Like a lot of people, I couldn’t pull myself away from my iPhone as new details about the fast-spreading #DeleteUber boycott came rolling in on Saturday, Jan. 28. Unlike most of those people though, the news hit especially close to home. Not just because, as an Uber driver in Santa Cruz, I knew I would be feeling the fallout financially, but also because as a fervent opponent of the current president, it was shocking and disorienting to suddenly find myself on the receiving end of anti-Trump protests.
In case you haven’t been following the story with the same obsessive thumb scrolling, it all started when protesters swarmed airports that weekend to protest Trump’s executive order banning all travelers from seven Muslim countries—a ban later halted by Seattle federal judge James Robart after the state of Washington filed a lawsuit claiming it was unconstitutional. In a show of solidarity with those affected by the ban, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance announced they were halting all rides to and from JFK airport for an hour. An hour after the strike, Uber removed all surge pricing for rides to the airport, which critics saw as opportunistic (though Uber later claimed it was done to make getting to and from the airport less expensive). One Twitter user, @Bro_Pair, drew attention to the announcement from Uber, giving rise to the rapidly trending hashtag #DeleteUber.
Within 24 hours, 200,000 Uber users deleted their accounts. While this may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to Uber’s 40 million active riders worldwide, it was a huge public relations blow to the company. It didn’t help Uber’s case among Trump protesters that footage of the company’s CEO Travis Kalanick meeting with the president as a member of his Economic Advisory Board had recently aired. In a blog post, Kalanick said that he would rather have a “seat at the table” so that he and other business leaders could propose reasonable policies to Trump.
Eventually, Kalanick announced that he was stepping down from Trump’s team, and he set up a $3 million legal fund to help drivers, many of whom are part of the immigrant community, with legal fees.
Some of the riders I had the first week after #DeleteUber trended seemed to be going through the same internal struggles that I was about being associated with Uber. One friend paid me to drive her and her friends to dinner, and she took Lyft back.
Although rides were down, I still had my share of passengers. Eitan Seri-Levi, who ordered a ride for a responsible beer run, told me he had considered deleting his Uber app, but decided against it. He said that a few years ago, when he was a freshman at UCSC, there was no easy way to get around—yes, there were taxi cabs, but they were not as immediate as an app at your fingertips and a driver at your door in less than 10 minutes—so perhaps a certain amount of brand loyalty played into his decision.
Another Santa Cruz resident who drives for Uber as a second job, and asked that her name not be used, told me she was also morally conflicted about #DeleteUber. She was furious that Kalanick had joined Trump’s advisory team, and she was ready to sign up to instead drive for Lyft, which has only recently arrived in Santa Cruz and doesn’t have a big enough rider population yet to make it financially viable for most drivers.
Nor is Lyft’s record squeaky clean in the eyes of many Trump opponents. While Lyft did donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union, it’s been criticized by the same activists who supported #DeleteUber for its ties to Carl Icahn. Matt Rosoff of CNBC wrote that, “Lyft financier Carl Icahn did a lot more than Kalanick to help get Trump elected. He was an early and vocal supporter of Trump during the campaign, claiming that the businessman would be much better for the economy than Hillary Clinton, and Trump appointed Icahn as a special advisor on regulation in December.”
Personally, I have found my Uber gig to be a rewarding side hustle, although I wish it weren’t tainted with ethical scandals, and I’m not ruling out moving over to Lyft should that become a better option. It is not my sole source of income, and it would be hard to earn enough to make a living if it were. It does provide me with some interesting encounters with locals and visitors, though, and there are many like me who are staying on and hope to push the company in a more progressive direction.
Uber has been dogged by other controversies in the past, including settling a highly publicized labor dispute with drivers who wanted to be recognized as employees rather than independent contractors. The latest scandal came just last weekend, when an ex-Uber employee named Susan Fowler Rigetti published a blog post on Sunday, Feb. 19 that went viral, detailing a year of alleged sexual harassment by her manager. Kalanick tweeted a link to her blog post with the comment, “What’s described here is abhorrent & against everything we believe in. Anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.”
Whether employees will be successful in changing the company’s ethics remains to be seen; however, it was employees at Uber headquarters in San Francisco who—noting that many Uber drivers are immigrants who will be harmed by Trump’s policies—applied pressure to Kalanick to distance himself from the president, both in meetings and in a 25-page Google Doc that shared employees’ stories of how Trump’s immigration proposals will affect their loved ones.
HASHTAGGING FOR CHANGE
The Santa Cruz Uber driver I spoke to is also an activist, and felt that whatever the setback to her bottom line, she was happy to see that #DeleteUber seemed to send a message that people are ready to use the power of their money to affect change.
Leslie Lopez, director of Oakes’ CARA (Community-based Action Research and Advocacy) program at UCSC, agrees.
“There are a lot of people who have never thought about politics who are waking up right now and wondering what they can do to resist and change this administration,” she told GT in an email. “They are going to use social media to stand up and be counted, or connect with other people, to learn more, to do more.”
Lopez says #DeleteUber showed how effective “apptivism” can be, because it required just a few thumb strokes to contribute to an action that had an immense impact, with little risk to the participants. Nor is it the only example of social media’s fast-growing power; after all, the Women’s March movement that drew millions to action in cities around the world grew out of a simple Facebook post by a woman in Hawaii. In addition to the historically large turnout at the marches, there are now 1,297,955 Instagram photos with the hashtag #WomensMarch for people to scroll through and connect with other participants. Hashtag activism has quickly become a useful way to bring like-minded people together.
“#DeleteUber, #DivestWellsFargo, calls for boycott, walkout, general strike, etc. These are all exciting,” Lopez writes. “I think we are going to see more ‘lightning actions’ like #DeleteUber, because once people figure out how easy and effective it is, they’ll be really creative in figuring out what else to do.”