Earla Phillips’ smile vanished when she saw the flags. They sprouted from behind the row of sign-waving Uber drivers she had assembled, against all odds, on this freezing Valentine’s Day outside Toronto City Hall. Moments before, she was triumphant. The 50-odd men standing in a line, signs in hand and chanting to the cameras represented the hardest group of workers to organize into a strike: rideshare drivers, whose work leaves them isolated in their cars, and whose situations often make them afraid or unwilling to protest. Yet here they were, all thanks to Phillips, and the advocacy group she helps lead, Rideshare Drivers’ Association of Ontario. No union had been involved — so what were those flags doing here? 

Wide, yellow, and hung from long poles, they boasted the acronym UFCW Canada. Officially the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. It’s an organization that dates back to the 1800s, and has come to represent some 250,000 workers across the country in various industries — though for rideshare drivers, only through a private agreement it signed with Uber in 2022, and not as a bona fide union with a bargaining agreement.. Critics like Phillips decry this deal as a sham, meant to protect Uber rather than its workers. 

“Notice how at the end of the day, UFCW employees show up like they’re supporting us,” she says, moments after the flags show up. “They do not support us. They are bought and paid for by Uber. They are lobbying on Uber’s behalf to make sure we never have any rights.” She catches her breath. “You know what, I’m actually really angry they’re here. They just showed up at the end of the day. At the end of the event they show up. I’m angry.”

Despite her outburst, Phillips is in good spirits. Thrilled with the turnout, she had spent the morning bubbling between speeches, media hits, and face-to-face conversations with the drivers she had brought out, hopeful and jolly despite the cold. A short white woman with a head of wispy, grey hair, wearing leggings and a flannel jacket. Phillips doesn’t lead a union, nor is she organizing one. She’s a driver herself, boasting over 15,000 trips over eight and a half years with Uber, and some 3,000 with Lyft over six years. 

“UFCW employees show up like they’re supporting us. They do not support us. They are bought and paid for by Uber. They are lobbying on Uber’s behalf to make sure we never have any rights.”

This was a protest by workers, for workers, and their demands were threefold: better pay, more transparency around fares, and due process when a platform “deactivates” them, shutting off their accounts as it investigates customer complaints.

Rideshare drivers are notoriously hard to organize, each one an island in their car, with no good way of knowing their colleagues. Yet online communities are sprouting up, and two large Facebook groups serve as meeting places for Toronto’s drivers.

It was there that word began to spread of a global Valentines’ Day drivers’ protest. The rally and strike that resulted was, in many ways, a microcosm of the strange new world of digital labour organizing: cobbled together via Facebook groups and online forms, the organizers themselves couldn’t be sure how many people were even participating. Meanwhile, the traditional labour apparatus stood on the sidelines, with UFCW entangled with Uber, and rival union, CUPW, crying foul. Given the level of consternation between their would-be champions, it was a miracle any drivers were here at all. Gig workers, it turns out, can organize themselves—even if the strongest unions can’t.

Getting organized

When, in late January, Phillips saw Toronto drivers asking why there wasn’t a similar thing happening here, she and her fellow organizers sprung into action. They made a website, along with a Google Form where drivers could indicate if they’d be joining in person, or just switching off their app for the day. Phillips reached out to every driver she’d ever messaged on Facebook, while her team tapped windows at the airport. A survey on one Facebook group indicated some 1,000 GTA drivers had chosen to stay off the apps that day, and by the day’s end, Phillips figured 150 people had cycled through her rally. 

What began as a protest against Uber and Lyft quickly expanded to cover couriers for food delivery services Doordash and Skip the Dishes as well. “They’re all doing the same thing,” says Philips. 

Of the four companies, only Doordash and Uber responded to requests for comment from Ricochet. None agreed to an interview. 

In a statement, Doordash said they are “always listening” to their workers and are “looking for ways to improve the platform,” but argued “this group does not speak for or represent the overwhelming majority of Dashers.” Uber stated that “drivers and delivery people choose the Uber and Uber Eats platform because of the flexibility it gives them.”

