When newly inaugurated President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, it was a grim moment for America.
Many of us reflected on what the future would hold and wondered whether the idea of the U.S. as a haven for immigrants and refugees had ever really held true. Citizens flooded into airports to protest against the sudden border closure that left people in transit with nowhere to turn. But when New York taxi drivers went on strike, refusing to pick up fares from the airport in a show of solidarity, one company saw not a solemn moment, but an opportunity to make a buck.
The ridesharing service Uber has long been controversial; their prices undercut the wages of union taxi drivers, and many cities, including St. Louis, have fought hard to keep them out. But the company’s response to Trump’s executive order sparked a new level of hatred. Instead of joining the taxi strike, the company notified users that its drivers were still available, a slap in the face to union efforts that many also interpreted as indifference to their cause.
A trending hashtag on Twitter urged users to #DeleteUber, and soon 200,000 of them had.
Uber has since made a concentrated effort to change their public image. The company has joined a lawsuit against Trump’s immigration ban, while its CEO has resigned from the president’s advisory board of business leaders. Still, the boycott can teach us a lot about how to approach the Trump years.
First, it shows the power of organized labor in opposing Trump’s agenda. Historically, authoritarian regimes and union organizations are bitter enemies. The reason for that is simple, only the power of workers can cause the machines of industry to grind to a halt, as they did at airports across the United States when terminals were packed with protesters and there were no cabs to call. And only economic turmoil can threaten a leader concerned only with his image.
It also demonstrates something with a particular relevance to college students; the “sharing economy” epitomized by companies like Uber is built on a lie.
Ridesharing companies and imitators like Airbnb advertise themselves on the idea that everyone can benefit from sharing, and that sounds like a nice idea. If the rider saves money compared to the price of a taxi and the driver makes money driving their own car, everybody wins, right? It seems community-driven and almost anti-capitalist.
In reality, the business model of Uber is ruthlessly capitalistic. When Uber comes to town, union employees find themselves facing a challenge to their jobs from people with no training or experience who are willing to work for less. And life isn’t great for Uber’s drivers, either. They’re classified as contractors, not employees, which means they receive no benefits or safety net at all.
That’s why Uber is the darling of Silicon Valley and the business press even though it is still operating on a loss; they’re pioneering a vision of a world in which workers are interchangeable and companies owe them nothing.
So, whatever performative statements their CEO makes about Trump, young people should #DeleteUber and take a union cab. The lower price and convenience now aren’t worth living in the world Uber wants to create later.