By Joshua Stair, political columnist
Travis Kalanick had a tough week as Uber’s CEO.
Last Saturday, amid the protests over Trump’s immigration ban at New York’s JFK airport, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) announced it would strike between 6 and 7 p.m. EST. About an hour and a half before the strike began, Uber NYC tweeted that surge pricing had been turned off at airports but gave no indication that drivers would participate in the strike.
Uber NYC’s tweet quickly earned the white-hot fury of the Internet. The NYTWA deftly rallied its supporters against Uber, accusing Uber of supporting the travel ban. The entire situation wasn’t helped when Uber issued a follow-up tweet linking to a Facebook post in which Kalanick explained Uber’s choices and stances. The greatest outrage came from Kalanick’s decision to take part in President Donald J. Trump’s economic advisory group (a decision Kalanick has since reversed).
Now, I’ve only ever had one experience with Uber, and it was absolutely terrible. But I can’t help but feel that Uber has been treated unfairly over the past week. Yes, there are definitely legitimate reasons to disagree with Uber and dislike them (especially if you are a taxi driver). But none seem justify the intense hate Uber has garnered. Worst of all, Kalanick’s decision to withdraw from Trump’s economic advisory group could be a sign of worse to come.
There seem to be two reasons people have turned on Uber. The first is its handling of the JFK Airport strike. Now, it’s probably just my deep-rooted cynicism, but when the NYTWA called out Uber for not participating in the hour-long strike, that outrage didn’t strike me as a principled stance on the issues. It came across more as an attempt to smear Uber after the beating that ride-sharing services, especially Uber and Lyft, have dealt traditional taxi companies.
On the other side, I don’t believe Uber was acting out of the goodness of its corporate heart when it turned off surge pricing. It was simply the logical business choice. Price gouging would have left Uber in an even worse PR position than it’s in now, so it’s hard for me to see either side as the ultimate good.
Additionally, the NYTWA picked an odd way to strike. Traditionally, strikes are used to create leverage for workers so they can negotiate for something they want. Whether or not you agree with the organization’s politics, striking JFK for an hour didn’t gain the NYTWA anything except visibility. It would have made far more sense to simply stop service to and from Trump Tower, possibly including the many other Trump properties across New York. While I understand the symbolic reason for choosing JFK, it doesn’t make very much practical sense. But aside from the NYTWA, there is an issue with the public’s response.
Now, I will never begrudge anyone the right to protest, boycott or otherwise complain. All three have the capacity to enact change and can be powerful tools in a political movement. But if you delete Uber because of the strike, you should know that Lyft also continued service during that hour of strike, and I have yet to find any indication that Gett, Via or Juno (the next largest ride-sharers in New York) participated, either. Yes, I know that Uber’s offenses go deeper than the rest, but they are not the only ones to make money off that hour of striking.
At this point in the column, you are likely wondering what any of this has to do with technology, beyond Uber being app-based. The technology aspect lies in the second reason the public seems to have turned on Uber: Kalanick’s inclusion on the Trump economic advisory group. Or rather, Travis Kalanick’s decision to leave Trump’s economic advisory group, as of Friday.
While some saw this as a victory, I fear it may be a setback. The advisory group seems like an opportunity for business experts of diverse views and backgrounds to voice their opinions directly to President Trump. Their ideas, many of which differ from Trump’s, could help change some of his policies for the better. This idea should be especially encouraging for techies, as the inclusion of voices such as Elon Musk, Ginni Rometty and Jack Welch—all people who have heavily criticized Trump in the past—could possibly help steer the president in a better direction on technology policies. And as I noted in a previous Technobabble post, Donald Trump is in need of some technical knowledge.
I know that for many on the left, it’s not easy to wish President Trump good luck in his presidency, let alone reach out a hand to help him. Many Republicans felt the same in 2008. As such, it can be hard to support a group business leaders advising Trump, and many have been quick to condemn Musk, Rometty, Kalanick and the others as colluding with the enemy. But when you imagine Trump only being counseled by people like Ajit Pai and Stephen Bannon, Elon Musk and Ginni Rometty seem like a welcome addition.
Photo courtesy Luminary Traveler, Creative Commons