Uber Does Damage Control as Outraged Users Delete the App

Things got messy for Uber after President Trump issued an executive order, banning Muslims from seven countries from entering the US.

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Jan 29 2017, 9:15pm

Image: Frank Köhntopp

Update, Jan. 29: Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, shared her thoughts with me about Uber's actions regarding the Muslim ban. "It's not shocking that Uber would put greed above social principles. It does that to drivers every day. The question here in New York is whether Governor Cuomo will delete his close ties to Uber," Desai said.

Last night, at least 12 people—some disabled and elderly—were detained at John F. Kennedy airport in New York due to President Trump's executive order banning nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the terminals to demand their release.

At the same time, Uber decided to drop its surge pricing for the airport (it's unclear who at the company made the call), despite an earlier strike by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents 19,000 cabbies in the city. "We cannot be silent. We go to work to welcome people to a land that once welcomed us. We will not be divided," the taxi union tweeted.

Travis Kalanick, Uber's CEO and a member of Trump's economic advisory group, addressed the Muslim ban in a memo, like many other tech industry leaders. But Kalanick's comments about the order felt restrained and impersonal to some, adding speculation to the motives behind his relationship with the president. Instead of calling the ban a violation of basic rights, for example, Kalanick framed it as a detriment to local business with some unfortunate human collateral.

Uber has been criticized before for its refusal to categorize drivers as employees, and for its auto leasing program that many have labeled as predatory. More recently, the company continued to illegally operate its driverless cars in San Francisco without necessary permits, until it eventually decided to relocate the operation to Arizona.

Kalanick made some indication, however, that Uber intended support drivers affected by the ban. He also vowed to raise the issue with Trump at their next meeting.

"We are working out a process to identify these drivers and compensate them pro bono during the next three months to help mitigate some of the financial stress and complications with supporting their families and putting food on the table," he wrote.

Today, Kalanick shared a second post in response to last night's events:

A spokesperson for Uber was unable to tell me how these drivers will be compensated, and how much they will receive, but said the company is currently looking into next steps, as stated in Kalanick's follow-up post.

Meanwhile, Uber's choice to consequently profit off the demonstrations did not sit well with many of its customers. And late in the evening, writer Dan O'Sullivan (who goes by @Bro_Pair on Twitter) kicked up a movement to #DeleteUber over its labor practices. Since Uber requires you to submit an explanation as to why you're deleting the app, many users took the opportunity to tell the company why they were no longer using its service. (For the record, I also deleted my Uber account.)

"It seems that to show solidarity with the protesters at JFK yesterday yellow cabs didn't drive between 6-7. So Uber suspends surges/boosts for that hour in and out of JFK. Angering a lot of people causing them to refer to Uber as scabs and call for an Uber boycott," one person wrote on UberPeople, an online forum for Uber drivers.

"Travis says he's going to compensate Muslim drivers that are affected by the ban and can't get back into the country to work and feed their families....while at the same time flipping the surge switch to the OFF position so that the drivers that are overwhelmed by the taxi strike get base rates for taking 45+ minutes per trip to pick up pax [passengers] at JFK," another driver wrote.

Uber's spokesperson referred to the #DeleteUber trend as an unfortunate misunderstanding. According to them, the company wasn't defying the union strike, since the New York Taxi Workers Alliance only halted pickups at JFK between 6 and 7PM, and Uber's tweet about surge pricing went out at 7:36PM.

"We're sorry for any confusion about our earlier tweet—it was not meant to break up any strike. We wanted people to know they could use Uber to get to and from JFK at normal prices, especially last night," Uber told me in a statement.

Jeff Jones, Uber's president of Ride Sharing, also attempted to soothe unrest over the company's labor practices. In several tweets to seemingly random people (including me), Jones directed users to Kalanick's internal memo on Trump's Muslim ban.

In response to my deletion request, Uber sent this message which addressed last night's protests. Other users who deleted their accounts received the same email.

Screenshot: Sarah Emerson

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance went beyond just an hour-long strike, however. In a statement, it said its largely-Muslim members would be joining protests at JFK in solidarity with refugees. The group also called Trump's immigration policies sanctioned "bigotry," and "unconstitutional."

Correction: This post was updated to make make it clear that Uber is currently reaching out to drivers impacted by Trump's executive order, but it still doesn't have details about how it will compensate them or how much.