Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian

Uber drivers went on strike last week, just two days before the ride sharing giant’s highly anticipated IPO. Across the U.S., drivers protested Uber’s unfair pay, poor working conditions and lack of transparency. Timed to coincide with Uber’s next milestone in the big world of corporate business, the strike generated headlines across the world. What wasn’t clear, however, was whether traditional media had grasped what was happening.

This isn’t a traditional strike; this is public relations.

Uber classifies its drivers as independent contractors, making them ineligible for benefits available to those in traditional employment. This means Uber drivers aren’t entitled to health insurance, paid time off or workers compensation. They can’t unionize, nor can they collectively bargain. They can’t even really strike.

As such, it’s clear that shutting down Uber has never been the main goal of organizers. Instead, the plan has been to hijack Uber’s pre-IPO narrative; so far, they’ve nailed it, with every news story published this week about Uber’s public offering including a mention of the strike.

“Even on a day when the royal baby was all the news, it was the Uber driver strike that was the number one trend,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. As Desai makes clear, trending on social media was the real goal of this week’s action.

If the aim of the game is to send a message, but not exclusively to Uber, then who are the drivers targeting? Some pundits are arguing that the target audience of this particular strike is legislators, who hold the reigns in being able to raise wages, cap commissions and hold Uber to account regarding costs and pay.

“I think it’s going to be left up to legislators to step in and actually say, ‘No, you have to treat your workers fairly regardless of how you classify them,’” said Rebecca Stack Martinez, an Uber and Lyft driver who’s helping to organize a strike in San Francisco.

Predictably, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is already on the case, declaring his support for striking drivers and hitting out at the current administration for not coming down hard enough on gig firms like Uber. “Together we must … pass legislation … which will bar these employers from continuing to misclassifying their employees.”

Uber is set to go public at an eye-watering valuation of $91 billion, one of the largest since Facebook and Alibaba. While a 2017 #DeleteUber campaign, held in response to the firm’s continued operation at JFK Airport despite immigration-relation protests, had a short-term impact, the company’s growth clearly hasn’t been derailed by what appears to be rising anti-Uber sentiment. Even back-to-back scandals through 2017 and 2018 barely caused a wobble.

Uber executives, then, are likely far more concerned ahead of its transition to a public company about the first earnings report of rival firm Lyft. While the longevity of this latest drivers’ strike remains to be seen, one thing is clear: this surely isn’t the last public relations battle the ride-hailing giant faces in its new life.


Ronn Torossian is CEO of leading PR agency 5WPR.