New York politicians all have made it clear that Uber is here and it is here to stay. The playing field is not level and the politicians in NYC have completely abandoned the traditional car services that have served the local communities of the 5 boroughs of NYC for decades. These mom and pop shops will soon be gone just like the bodegas of the past. Barnes and Nobel is in and the little bookstore in the neighborhood is gone. Or just like in the move “You’ve Got Mail……. Tom Hanks’ Fox Books and his chain of "mega" bookstores is in and the independent bookstore run by Meg Ryan, The Shop Around The Corner, is out.

The yellow cabs may have become what they are today (run down second class vehicles with a second class service for hire) because the City of New York and the cab owners always held a monopoly over these medallions. At their height, before Uber, the cost of a medallion (the plate attached to the hood of each yellow cab is NYC) was north of one million dollars. Today that number is significantly less, all to the dismay of the banks that lent monies to the medallion owners with the belief that the monopoly they held over the economy that required on demand transportation would continue to be in their pockets forever. Some say that the medallion owners and the banks that lent them money deserve it because the advent of Uber made these cab owners come to the harsh realization that they are no longer needed, or not needed nearly as much as they were before and they should have used technology to their own advantage before Uber was born. Well, the yellow cabs are a day late and a dollar short. That train already left the station. Yellow cabs are in short supply and always will be, but the need for them is decreasing every day. This is not only bad for the for-hire vehicle industry, but bad for the City of New York as a whole, as it is the City that reaps the financial benefits of selling each one of these medallions. The NYC political machine may not care right now because it is still sexy to support Uber. But when Uber shows its true colors and completely upends an industry that has provided safe and reliable transportation to generations of New Yorkers and millions of visitors, what will the politicians do then?  

Make no mistake, Uber and its founders are true geniuses, but lets not be foolish to think that they are operating as a not for profit organization to create jobs and better the economy. As soon as Uber makes its next big move, we will all have to take a bite out of reality and deal with the disaster that lies in its wake. I have my opinions about what that next move may be, but use your imagination and come to your own conclusions. Either way, some disruption caused by Uber to the for-hire vehicle industry was for the better, but remember the old adage about the law….it should remain stable, but not stand still. I believe the same holds true for the for-hire vehicle industry. Change over the past few years has been good, but the politicians (who are usually lawyers) that enable Uber to operate unimpeded and even encourage their disruptive conduct, should keep the legal adage in mind. The for-hire vehicle industry should not stay idle and must change with the times, but if things keep going the way they have been of recent, we may all find ourselves with an inferior for-hire transportation industry in New York City……and then who will the politicians blame?