And yet, enough of those drivers disagreed to send chants echoing around the grounds of City Hall at 15 degrees centigrade below zero. As they did, a tense scene developed behind the picket line. The two flag bearers were called away to answer for themselves, and Phillips heard them out. She says they were both UFCW employees, and she wasn’t going to shoot the messenger (both men declined to speak to Ricochet). They soon agree to leave.

Among those objecting to their presence was Brice Sopher, who serves as vice president of Gig Workers United, a group that is, in fact, working to unionize gig workers, in partnership with CUPW, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. He gets the etiquette. “This is a grassroots protest,” he says. “I’m not bringing any Gig Workers United stuff, because we didn’t organize this.” 

Uber and Lyft drivers say they can’t afford to live on poverty wages. Photo by Anthony Milton

Like Phillips, Sopher isn’t happy with UFCW’s deal with Uber, in part because it was signed as he was trying to unionize those workers himself. In an unfair-labour-practices complaint lodged against UFCW and Uber, CUPW claims that it had been hard at work trying to organize Uber drivers, soliciting membership cards, holding rallies, and advocating for a Gig Workers’ Bill of Rights. Gig Workers United workers would go car to car, tapping on windows and talking to drivers, building relationships. When UFCW announced they had a deal with Uber in January 2022 — and Uber advertised it through emails to all their drivers — that got a lot harder. Some drivers congratulated Sopher for getting them a deal, not realizing he had nothing to do with it. 

In a statement to Ricochet, Uber wrote that “while a number of interested parties expressed interest in having discussions, UFCW had the most organizing efforts underway, resulting in a deep understanding of drivers and delivery people in various provinces across the country.” The agreement, they said, was “the result of discussions between Uber Canada and UFCW Canada.” 

Over the summer of 2022, UFCW began posting news releases talking up their services for Uber drivers across the country. One driver in Laval, Quebec was put back on the road after his account was deactivated. Another, in Toronto faced a similar problem, and found “support” from UFCW representatives — though the release made no indication whether the union actually solved her problem. When reached for comment for this story, a UFCW Canada representative stated it was “the leading force for gig workers” and “is actively assisting thousands of Uber drivers,” and provided a link to their web page collecting these testimonials. They also cited a survey in which 82 per cent of Uber Canada drivers approved of the Uber Canada-UFCW agreement — once they had read a description of it. 

UFCW’s work sure looked like union work, and CUPW wasn’t happy about it. The deal UFCW has signed with Uber wasn’t even public to union members, let alone the drivers it claimed to represent. Only a few details are known: it grants UFCW status as the “official representatives” of Uber drivers in Canada, allowing them to hold regular health and safety meetings and use Uber meeting spaces. It also provides UFCW with a list of drivers and their contact information, a vital resource in an industry where workers are naturally isolated from one another, and something Phillips and other organizers sorely lack. 

Yet what the UFCW deal did not do was give Uber drivers a union. In its own filings to the Labour Relations Board, Uber argued that there could be no labour dispute with CUPW, since UFCW was not, in fact, a bargaining agent for Uber drivers, and therefore the agreement was “no different than any other commercial contract or private arrangement Uber may enter into.” CUPW fired back, claiming that the agreement was both more than a contract and less than a collective agreement, an “impoverished form of unionization.” 

In a statement to Ricochet, CUPW said they were unable to comment on their case against Uber and UFCW, but noted they support the Gig Worker Bill of Rights, which calls for full employment rights, and the ability for gig workers to form a union and collectively negotiate their wags and benefits with their employer. “Anything less is unacceptable,” they said. “Gig workers should define and decide what their union looks like and democratically elect their leaders.” 

Freezing together at Nathan Phillips Square, the clash of these parties was a microcosm for the new digitized world of labour, with old labour structures confronting new forms of exploitation, old union folks meeting new Canadians, and all in a country still trying to find its footing after three plague years. 

Working all day for poverty wages

Gurpreet Singh used to make good money driving for Uber. When he first started in 2017, he could pull in as much as $350 if he drove for 12 hours in a day, which after paying for his own gas, came to $280 — roughly double the minimum wage at the time. It was far better than the warehousing and UPS delivery gigs he was able to land near his home in Brampton. 

