Is #DeleteUber Good for Workers' Rights?

The social-media campaign highlights labor issues, but only through the lens of identity.

Uber drivers protest against working conditions outside the company's office in Santa Monica, California. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

When the New York Symphony goes on strike for better wages and benefits in the web TV series Mozart in the Jungle, its members find new ways to make do. Union Bob, a piccolo player whose nickname underscores his commitment to union rules, starts taking Uber fares in his Prius.

Uber couldn’t have asked for a better endorsement: Even for striking union leaders, the service offers but a harmless opportunity for micro-entrepreneurship. “Work that puts you first,” Uber’s website declares. “Drive when you want, earn what you need.”

Reality proves more complex. On Saturday, in response to President Trump’s executive order restricting immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) issued a work stoppage at JFK airport, one of metro New York’s major international hubs. In its statement, the Alliance cited the large Muslim and international population among the city’s 50,000 licensed taxi drivers.

Shortly after, Uber lifted surge pricing, its demand-quelling fare-increase mechanism, to JFK airport. The NYTWA, along with already-agitated protesters across the country, saw this as a deliberate, even if unconscious, act of organized strike-busting. Uber drivers became de facto scabs.

The public took notice, using the hashtag #DeleteUber to call for customers of the service to remove their Uber accounts as punishment. It wasn’t the first mark against the company in the Trump era. Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, was among the business leaders who had joined the president’s Strategic and Policy Forum, making some see him as a Trump apologist.

The general public’s commitment to the taxi protest is notable, but even more remarkable is the fact that the taxi drivers’ dispute with Uber gained attention as a side-effect of race, creed, or nationality. It took a crisis of identity politics to reveal a crisis of economic politics.

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In a statement, Uber declared that it had no intention of breaking the JFK taxi strike. But while Uber doesn’t labor-bust directly, its service routes individuals around bottlenecks and restrictions on labor. The company’s app, which provides access to its network of drivers, covers its impact on the funding, management, and support of delivery and public-transit services. When Uber users can simply tap a button and go, they forego the need to ponder how taxi and car services work and why. As a result, the sharing economy becomes a de-facto network of accidental scabs who avoid the personal, social, or organizational cost of directly busting actual strikes.

That’s true whether an Uber passenger crosses picket lines at an airport during a national protest or is just hopping in a car back home from the local brewpub. Sharing economy apps offer the opportunity to opt out of labor- and regulation-controlled industries like transit and lodging in exchange for marginal price savings, increased convenience, and better compliance with app-controlled lifestyles.

This irony wasn’t lost on the NYTWA. In a statement about #DeleteUber, the alliance both praised app-deleters for their support and excoriated them for having missed the point for so long.

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. Sharing is the new euphemism for worker exploitation, meaning that workers share the scraps after corporations loot profits. Even as these corporations make million-dollar pledges today, they still refuse to abide by Minimum Wage laws.

Uber’s effects on labor as such haven’t gone unspoken. Sharing services have long been connected to the rise of precarious labor, the decline of living standards among the working class, and the hollowing out of workers rights. Some critics have advocated for an alternative, “platform cooperative” approach to sharing-economy services, which would be owned by their operators rather than by bankers and entrepreneurs. But these criticisms have largely gone unheard, even among the predominantly young, city-dwelling liberals who use Uber’s services most. Like Union Bob, many progressive elites see Uber as a service or income convenience decoupled from broader issues of labor policy.

Until now, that is. #DeleteUber shows that the left is receptive to the plight of workers, but that labor concerns had to be activated by other means.

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It’s been a problem for the left for some time. As Matt Stoller wrote for The Atlantic last fall, young liberals of the 1970s traded concerns about financial power for those of statist aggression and human rights. Opposition to international conflict and support of civil rights, tolerance, and equity became Democratic party mainstays. Four decades later, Stoller writes, liberals face a paradox. On the one hand, they have produced a culture of extreme tolerance. But on the other hand, they have also facilitated massive consolidation of wealth and economic power.

Now that it can be reviewed with hindsight, the 2016 presidential election seems to affirm the results of this trend. Hillary Clinton lost the “blue wall” states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by failing to connect to blue-collar and middle-class whites, who were susceptible to Donald Trump’s promises of job reform. Supporters of Bernie Sanders will be quick to point out that his candidacy was more vocal about economic reform, but Sanders isn’t really a Democrat; he’s served as an independent in the small state of Vermont, making his play against wealth inequality and financial reform just another example of how low-priority such matters have become for the Democrats. That leaves Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, often the sole voice of economic- and labor-reform in her party, and thereby the exception that proves the rule.

Big technology businesses like Google have earned praise for publicly objecting to Trump’s executive order; Microsoft and Amazon have even issued support for the state of Washington’s lawsuit against the immigration ban. But these businesses, which rely heavily on foreign worker visa programs, might be supporting an identity issue partly as way to maintaining international-labor flexibility. And Uber’s competitor Lyft, sometimes seen as better for drivers, has investment ties to Trump supporter Carl Icahn, making it harder for anti-Trump ridesharers to make a simple app switch.

There’s a bittersweet lesson to take away from the weekend’s airport protests and the #DeleteUber campaign. The progressive left is willing to take to the streets in droves. But, at least among the subset of left elites that tweet hashtags and use car services, such actions still seem more easily motivated by issues of identity than economics. Which isn’t necessarily to say that the latter is more important than the former, or even that the two aren’t intertwined. But progressive political action and political anger still appear far more easily motivated by hostility against identity than against material. After all, thousands of protesters never turned out at airports to rally against the sharing economy on behalf of its labor pool, diverse though their collective identities also might have been.

If the #DeleteUber folk really did delete their accounts rather than just their apps, then perhaps a change is afoot. But then again, aren’t hashtag campaigns on social media their own form of identity performance? A new smartphone taptivism to replace web-page clicktivism. Even if the left recovers a commitment to economic politics as first principles, it’s not yet clear that it can do so without in-fighting over the moral consequence of subordinating matters of identity as a prime political mover, even if just temporarily.

For now, one can’t help but wonder how many of the progressive protesters that have taken to the streets since January 20 also took Ubers to the airports and downtowns and public squares and city halls where they marched and waved signs. Revolt, but with convenience.