Uber and Corporate Political Campaigns

Labor Organizing

taxi-unions-protest-against-ride-sharing-services-like-lyft-uber_2_0New Orleans      Uber, as many of us can’t avoid knowing anymore, is the ride service accessed now in 170 cities around the world on smartphones, and according to Wall Street valued at billions. Taxi drivers in Paris, London, New York and elsewhere have protested the fact that the service is unregulated and of course taking away business, and in the drivers’ cases, regular employment. Both the legacy outfits and upstarts are based on the exploitation of so-called “independent” contractors, which has long been a fiction, now becoming ever more a fantasy. This is part of the so-called “sharing” or “peer” marketplace, and I’m going to have to admit, I’m getting more and more uncomfortable about it, and the recent news from Uber is making me even more fidgety.

Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, was quoted as saying, “Uber has been in a political campaign but hasn’t been running one. That is changing now.” And, what was changing now is the fact that he was hiring David Plouffe as senior vice-president in charge of policy, branding, overall strategy, and communications. Plouffe becomes the latest Obama campaign veteran to cash in on his time in politics most notably as campaign manager for Obama’s historic and successful race in 2008 and sometimes special adviser after that.

At this point in the age of Koch Industries and so many others financing corporate political campaigns to the tune of gazillions, I wonder why it’s even news. Furthermore, there is nothing about any of the politics of the libertarian tilted, techy Silicon Valley crowd that makes me feel warm and fuzzy. The fact that they are mostly white men who are young and naïve and all about the money doesn’t make me convinced that they are necessarily that much different than white men who are old and experienced and all about the money. I think we have earned the right to be skeptical.

What kind of political campaign is this anyway? Consumers become the constituents, I assume. And the election? I’m not sure, but I guess the first polling would be moving the consumer voters against their city council members to vote to let Uber and others like it, do anything they want.

The leverage on consumers is the claim of savings and the promise of buying something a little more exclusive and a lot more lux that the average day in, day out, yellow cab handling any and every one might be able to provide. A management lawyer I encounter frequently in bargaining union contracts in Louisiana told me a story about how his firm used Uber to get into San Francisco for a case they were handling last year. His crew loved Uber. On the other hand talking to a woman driver for a Missoula local company called Airport Shuttle who had been driving the van for the company for years as she met us at 450 AM to spirit us out of the West, we discussed the seasonality of her work there, and how easily it would be to marginalize the business with random on-call drivers. She wasn’t’ an Uber-ite.

I’ve been a part of organizing drives for taxi drivers in Dallas and New Orleans over the years, and our informal workers unions still represent auto-rickshaw drivers in Delhi. There’s a reason that cities regulate common carriers on public roads to ensure safety, standards, and even rate charges and accurate readings on the meters. Certainly taxi companies in cities and at airports have always been political contributors, so I don’t begrudge the Uber’s of the world for putting their money into the game as well, but are we sure that an unregulated industry is the best for citizens who are also consumers. I’m not.

As Plouffe’s 2008 plan has taught all of us, hope is not a plan. I think they both should have a hard sell on his campaign.