CLEVELAND—For many Uber drivers here, the Republican National Convention has been more of a curse than a blessing. Downtown streets have been blocked off and partitioned by the Secret Service, making it a pain to drive across town. Raucous and drunk Republicans have stumbled into cars at all hours of the morning.
But the most upsetting thing that the convention dragged into town isn't the delegates or the security checks. It's other Uber drivers.
Over the past week, Uber has called in an armada of drivers from cities as far away as Indianapolis to meet increased demand for rides, drivers said. But the company's decision has ramped up competition and resulted in lower fares and fewer rides. Many of the 10 drivers we talked to—some of whom only wanted to use their first name when criticizing their company—said they're getting peanuts when they expected to make a big haul.
In many ways, their frustrations mirror those of the Trump supporters who have gathered to cheer on their candidate just a few blocks away. Market pressures are driving down wages and increasing anxiety about competition from the non-native population.
"They're importing all of these drivers," said John McCarthy, 56, who started driving to make some money during retirement. "It's really crimped what you can make, down almost to the point where it's almost not worth it to come out." (He's also a Trump supporter.)
Drivers in the region said Uber sent them emails letting them know that they could come to Cleveland during the convention and would likely make more money. Several drivers we talked to came from cities like Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis and were staying with friends or driving back and forth.
The supply of Uber drivers here seems so high that surge pricing is rare. Several drivers said they hadn't gotten a single surge after driving for four days of the busy convention, or only had small surges at odd hours of the day.
“We were expecting to have a lot of surge, which hasn’t happened,” said David Woods, an Uber driver from Cleveland. Surge pricing, usually a source of criticism for Uber from disgruntled customers, is a lifeline for drivers like Woods looking to make a living.
“I’ve had almost no surge pricing. It’s a bummer. Maybe if I would drive until 4 in the morning,” said Leslie, a driver from the nearby suburb of Beachwood. “The truth is, by the time I pay for the gas, I make a few dollars, but not enough to support anything.”
Tony, who has been driving in Cleveland since Uber launched here in May 2014, said the convention was highly disappointing. "It’s obvious they need this many drivers here, but for the full-timers like me, it’s cutting my slice of the pie,” he said as we zoomed over a highway. “I’ve had my phone on since 6:30, and you’re like my sixth ride."
After we pulled to our destination, he held up his phone to show us his take-home pay over the last five hours: a measly $32.90, less than minimum wage.
"In preparation for the large number of convention goers expected in Cleveland, we worked to ensure that demand was met and that we provided a great experience for both riders and drivers," Brittany Bramell, an Uber spokeswoman, said in a statement. "As a result, we were able to keep wait times short and provide economic opportunities to more drivers during this record breaking week in Cleveland."
Some drivers said they had heard Uber was paying cash incentives to draw in the out-of-town workforce. A few out-of-town drivers who talked to us said they did not receive any additional money for traveling to Cleveland besides the fares they earned while driving.
Recruiting Uber drivers to come to the city is only part of the company's strategy for moving the droves of delegates and reporters who've flocked to Cleveland for the convention. Uber has also opened a “rider lounge” at a parking lot near the convention: Drivers can park and wait between rides, while a tent in one corner is decked out with couches, music, and free coffee and granola bars for passengers. Nearby customers get alerts on their phones encouraging them to visit the lounge.
Some drivers aren't fans of having to wait in the lot. “The concept’s a good idea, but what they did is they made it almost like a taxi stand,” said Leslie, the driver from Beachwood. “I’m like, if I wanted to be a taxi driver—so they have this big area and you drive in and you take your parking slot and when someone comes up they call you and you come get your ride. I don’t really like it, and I also find you don’t get many rides that way.”
Uber often distinguishes itself from regular taxi companies, describing itself as a “ride-sharing” app that connects free-agent drivers with customers. This distinction has played a big role in how the company is regulated across states and cities, allowing it to avoid some of the regulations and worker protections to which normal car service companies must adhere.
Cleveland drivers also spoke more generally about how their earnings have declined as Uber has grown in the city. "When I started driving in 2014, the rates were $1.40 a mile. Now they're 77 cents," Tony said. "An airport run for me was $25 in the beginning, now it's like $12."
Drivers from out of town, recruited to come in for the convention, seemed to have a much more positive impression of Ubering during the RNC. Chad Miller, who drove all the way from Indianapolis for the convention, told us he was making more money than other drivers back home. "We're actually doing a lot better here than they are there," Miller said. "There it's really slow."
Miller said he thought that the Uber lounge was helpful. "Being there is actually a good thing when it comes to us. We can sit, we can save gas, get something to eat, you know."
As we drove through the city, past old Polish churches and new condo buildings, several of the local drivers who've lived here their whole lives pointed out how their city had changed. They talked about where the old steel mills used to be, before those jobs got shipped overseas, and where mom-and-pop businesses had been replaced with chains. "You can look down the street here and every one of these buildings used to be a factory or some sort of industry," said James Jewell, 41. Now most were vacant.
Of course, not all the complaints from Uber drivers have to do with reduced fares or nostalgia for the old days. There are also the protesters with big guns.
"The other day when I came down here there was a bunch of armed men there—I seen one of them, he had like an assault rifle and stuff," said Dexter Vanderlind, a local who just started driving for Uber this week. "I’m not going to lie, I avoid downtown. … Once I drop off my rider, I get outta here."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.