These days, it’s not nearly as good — the rates are lower, gas is more expensive, and phone bills are up. “Sometimes, you hardly make $150 or $200,” he said, standing in front of City Hall’s “Toronto” sign at the Valentines’ Day protest. “You have to drive 12 to 14 hours.” That flips the arithmetic: a week like that puts him more than two dollars under the minimum wage. 

Just how much an Uber driver makes in a given hour is a topic of hot debate. For one thing, some drivers are suspicious of Uber’s accounting, claiming Uber shows drivers a lower fare price than the customer actually pays, so as to obscure their cut. If this were the case, it wouldn’t be legal: the Ford government’s Bill 88, passed in 2022, explicitly requires digital platforms to provide workers with a description of how their pay is calculated. More transparency may be coming their way: in January 2024, Uber unveiled a pilot program that would show drivers the destination and estimated fare for rides before they accepted them. 

In a statement to Ricochet, Uber provided sample screenshots showing a breakdown for a given ride in Mississauga, with the 25 per cent service fee included in a full breakdown of the ride’s earnings. Uber boasts that its drivers make a hefty $33.37 per “engaged hour,” double the Ontario minimum wage, and both them and UFCW have been pushing the Ontario provincial government to enshrine the rate as a “gig workers’ minimum wage.” 

Yet advocates like Phillips point out that this figure only refers to the time spent actively driving a customer from one place to another. So to make any sort of living on Uber, drivers need to be ready to go at any given moment, meaning they are effectively working all other hours. “These companies couldn’t have started without having a core of full-timers,” she says. 

“Sometimes, you hardly make $150 or $200,” he said, standing in front of City Hall’s “Toronto” sign. “You have to drive 12 to 14 hours.” That flips the arithmetic: a week like that puts him more than two dollars under the minimum wage. 

Uber argues that because drivers and delivery people can have multiple apps open at the same time, earnings can only be calculated against engaged time. But their app does seem to encourage full-timer behaviour, offering promotions where driving for longer periods leads to discounts on other items, like EVs — another point of contention for drivers, who fear Uber is forcing them into funding the looming electrification of ridesharing out of their own linty pockets. 

According to a report by Ontario Uber Drivers and advocacy group RideFair, when downtime and expenses are taken into account, Toronto Uber drivers make as little as $6.37 per hour — a fraction of Uber’s figure, and less than half Ontario’s minimum wage.

JJ Fueser is one of the researchers behind the report, and she took the mic at the City Hall protest to talk up her findings. Delivering a speech peppered with stats that flowed in paragraphs, her manner betrayed her Yale education. Citing her $6.37 number, she asks the crowd “Can anyone live off that?” 

“No!” they cry. 

“And worse, that’s a median. It could go down from there. How many people here have ever lost money from driving?”

“Pretty much everybody,” responds one, to murmurs of agreement. 

“Uber is saying we should pay people 120 per cent of the minimum wage for their engaged time. Is that going to help?”


Fueser wrapped her speech by taking aim at the City, whose chambers face the square. “It’s time for the City to take back oversight over this industry to make sure it works in the public, rather than making it almost impossible for people to earn a living, because there are too many drivers on the road,” she said. “I’m so excited that your stories are being told above the company narratives. Keep up the good work.”

Fueser’s last point gestured at another grievance stirring among rideshare drivers, especially the full-timers: there seem to be a lot more than there used to be. Indeed, one of the protest’s main demands was for the City to reinstate a cap on rideshare licenses, effectively limiting the number of Uber drivers on the road. 

In October 2023, Council limited the number of these to 52,000, yet Uber responded with a lawsuit, alleging the cap was put in place without proper notice. The City’s own top lawyer warned that Uber could have a point, and in December they backed down, though not without promising to study the idea further. Since then, any new drivers have come at no cost to the company — since drivers pay all their own expenses, advocates say, Uber has no incentive to limit the number of cars on the road, even if it means less work to go around. 

Uber told Ricochet that a cap would ultimately hurt customers, increasing wait times and costs as demand for rides outpaces the number of drivers available to provide them. They claim that wait times doubled when City Council paused licensing in November 2021, and suggested restaurants and bars would suffer as a result if people chose to stay home. 

For drivers, Uber says a cap would “lead to a loss of flexibility and lower earnings in the long term” as platforms begin working on shifts, or “subdivide the city into small regions and assign drivers to specific areas during their scheduled shifts.” 

