On Saturday evening in New York, scores of immigrants and refugees remained detained at JFK airport following Trump’s travel ban. Lawyers huddled on terminal 4’s floor, punching out habeas corpus petitions. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, an advocacy organization representing a coalition of independent contractors—including some who do double-time for Lyft, Uber, and other ride-hailing startups—issued a scathing statement calling the executive order “inhumane” and a “sanctioning of bigotry” before calling for an hour-long strike.
“We know all too well that when government programs sanction outright Islamophobia, and the rhetoric of hate is spewed from the bully pulpit, hate crimes increase and drivers suffer gravely,” the coalition wrote.
Not much to the surprise of anyone remotely familiar with Uber’s short but concentrated history of union-busting—or its habit of pandering to America’s luxury class—the company happened to mentioned it would be suspending surge pricing that night. The tweet, which technically came after the strike, was taken on the backdrop of the Uber CEO’s involvement in the Trump administration and his lukewarm attitude towards the ban.
In the hours following its statement about surge pricing, Uber’s statement would be understood as an attempt to cash in on the yellow cab work stoppage. The hashtag #DeleteUber, its message endorsed and execution well-documented by a number of celebrities, trended on Twitter. Lyft, a much smaller ride-hailing app with a history of bitter competition with Uber, announced it would be donating $1 million to the ACLU. As Jezebel pointed out, celebrity shills for the company hopped on the boycott, too. But Lyft was still operating during the strike, and according to emails obtained by Buzzfeed while Uber’s management declined to denounce the immigration ban, it did offer vague assurances to its immigrant employees much earlier than its competitor on Saturday.
Facebook tells you to get out to vote; Uber, Lyft and Zipcar gave rides to the polls. Silicon Valley’s advertising voice and sense of utopian promise relies on fostering a sense of closeness with its consumers. Unfortunately that voice isn’t transferrable to the current political climate, if Uber and Lyft’s rapid and opportunistic responses on Saturday are any indication. The tech industry, which cherry-picks liberal positions but relies on anti-regulatory labor policies to keep expanding, will have trouble pleasing the self-identified progressives who patronize their services, even those used to joining hashtags instead of movements.
And with the travel ban, which has rejected or stranded refugees from seven predominantly Muslim-majority countries (many of whom are employed by companies like Google, Facebook and, yes, Uber and Lyft) the limits of Silicon Valley’s branded politics will continue be thrown into sharp relief.
Even observers sympathetic to the tech industry pointed out that the never-Uber defection to Lyft came off as a little disingenuous. Brad Stone, a Silicon Valley journalist whose book Upstart takes a celebrator look at some of the industry’s better-known startup founders, said he felt the ire was particularly unjust. ”There’s plenty of reason to criticize Uber,” he suggested, but perhaps this particular tweet wasn’t it.
He, like others, pointed out that Peter Thiel, a Trump delegate and a public supporter of the president, is a major investor of Lyft’s, as is Mary Barra, chairman of General Motors and a member of Trump’s economic policy team. Which isn’t to mention that Lyft, though less popular with the international business elite than its competitor, also has a history of such practices as deactivating drivers with no warning and engaging in extended arbitration to ensure its drivers won’t enjoy the privileges of regular employees.
In 2014, Marco Rubio descended on Uber’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to denounce the federal and local regulations that kept businesses like Uber from raking in as much money as possible. This week, Uber is pro-labor and pro-immigrant, is setting aside $3 million for immigrant employees’ legal aid, and apologized at least twice for disrespecting striking taxi drivers—perhaps because it’s watching a number of its customers defect for a company it’s been in bitter competition with for years.
There are real reason such a sense of indignation is pointed at Uber: Its CEO, Travis Kalanick, is a recent addition to the Trump administration’s 19-member business advisory board and he’s been publicly optimistic about his free-market, business-first objective. As he said in a staff meeting recently, Uber will “partner with anyone in the world” to continue Uber’s viral expansion across the globe. Adding to the fire was a statement from Roger Stone, a longtime Trump ally, showing support for Uber: “Unions don’t dictate rules anymore,” he wrote on Twitter.
“We stand against these actions, and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community,” Lyft wrote in a statement. It issued a promise to work directly with its HR department to assist drivers affected by the travel ban, though oddly, for them as much as Uber, the details on what that pushback looks like are scant. In the blowback, some Uber customers received pleading messages from the company when they tried to delete their accounts explaining the ride-hailing app never meant to impact the JFK strike.
But some argue that the rapid backpedaling can and should be seen as much as a move to retain customers as a show of genuine solidarity. Arun Sundararajan, a professor at NYU’s business school who’s written extensively on the tech industry, says political responses from the ride-sharing apps are “driven by the calculated corporate response.” They’re also driven by the personalities of the executives who make such calls—personalities similar to those of Mark Zuckerberg, who has offered tepid responses to his company’s role in the election and the recent travel ban, and Airbnb’s CEO and founder Brian Chesky, who helpfully tweeted in response to the travel ban: “let’s all find ways to connect, not separate, people.”
Or, as the Taxi union who called for the original strike put it on Monday, after Uber and Lyft battled for the consumers who have helped them reach valuations of billions of dollars: “Make no mistake, the corporations leading the gig economy and the sharing economy will never be a part of the resistance. Backed by billions of dollars in Wall Street funding, these companies, including Uber and Lyft, are upending labor standards for which workers have spent centuries fighting.”