Why We’re Talking to Uber: Our Need to Work, Feed Our Families, and Speak In Our Own Voices

Dorsey_head shot with AOUON capBy Dorsey Nunn
Last September I attended an Uber roundtable discussion on public safety standards, representing Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) and All of Us or None. Uber held the discussion because background checks have become an issue for them – some taxi unions and government officials are demanding all Uber drivers be required to go through Live Scan fingerprinting checks.

It should come as no surprise to anyone following our work on Ban the Box and ending structural discrimination for formerly incarcerated people that we would be invited. I, for one, welcomed the discussion. After all, Uber has done something most other corporations fail to do: invite formerly incarcerated experts to the table to discuss the use and impact of background checks within our community.

My preparation for the meeting included research of news stories and social media, as well as talking to friends, allies and comrades. Someone said Uber would misuse me, and I needed to be careful. Another said the “real” issue was the litigation to determine if the workers were employees or private contractors. Someone else implied our involvement was somehow undercutting the transportation labor movement. I ran into people questioning if I should even be meeting with Uber at all. But most disconcerting was when an ally suggested we would be better represented by professionals like lawyers or union representatives.

In the first Uber meeting we discussed Proposition 47, at that time recently passed. Months later, I attended a gala in Southern California where Uber announced changes in their policies:

  1. Revise their background check process to focus only on relevant criteria related to driving, and remove convictions for irrelevant misdemeanors like check fraud. Uber also went a step further, and removed convictions like evading and resisting arrest – a catch-all that tends to disproportionately impact minorities.
  2. Notify people who don’t pass Uber’s pre-screening process that they may be eligible for getting felonies on their records reclassified under Prop 47, and pointing them to resources to help them do that.
  3. Referring people who still don’t qualify to an organization called Defy Ventures to get work counseling and learning opportunities. Uber’s partnership covers the cost of the program.

It is also important to note that Uber is a corporation where formerly incarcerated actually have opportunities to earn a living. I could easily rattle off a list of friends currently driving for Uber, which I cannot do in the case of taxi companies or other car sharing services. LSPC and All of Us or None have always valued and will continue to value our allies and collaborative partners. Still, I want to take a moment and consider some of the complicated issues raised by these conversations.

  • As a movement for basic civil and human rights for formerly incarcerated people, it would make no sense at all for us to turn down a meeting with a major corporation considering background checks policies on formerly incarcerated people.
  • While we appreciate the concern that some have voiced about Uber taking advantage of us, it should also be clear that we never could have come as far as we have as a movement without abundant amounts of political and organizing savvy.
  • Our primary goal in these meetings is to expand access to meaningful work for formerly incarcerated people. We have the right to feed our families and to pay our rent. I was not there to determine the conditions under which people worked but to insure that we had at least the same access as others to work. Marginalized communities need something other than crime to make a living. If we are not working at all, the question about whether Uber workers are employees or independent contractors loses urgency.
  • From the very beginning, All of Us or None demanded the right to speak in our own voice. It is no different for us than it was for the African-Americans who founded Freedom’s Journal, one of the first Black newspapers. Their lead editorial in 1827 stated “We wish to plea our own cause, too long have others spoken for us.”

Many see employment, housing, education and voting rights as individual issues – but taken collectively, for formerly incarcerated people they are the civil and human rights struggle of our day. It is imperative that formerly incarcerated people engage in this struggle in a manner that will allow us to identify and own our power. Our struggle goes beyond who gets to drive the car. We are also looking at how we can present our demands so employers are able to see our human potential not just as workers, but also in management positions.

People do have a tendency to differentiate between those with a non-violent conviction history and those with a violent conviction history. And we seem to be moving in a direction where we are willing to provide greater opportunities for people with non-violent convictions. However, people with violent conviction histories are being released, and they need to feed their families and have housing too. They are equally in need of meaningful work.

Many formerly incarcerated people know that there is no statistical or rational basis for many of the decisions being made about us as individuals or as a part of a community. In fact, research shows that formerly incarcerated people convicted of violent offenses are actually less likely to commit another crime than people convicted of non-violent offenses. Food, housing, and employment are at the root of public safety, and everyone is entitled to it, even people we fear.

Because of the politics of respectability not everyone is willing to make the argument that they be given a chance. It is in this gap that formerly incarcerate people must speak in our own voice, and maintain our solidarity and unity.