Delete Über? No, please.


BY SPENCER SLAGOWITZ || JANUARY 30TH, 2017

If you have been on the internet at all the last three days, you will be undoubtedly aware of the grassroots campaign (of sorts) to boycott the transportation network service, Über. Since Saturday, calls to #deleteÜber have grown in number and in fervor following the company’s ‘decision’ to not strike with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance  and a tweet sent by the company which was taken by many to be an effort to break the strike. If you’re unfamiliar with the situation, read these good overviews here and here. For those who support the boycott, “deleting Über” is a foregone conclusion, but the reality is invariably much more nuanced.

As I understand, people are angry with Über for four reasons:

  1. They believe that Über intended to break the strike or undermine the efforts of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.
  2. Following this belief, many individuals believe that Über or at least CEO Travis Kalanick—who is on President Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum (an advisory body for business matters) along with Elon Musk—was collaborating with the Trump administration.
  3. Furthermore, activists allege that at minimum Über intended to immorally profit off the strike.
  4. Finally, people believe that Über ought to have protested with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, regardless of whether they intended to break the strike or take advantage of it to make money.

We’ll address each of these in turn, but ultimately I do not believe they hold up under close scrutiny.

Did Über intend to purposefully counteract strike through social media?

Many took a tweet posted by the company that stated “Surge pricing has been turned off at #JFK Airport. This may result in longer wait times. Please be patient.” to, according to Vox, “suggest that  Über was trying to break up or counteract the strike and acting in support of…[the Muslim Ban].” By this interpretation, the announcement of Über’s availability, publicly undermined the strike and thereby attempted to break it. However, the tweet was posted at 7:36pm, more than a half an hour after the strike (which lasted from 6pm to 7pm) ended. The tweet could not have been attempting to break the strike because it had already ceased. Moreover, Über immediately backtracked, explaining that the post was not meant to undermine the protest (which had, again, already ended)—though its natural to be skeptical of the company.

Is Über and Kalanick in cahoots with the Trump Administration?

Let’s first preface this part by stating unequivocally that there is no conclusive evidence whatsoever to suggest that Kalanick and/or Über coordinated with the Trump Administration to break the strike (which, for the third time, HAD ALREADY ENDED). There are only circumstantial conjectures, which many have overstated. These conjectures rest on a single shaky foundation: Kalanick is on President Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum. Thus, detractors allege, that means he was colluding with Trump. However, the Strategic and Policy Forum works with the Administration on business matters purely on advisory grounds. Other members of the board included Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi and Tesla and SpaceX’s Elon Musk. To imply that a business leader’s membership on a business advisory board with many other business leaders means that his company is coordinating with Trump is unfounded. One does not presuppose the other.

Not only is there no good reason to believe that Über coordinated with Trump to break the strike and support the ‘Muslim Ban,’ but there are also many reasons that contradict allegations of crony-esque coordination and support the null hypothesis in this case. Über and Kalanick, in both word and deed, oppose the Muslim Ban and have made a considerable to effort to help workers affected by it.

Conceivably, detractors could respond by suggesting that Uber and Kalanick do not actually oppose the ban, but are only doing so predicated on business interests.

Well, Kalanick sent the following letter to his employees on Saturday at 1:20 PM—4 hours and 40 minutes before the New York Taxi Workers Alliance strike and 6 hours before they posted the tweet that thrust them into a gauntlet of criticism and outrage. It is a letter that reflects the company’s unvarnished point of view before the scandal. So what does it say? Does it reveal Über’s nefarious support of the muslim ban? Does it expose Kalanick’s coordination with the Trump administration or words of praise for the decision? Not in the slightest.

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In the email Kalanick promises:

  1. Assistance for those impacted by the ban through immigration@uber.com
  2. To compensate, pro-bono, Über drivers who are unable to return to the U.S to get back to work.
  3. To bring up the issue of the Muslim ban and pressure the administration using the access granted to him through membership on Trump’s economic advisory group.

Moreover, Kalanick’s focus on the ethical implications the ban has on, indeed, thousands of innocent lives suggests his opposition is based on humanitarian concerns. This is reinforced by this statement released in the blog post on Sunday which detailed exactly what Über is doing and castigated the muslim ban as unjust.