As wait times go up, Uber says riders would choose other options, leading to less demand for rideshare services and less earnings for drivers.

Drivers gather outside City Hall in Toronto. | Photo by Anthony Milton

There is something fraught about workers campaigning to limit the number of workers. Any cap that lets one keep driving would also leave a future driver out of luck. Indeed, Uber has argued that the City’s cap unlawfully discriminated between prospective and existing drivers. 

Sopher sees the problem: while on the one hand he believes Uber is inflating the supply of workers to dilute their bargaining power, he also sees how much some need the money. “It’s a tension that exists in a lot of unions, where older workers might enjoy better conditions than new ones,” he says. “I’m working with a lot of vulnerable people. Even if they can’t make very much, it’s better to eat a little than to starve.” 

As a delivery person on a bike, a cap wouldn’t affect him anyways, and yet he still feels unable to push for it. 

Talk of a cap stirs memories of the taxi medallion system, which similarly limited the supply of drivers in an industry with low barriers to entry. Between 1925 and 1950, almost every Canadian city was rocked by a “taxi war,” where unlicensed cabbies proliferated, overwhelming local governments’ ability to regulate them. As with Uber, the causes were social and technological: falling prices for cars, sprawling cities, and greater spending power among the lower classes all conspired to swarm the roads with new cabbies, with their numbers doubling in Toronto between 1924 and 1929, and increasing even further when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s. With the glut of labour, prices collapsed, and so too did driver wages. Drivers in Toronto worked an average of 12.6 hours, six days per week—shockingly similar to the routine of full-time Uber drivers today. Cabbies began pulling dirty tricks to make ends meet, scamming customers, operating without insurance, and speeding from ride to ride. Eventually, the old guard taxi companies, who had been displaced by the new entrants, successfully lobbied local governments to limit the number of taxis on the street using the medallion system. That was the law of the land — until Uber came along, and flooded the roads again. 

Of course, 2024 is not 1930, and Ubers licenses are not exactly cab medallions. 

Thorben Wieditz is a researcher at Metstrat alongside Fueser. He points out that taxi medallions eventually led to monopolies, where a few individuals came to own a great share of the ordained taxi cabs, and rented them out to drivers. A rideshare driver licensed by the City under the cap wouldn’t be able to share or sell their license — preventing monopolies from forming — and would be free to choose between Uber, Lyft, or any other rideshare service. Another glaring difference is that, despite the increased competition between drivers, customers haven’t found a cheaper ride. 

In fact, an analysis of U.S. data by Columbia Business School professor Len Sherman shows Uber’s prices have increased by 83 per cent from 2018 to 2022, even as their drivers’ earnings have plummeted, and in the last quarter of 2022 the company turned an $1.4 billion profit

Sherman concluded Uber’s math was simple: raise fares, squeeze drivers, make money. 

Descending on the Uber offices

It’s around noon, and it’s time for the protest to enter phase two: the cavalcade to Uber’s offices. 

Earla Phillips had envisioned a loud, proud parade of cars from City Hall to Uber’s Toronto headquarters, on Bloor Street East near Church. But Phillips forgot the signs, and no one is corralling the drivers, so instead she and a small group of organizers descend into the depths of the Nathan Phillips’ Square parking lot and pile into their rides, cranking the heat to warm their bones. In Phillips’ Hyundai Elantra, a GoPro-style camera hangs from the windshield and points into the car. “Cameras have saved my bacon,” says Phillips. “I’ve been deactivated by Uber twice, and five times on Lyft, and it’s the camera that’s saved me from complaints — which way out from here?” The parking lot is a maze. 

“Deactivations” refer to cases where Uber blocks a driver from taking rides. The practice is a major issue for advocates, who allege that Uber gets trigger happy, kicking drivers the moment they receive a complaint from a customer, and only reinstating them once proven innocent. 

