This article was originally published on The Blank Page.
Uber’s public relations nightmare continues with the latest scandal involving CEO Travis Kalanick yelling at one of his company’s “partners” (better known as drivers) on video.
The two got into an exchange when Fawzi Kamel, an Uber driver, was dropping Kalanick off. The conversation became heated as the driver lambasted the company for reducing its fares.
Kalanick initially tried to explain Uber’s business strategy, but reacted rudely when Kamel angrily complained about his financial woes due to the company’s shift in tactics. Kalanick rebuked his driver for failing to take responsibility for his own situation and misattributing blame.
As the video circulated the web, Kalanick swiftly released an apology. He took refuge in the vague proclamation that he “must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up” and that he needs “leadership help.”
The controversy is likely to amplify the anti-Uber chorus on social media. Thehashtag campaign #DeleteUber has already led to 200,000 customers bidding the ride-sharing service goodbye.
The hashtag was borne out of Uber’s refusal to join taxi drivers as they protested U.S. President Donald Trump’s refugee ban at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). It was perpetuated by Kalanick’s decision to accept an invitation to join Trump’s economic advisory council (from which he has since resigned).
The #DeleteUber movement has stayed alive as the company has been embroiled in other fiascos, most notably the recent revelations by an ex-employee, Susan J. Fowler. Fowler, formerly a site reliability engineer for Uber, blogged about deeply-entrenched sexism she experienced in her workplace.
It is commendable for people to act in solidarity with the (largely colored and immigrant) taxi drivers of New York who took a stand against Trump’s discriminatory travel ban, and against Uber’s other questionable practices. However, the #DeleteUber campaign highlights the pitfalls of well-intentioned but myopic internet activism that too narrowly focuses on an individual firm’s missteps.
The movement raises questions about what #DeleteUber means, the values of its proponents and what they wish to achieve.
If the initial idea was to take a stand against profit-maximization of a corporation at the expense of its workers, then the outrage was bizarrely narrow in scope. Customers have barely raised a voice as these ride-sharing services have continued eliminating full-time jobs, lowering wages and weakening labour protections over the last several years.
The fickle nature of consumer-activism may have brought Uber to its knees, but has subsequently hoisted Lyft, its biggest competitor. The problem is that Lyft does not operate in a fundamentally different way.
In the aftermath of the controversy at JFK, Lyft – which is valued at nearly $6 billion USD – made the savvy PR decision to donate a million dollars to the American Civil Liberties Union, which has legally fought the travel ban, hence condemning the anti-Muslim ban. However, the company’s list of transgressions is not significantly different than Uber’s – minus the scandals.
Incidentally, Lyft also happens to have a heavy investor who supports Trump (as opposed to Kalanick, who at least publicly has opposed Trump’s travel ban and not endorsed any of his decisions). In 2015, this financer, Carl Icahn, invested $100 million into Lyft. He is also a on Trump’s advisory board.
If Kalanick continues to be only castigated for his outburst, we are missing the point. The angst against companies and CEOs who display egregious behavior is understandable. But it also speaks to a lack of understanding – or a casual indifference – about the systemic issues with the sharing industry.
Kalanick and his organization’s actions may be revolting, but the operations of Uber and Lyft are inherently problematic. Their current business models necessitate the exploitation of labour and preclude their participation in a fair economic system where worker’s rights are respected.
Uber may come crashing down due to the activism of its customers but Kamel and his cohorts will continue to suffer. They won’t get out of debt or make living wages if the hashtagtivism ends up switching off Uber.
The gig-economy (an economy sustained by part-time and freelance work) will continue to create precarious employment where drivers work themselves to exhaustion, and have neither sick days nor benefits to fall back on.
#DeleteUber as an act of resistance doesn’t provide much solace to workers. Instead, it wrests power in the hands of consumers, the interests of whom are not always the same as those of the citizenry.
The most marginalized amongst us don’t have the luxury of expressing their democratic choices through their purchasing power. To be inclusive and truly progressive, the #DeleteUber campaign needs to expand and demand fair treatment for drivers from all ride-sharing companies.
The fight for justice can’t end with a swift delete of the app that affirms belief in one’s own economic power. It needs to embolden and empower others.