When drivers for the ride-share apps Uber, Lyft and Juno walk off the job in cities across the country on Wednesday, demanding better pay and working conditions, they’ll have the support of many progressive elected officials.
But few, if any, will be demonstrating as much solidarity as Virginia Del. Lee Carter (D). Carter, a self-described democratic socialist from the northern Virginia suburb of Manassas, drives part-time for Lyft and announced on Twitter that he will be participating in the strike.
“This strike is to send a message that the folks at corporate at Uber and Lyft who are getting massively rich off of the exploitation of drivers is not going unnoticed,” he told HuffPost.
The strike, convened by new ride-share drivers’ rights groups, as well as more established New York City-based labor unions, is timed to precede Uber’s initial public offering ― or first public stock sale ― on Thursday. The ride-share juggernaut is expected to issue stock worth $91 billion, providing a massive payout for the company’s early investors.
Uber and Lyft, which are much larger than the New York-based Juno, claim that they are concerned about drivers’ ability to earn a living. Lyft maintains that average hourly driver pay is $20 an hour. And a Stanford University study released in March found that Uber drivers earn $21 an hour on average.
But unlike ordinary companies with full-time employees, Uber and Lyft classify their drivers as independent contractors, freeing the company of the obligation to deduct payroll taxes for Social Security or guarantee a certain level of pay.
Research that accounts for the financial risks borne by ride-share drivers in this arrangement has found that their hourly pay often falls short of the minimum wage. When factoring in fees drivers pay the company, vehicle-related expenses and out-of-pocket spending on payroll taxes and health care benefits, the average hourly wage of an Uber driver was $9.41, according to a May 2018 study conducted by the liberal Economic Policy Institute.
The drivers’ independent status also leaves them vulnerable to sudden changes in market conditions or payment formulas dictated by corporate management. Average pay for ride-share and food delivery app drivers declined 53 percent from 2013 to 2017, according to a J.P. Morgan analysis.
Carter expressed fear that ride-share companies’ entry into the stock market ― Lyft went public in March ― is likely to be accompanied by additional reductions in drivers’ shares of passenger fees.
“You’ve got folks that are becoming billionaires overnight off of these IPOs while they’re pushing cuts to the driver pay formula ― in fact, partly because they’re pushing cuts to the driver pay formula,” he said. “It’s unconscionable.”
“There are people doing this full time ... and in some cases, they’re just barely getting by.”
A rarity among elected officials, Carter shares the characteristics of many working-class Americans who have turned to “gig economy” work to supplement meager pay in traditional jobs.
Carter, a high school graduate and veteran of the Marines, became active in politics after electrocuting himself while installing a lighting panel on the job in July 2015. An unsuccessful attempt to claim workers’ compensation benefits opened his eyes to structural injustice in the country’s economy and government, driving him into the arms of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the Washington-area chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
An upset win in his race for a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates in November 2017 provided Carter with health insurance for the first time in years.
Carter’s presence is an exception in a part-time lawmaking body where low pay precludes most people of modest means from considering serving.
“You have a situation where the laws of our state are written exclusively by people who can afford not to get paid for it,” Carter said. “The working class is structurally excluded from lawmaking even though it’s the majority of people.”
Defying those structural barriers is a daily struggle for Carter.
Even with money for personal expenses, Carter estimates that his pay from working in the part-time legislature only amounts to about $24,000 a year. And since Carter is not available for year-round work, he has had trouble getting hired repairing health care equipment, the job in which he has the most experience.
So, when the legislature adjourns in March, Carter drives for Lyft about 20 hours a week, squeezing in time between a full schedule of constituent service work and campaign events. The hours net him an extra $1,400 a month, which helps him afford his $1,300 rent.
Still, he considers himself lucky compared to full-time ride-share drivers.
“There are people doing this full time that are driving in some cases, 50, 60, 70 hours a week, and in some cases, they’re just barely getting by,” he said.
Carter, who unseated the Republican state House whip without support from the state House Democratic Caucus, is a top target for Virginia Republicans in state elections this November.
But first he has to fend off a primary challenge in June from Manassas City Councilman Robert Wolfe. Wolfe, a centrist who was a Republican until the 2016 election, is critical of Carter for opposing a $70 million state subsidy for computer chip maker Micron to open a facility in Manassas.
Carter, who also opposed luring Amazon to Virginia with tax breaks and other perks, is sticking to his stance.
Micron is “creating new positions for a skill set that doesn’t yet exist here,” he argued. “They’re going to have to move people to the area who will be competing for housing.”
As an incumbent, Carter has the backing of several influential labor unions, including a branch of the Service Employees International Union, and the Clean Virginia Fund, which supports lawmakers that stand up to the state’s powerful utility monopolies.
Asked whether he might still benefit from the support of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), another millennial member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Carter chuckled in affirmation.
“I would absolutely welcome her help,” he said.