Phillips found herself deactivated by both Uber and Lyft just days after the City’s license cap went into place in November 2021. The timing was suspicious: she had been an active speaker to City council advocating for the cap, but both companies said it was due to an interaction with a customer — each case, she says, had to do with asking customers to wear a mask. With help from Gig Workers United, she launched a media campaign alleging Uber and Lyft had dismissed her wrongfully. A blog post written by David Doorey, an associate professor of work law at York University, took up her case in abstract terms, discussing a “Jane Doe” while featuring a picture of Phillips. Doorey argued that, strictly theoretically and not as legal advice, such a person could have a case. Just like that, she was reinstated on both platforms.

Just weeks before the Valentines’ Day protest, Uber Canada rolled out a suite of proposed changes to their deactivation policies, promising to identify customers who falsified incidents, or reported drivers for issues beyond their control, like bad passenger behaviour or mechanical problems. Uber said those reviews and allegations would not count towards drivers’ ratings, or influence account deactivations. However, in a January CityNews story, Sopher called the changes “window dressing,” noting that when couriers received the same information about fares, it preceded a drop in wages. 

An Uber representative told Ricochet that “deactivations can be an important tool to ensure safety for riders and drivers,” and noted that since January 2022, UFCW had helped 1,908 drivers file an account-related case with Uber, of which just under a quarter had “positive outcomes.” The representative did not address why deactivations occur before an issue is proven. 

Phillips takes Yonge Street north, after escaping the parking lot. “I’m calling today a major success,” she says, in a low, certain tone. “We may not have had two, three hundred or thousand drivers show up, but I consider it a success. For Toronto workers, this is a win. This is unprecedented. They’ve never come together in this way. I think it’s amazing. I’m so proud of all of them. People say ‘Oh this won’t do anything.’ No! It sends a message. It brings it to the forefront of the public’s knowledge. It brings this to the politicians. And it sends these companies a message that no, this is not OK.” 

“We may not have had two, three hundred or thousand drivers show up, but I consider it a success. For Toronto workers, this is a win. This is unprecedented. They’ve never come together in this way. I think it’s amazing. I’m so proud of all of them.”

She makes it to Bloor and turns right, finding a parking lot just down the street from the office. It’s a nondescript tower in the middle of Yorkville, and while Uber’s logo graces the top floor, it’s not present at ground level, making it unclear to anyone passing by what’s actually going on. Still, the drivers are gathering. Marshalling them together is George Wedge, president of Rideshare Drivers. Short and in his early 60s, he has a spry energy to him. Arriving on scene, he quickly takes charge, ordering the 50-odd drivers into a line along the street-side edge of the sidewalk. Phillips tells them to hold their signs high, and the chants resume, echoing between the towers. 

“I’m glad they’re out here being seen,” says Wedge, as a passing car unleashes a bevvy of honks. “These guys, just one little honk brings their spirits up so high. Now they feel like, ‘Yes! We’re together, and they’re seeing us.’ Now if the guys behind us would just honk one time,” he trails off, looking up at the office tower behind us. Realistically, Wedge knows their scattered strike is unlikely to keep Uber up at night. “This is a public relations thing more than anything,” he said earlier that day, outside City Hall. “We could never damage them in a financial way in one day. But the next time I pick up a rider and he pays $15, he’ll know I’m only getting seven of that, and he might complain to Uber.” On Bloor Street, the protestors are having a good time, and the chants go back and forth: 

“Why are we here?” 

“Fair pay!” 

“No Uber driver?”

 “No food!” 

“No Uber driver?” 

“No…. ride?” 

They all laugh, before picking it back up again. 

Ten minutes later, Wedge finds himself in a tense conversation with a passerby, a man with a short beard and glasses speaking in a polite yet strong tone. “I’m just asking questions,” the stranger says. “What is it? What is it that Uber drivers are truly — because they have an income —”

“Less than $6,” interjects Wedge.

“— but it’s the percentage they want more of?”

“An Uber driver can work 12 hours in one day. You want to know what his median pay is? Six dollars and thirty-seven cents.”

“But he chose that job.”

“Guess he was given a false promise,” says Wedge, with a theatrical shrug.

“Okay. So then provide him with a different job,” says the man, with finality.

“What other job can he get”

“See, you just proved my own point. Give him another job, and he won’t have to do this.” With that, the passerby walked away. 

“They don’t need to have rights,” says Wedge, imitating him. “They put themselves into this situation.” He shakes his head. “Disappointing.”