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Clearly in both word (public and private statements, that is) and deed (making a considerable effort to address those impacted by the ban even before the #deleteÜber craze, as well as promising to lobby the administration to revoke the ban), Über demonstrated a clear opposition to the ban and the Trump administration’s actions which preclude coordination and cast doubt on allegations of cronyism.

Did Über intend to profit off the strike?

If anything Über’s decision to suspend surge pricing demonstrates a willingness to avoid the appearance that they were taking advantage of the strike to make money. Under the conditions of a strike, the reduced availability of taxi cabs would boost demand for Übers and automatically set off the surge function. In this state of scarcity, Über can charge more because people are more willing to pay to travel. If Über truly meant to profit off the both the lack of taxi cabs and the influx of protestors and lawyers, it would have allowed the surge pricing function to operate as it is programmed. But Über has been continuously and rightfully criticized on this sort of practice in the past, especially in the cases of natural disasters. However, Über purposefully did not raise prices and at 7:36pm, let protesters and travelers alike know that they could travel back without having to pay exorbitant fees.

Should Über have participated in the strike in the first place? Was it a good idea?

Some might suggest that it doesn’t matter whether Über intended to take advantage of the strike, the important point is that they refused to join in the strike. So it begs the question, did Über bear a moral obligation to participate in the strike? Was the strike a good idea at all? Examining the protest critically, it appears that while incredibly well intentioned, it cannot be portrayed as a bold moral stand that Über should be punished for refusing to take part in, because it was ineffective, and ultimately counterproductive.

Firstly, striking in this manner does not put any pressure on the Trump administration or local authorities in any sort of capacity. Strikes are effective when they are leveraged against those who are impacted by them on the negotiating table. But how does a 1 hour strike disadvantage the Trump administration in the slightest?

Secondly, protest is an incredibly useful tool for its optics. Mass demonstration mobilizes the populace against the object of protest and encourages others to join in on the activism. It also continuously casts in doubt popular support for a policy and prevents a leader from claiming a popular mandate to support a policy like the muslim ban. However, the brevity of a one hour strike undermines its own symbolic value. Given the massive protests at JFK, the regional cab union strike would have been likely drowned out in the news cycle if not for the #deleteÜber scandal. Even if you believe there is a kantian moral imperative to strike in these cases: it is rule worship to follow the rule where the end is not served, like in this case.

Thirdly, this form of protest disadvantages innocent third parties completely unrelated to the “Muslim Ban”. The people who suffer as a result are those who are just trying to get home to their families after a long travel day, not the Trump administration, nor any of the parties involved or who are culpable. One cannot simply ignore the “double effect” produced by decision to strike. Given that JFK’s AirTrain shuttle had been closed by the Port Authority (until Governor Cuomo reversed the decision), if Über had joined in on the strike, travelers would have had little other option.

Lastly, most importantly, the strike is counterproductive insofar as it inconveniences those who went to the rally and makes it harder for them to find transport back home. Moreover, it disadvantages the lawyers who rushed to JFK to draft legal briefs, who ultimately were able to acquire a court order granting a stay on the ‘muslim ban’ by denying them transport too.

Ultimately, the era of Donald Trump demands disciplined and directed protest. We can no longer afford to waste protest capital on issues that do not materialize into results. Moreover, we ought not encourage protests that are both counterproductive, ineffective, and inconvenience innocent third parties. This era of progressive wilderness-wandering does not give us license to abandon our core commitments to the truth and evidence-based decision making. Über never intended to break the strike (or counteract it on social media), did not collaborate with the administration, and purposefully took measures to not profit from the strike. The #deleteÜber movement demonstrates that we cannot surrender our individual judgement to that of the crowd.

I say these things not because I am some corporate apologist nor because I am trying to equate trivial suffering of Über with the thousands of people and families who will be adversely affected by the ban—I say these things because in the age of Trump we must resist the urge to submit to the knee-jerk reaction of backlash when we have only little information on hand. Because, in the era of fake news and anti-intellectualism, we must prize evidence-driven policy making and truth, above all.