“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Can Uber Really be a Viable Source of Income?
Studies indicate that much of the tech company's success is predicated on the way in which it skirts labor laws.
Uber and Lyft drivers may only be making $3.37 an hour according to a new study conducted at MIT. The study, which surveyed over 1,100 drivers, combined "self-reported revenue, mileage and vehicle choices" with "detailed vehicle operational cost parameters for insurance, maintenance, repairs, fuel and depreciation" in order to come up with an estimation of median take home income. The original results of this study were immediately contested by Uber, with Uber's analyst citing several instances of survey bias and misleading questions as the company's chief complaints.
Presumably under pressure from the tech giant, the researchers adjusted their findings and determined that drivers make closer to $8.55 an hour in pretax income. Although this figure implies that drivers are making more than the federal minimum wage ($7.25), the study also concluded that 54% of drivers are making less than their state's minimum wage. On top of this, the study also shows that 8% of drivers are actually losing money by working for Uber. This paper, written by Stephen Zoepf, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University, has been released at a time when Uber and Lyft are facing backlash for their questionable labor practices. After releasing his second study, Zoepf was slammed again, this time by Uber's CEO, and accordingly adjusted his findings a second time. Zoepf arrived at the same median wage, but in his revised version, only 41% of drivers made less than their state's minimum wage and only 4% were losing money. Still, it's certainly worth noting, if only to relay Uber's economic power, how much they were able to sway this study despite arguing from a clearly biased position.
Presently, Uber operates, through what can only be described as a classification loophole, as an e-commerce company, not a transportation company. While this is changing in Europe, in America, Uber is not liable for the vehicles that their drivers put on the road. In fact, Uber's drivers, despite a long-fought battle to change this, are not technically employees. They're independent contractors and aren't entitled to the same rights and benefits as full-time workers. Uber drivers have to insure themselves, don't get unemployment, and have to maintain their vehicles at their own expense. The freedom to set one's own hours, Uber's major perk, isn't particularly unique either. Depending on the company they work for, New York drivers who lease their cabs from the Taxi and Limousine Commision are often afforded a similar luxury.
The bottom line is, Uber's service model isn't particularly unique, and there isn't really anything fundamentally different about an Uber-X than a cab. The company prides itself on its ability to disrupt the marketplace, but the reality is, Uber's greatest asset is that it was started in 2009, at the height of the App craze. When it was first introduced, the idea of pushing a button on your phone and hailing a cab was novel, it was cool. But in 2018, almost ten years later, the novelty has worn off. There are innumerable buttons to push. If you like the color pink, use Lyft. Hitch-a-Ride is teal. Even NYC taxi drivers have their own app now. That said, Uber's staying power is a testament to two things: one,the value of being first. And two, Being the cheapest option available makes it pretty easy to stay in business.
With regard to the latter however, Uber's ability to undercut traditional taxi services is predicated on their poor labor practices and the resultant low overhead. With that in mind, Stephen Gandel, published a piece in 2015 on the estimated cost Uber would incur if it were to formally employ its workers (in the US). With all things considered, Gandel came up with the number 4.1 billion dollars, or roughly 10% of Uber's total valuation. This was published three years ago, when Uber's reported 160,000 US-based drivers. By the end of 2015 they had doubled to 327,000 drivers. Uber also hit one million drivers worldwide in 2015. Since Gandel's report was based only on the 160,000 US-based drivers at the start of 2015, it's tough to say exactly what it would cost Uber to properly employ all of its workers, but we can infer that it'd be a pretty hefty, potentially devastating fee.
It would seem that if Uber continues losing lawsuits, its viability as a company could be in trouble. And, despite Europe taking the lead on securing employee status for Uber drivers, it would take a major societal shift in the way Americans view labor for any concrete change to truly happen here. Still, if Americans are looking for a perfect example of corporate greed, they need look no further than their favorite ride-sharing app.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff