Uber now allows tips: What’s 20% of $0?

Drumstick tipsPhoto courtesy of Nick Zamora

The news was electrifying: Uber, the sharecropping system of the transportation industry, was finally allowing passengers to tip their drivers.

Amazingly, this wasn’t a thing before now. There was no option to tip a driver, except if you were to pay in cash, which most Uber riders, sexy forward-thinking futurists all, didn’t carry. (To its credit, Lyft has offered in-app tipping since 2012.)

So drivers earned whatever they earned, and riders paid whatever they paid. And this status quo was acceptable because, well, it’s such a good deal, isn’t it? All upside with no downside, right?

No one makes anything

Uber (which I continue to pick on, though I do lump all the unlicensed taxi companies like Lyft into the group as well) has performed a kind of perfect shell game. To the rider, it’s cheap and efficient. To the driver, it’s an “easy” way to get a job. Just download the app, get your car inspected, and start driving. “You can get paid whenever you want!”

The problem is that we are complicit in a zero sum situation here, with the terms of the deal being brokered by Uber. If it’s so cheap to get a driver, maybe you’re not paying a lot of money into the system. And if you’re not, then maybe no one is. Maybe the presumed beneficiary of the transaction, the driver, isn’t making much money either.

Let me be the first to say that the “transportation network companies” didn’t invent indentured servitude and zero sum services. I’d argue that pretty much everything you buy these days is artificially cheap. Clothes, meals, most electronics, it’s all as cheap as possible, pushed down to the point that workers in our country can’t make most of it and earn a living wage.

In the case of restaurants, a portion of the help is undocumented and so is easier to subjugate, and when it comes to things we produce, we typically make it in some other country where wages are lower.

If you’re concerned your wages aren’t high enough, and at the same time you’re buying artificially inexpensive good and services, do you not think there might be a connection here?

Tipping as failure

Tipping, it must be said, is in some ways an admission of failure to provide for workers. “We aren’t willing to pay you a living wage, but maybe the customers will help out of the kindness of their heart.” An advantage of tipping is that one does tend to get better service, in that workers know they are as it were “singing for their supper”, but I don’t really know if that’s the optimal solution.

I haven’t done much hiring in positions I’ve worked in, but my philosophy has always been to find good people with a strong work ethic and pay them well. That way, not only are they happier, but you also don’t have to manage them so intensely. Naive? Perhaps. But I think we could use a little more of this today.

With all this in mind, allowing tipping in an Uber ride feels kind of like giving a water noodle to someone who’s drowning in the ocean. Yes, it helps, but wouldn’t it be better to just pull them to safety?

Water noodles

Grab on tight. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Moyle

That whole “vote with your dollar” thing

Make no mistake, when you take an Uber, a Lyft, or use any “sharing economy” service that offers low prices by not actually hiring workers, you are supporting a 21st century version of indentured servitude. One where everyone can hide behind the cover of “no one is making anyone do anything.

“Voting with your dollar” means more than just “not shopping at Wal-Mart” or “buying local”. Uber is about as local as you can get, right? It’s your neighbor (or near enough) picking you up from the bar at night, after all.

Voting with your dollar means that with your purchase, you support the system that generated the product or service. Or not.

Can we afford to support living wages?

Now, I recognize a chicken/egg situation. Our wages these days are depressed, which means that many have less wiggle to room to vote with their dollar. Maybe not everyone can buy fair trade/living wage products.

But we can do more.

Here are some good questions to ask yourself: Does the person who works at the job whose purchase I’m subsidizing actually have a job? Do they make a dedicated wage? Do they have some sort of legal employment protection? How much of the burden of the costs of the job falls on them?

With Uber, the answer appears to be: no, no, no, and all.

Remember that anyone who drives for Uber is paying for gas, repairs, and the depreciation of their vehicle themselves. Nowhere does that appear on your bill.

Someone please pass the hat

I have a friend who was laid off recently and is working for Uber, and it’s breaking my heart. He’s a good guy, and he’s totally undervalued in this gig, but he’s doing it to make ends meet. I support him, but I also hate it, because I feel like he’s made a devil’s bargain. I wish he was delivering pizzas. I wish he wasn’t using his car for work. I wish I had a job I could offer him, but I don’t.

I guess I just hope that those who are still stuck on Uber will start to tip and tip well. It is the absolute least they can do.

And maybe we could start to figure out ways to revive better worker protections while we’re at it. I hear there was something once called a “union” that could do that, right?

Mike Pumphrey

Mike Pumphrey

I'm the founder and author of Unlikely Radical, a site to help people succeed with money, achieve their goals, and live intentionally.

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Mike Pumphrey
Posted on June 26, 2017