The Fall of the House of Uber

Politics Features Uber
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The Fall of the House of Uber

Uber’s tendency to boldly cross boundaries and muscle their way past regulations has earned the company its place as the top ride sharing app on the market. However, it seems that timidity will end up being the company’s Achilles’ heel. Over the weekend, Uber made a grave miscalculation about the protests taking place in airports across the country, specifically New York.

If you missed the news earlier this week, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a union including drivers of yellow and green cabs as well as Uber and Lyft, declared its members would cease service to John F. Kennedy Airport for one full hour. The Taxi Workers Alliance’s dues-paying membership is comprised mostly of immigrants, the majority from Muslim nations. The group had been planning some form of protest in response to Trump’s Executive Order and when they saw the large demonstrations taking place at JFK, they felt an obligation to act in solidarity.

In a woefully misguided response, Uber tweeted out there would be no surge charges for any rides from the airport during the strike. In the hours and days since the initial tweet, the company claimed it was trying not to be seen as profiting from the taxi strike. Uber claims this is their de facto practice during any kind of natural disaster or other emergency. It provides riders a chance to hail a car without having to pay any extra fees. However, these claims have done nothing to change the public’s opinion this was nothing more than old school scabbing.

The uproar was immediate and overwhelming. #DeleteUber started trending on Twitter as celebrities, activists and average citizens started clamoring to the relatively simple way of lodging their contempt against the company and the ban. What could be seen as the first major corporate boycott of the Trump administration was swift and decisive. In an attempt to ease the mass exodus, Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick took to Twitter and Facebook to release a statement.

Framed as an email sent to all Uber drivers and released to the public, Kalanick writes, “At Uber we’ve always believed in standing up for what’s right. Today we need your help supporting drivers who may be impacted by the President’s unjust immigration ban.” Kalanick goes on to give a list of actions Uber will take to support their drivers. These actions include providing “24/7 legal support for drivers who are trying to get back in the country,” compensating displaced drivers for lost earnings, urging the government to lift the ban and creating a “$3 million legal defense fund to help drivers with immigration and translation services.”

While these actions are great, if a little amorphous, it looks like they were too little too late. Uber had been standing on a precipice for several months and this surge charge fiasco seems to have pushed them over the edge. In December, the company started offering self-driving cars in its hometown of San Francisco. The D.M.V. swiftly condemned the action, stating Uber had refused to obtain the proper permits. While Google, Tesla and General Motors all hold “autonomous vehicle testing permits,” Uber claimed the hoops they would have to jump through would be too onerous. Anthony Levandowski, vice president of Uber’s advanced technologies group, claimed in a call with reporters that because the Uber self-driving cars required a human observer behind the wheel, the company shouldn’t have to obtain a permit. “You don’t need to wear a belt and suspenders and whatever else if you’re wearing a dress,” Levandowski said to The New York Times.

Shortly after, Uber found itself in hot water when one of its driverless cars ran a red light. The company balked that the driver responsible for the car was at fault, not the car itself. The damage had been done though and just one short week after rolling out the cars in San Francisco, they were taken off the streets. Bulldozing their way into the market finally blew back in the company’s face in a major way.

These most recent embarrassments are added to Uber’s long and well-documented history of not properly vetting drivers, putting their passengers in danger and cheating drivers out of wages. The fact CEO Kalanick sits on Donald Trump’s business advisory group also makes his umbrage at the EO ring false. Kalanick was recently quoted as saying Uber will “partner with anyone in the world as long as they’re about making transportation in cities better, creating job opportunities, making it easier to get around.” Not feeling satisfied with his original social media declaration, Kalanick joined other members of the New York tech community, including the co-founders of Warby Parker, Airbnb, Lyft, Slack and Buzzfeed, in signing a formal condemnation of the ban. Kalanick’s participation has appeared to accomplish little other than raised eyebrows among consumers.

Smelling blood in the water, Lyft sent out an email over the weekend pledging it would donate $1 million to the ACLU over the next four years. Lyft downloads surged. The blatant opportunism was wilfully ignored by anyone who wanted to maintain the convenience of ride sharing apps. Two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars is a pretty paltry sum when you consider the company is worth billions of dollars. Once again, making these hollow gestures seem just a little more craven, Peter Thiel, who has been waging a one-man war on the constitutional right of free speech and is more than a little cozy with Donald Trump, is one of Lyft’s major investors.

Really, out of this whole mess, the only heroes who remain are the taxi drivers. For one hour they embodied the oft-chanted phrase: “Who shuts shit down?” They didn’t put out vapid statements or take half-measures. The union maintained their history of standing up for workers’ and immigrants’ rights. For travellers located in New York and several other major cities seeking an alternative to Uber and Lyft, Arro offers the convenience of an app to hail a yellow or green cab.

#DeleteUber should send a message not only to the company it targets, but to all corporations. The people showed that vague corporate statements and a history of shady and discriminatory practices will no longer be tolerated. The public will meet your inaction with action. And it will affect your bottom line.