Oakland riders and drivers debate #DeleteUber boycott

Uber's future headquarters in Oakland, set to open sometime in 2017. The company reportedly paid $123.5 million for the building. Photo by Andrew Beale.

Uber's future headquarters in Oakland, set to open sometime in 2017. The company reportedly paid $123.5 million for the building. Photo by Andrew Beale.

Uber is relocating its headquarters to Oakland—but the app may be gone from many city residents’ phones before its office opens, thanks to the #DeleteUber boycott.

Last weekend, in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order blocking immigrants from seven countries from entering the United States, the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance, a union representing taxi drivers in that city, announced a one-hour-long strike during which drivers would not pick up passengers from John F. Kennedy airport in New York City.

Shortly after the strike ended, Uber announced they were turning off surge pricing at the airport, a feature that charges higher prices for rides from certain areas during specific times in order to encourage more drivers to go to those locations. That led to a widespread perception that Uber had purposefully broken the taxi strike, and the hashtag #DeleteUber began trending on Twitter as riders began boycotting the ride-sharing service.

Oaklanders getting off at the Rockridge BART station stopped to share their opinions on the campaign with Oakland North.

“My stepdad is only second-generation Mexican-American. And then my actual father, we’re Italian-American. We were considered not-white not too long ago,” said Oakland resident Katlyn Marchini, who said she joined the boycott against Uber because she supports the rights of immigrants to enter the country. “So I deleted Uber as well.”

Samantha Ames, another Oakland resident, said she prefers Lyft anyway because “the drivers are more personable” and she believes Uber is more expensive. But their actions during the taxi strike reinforced her preference for Lyft.

“I think Lyft over Uber any day, simply put,” she said. “But now that Uber has done this, I guess it gives me more reason not to use them.”

Uber’s main rival wasted no time in getting involved in the debate. Lyft responded by pledging to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a civil-rights-focused legal group that filed a lawsuit to block Trump’s immigration order. (One of Lyft’s major investors, Carl Icahn, is an advisor to the Trump administration.)

After Lyft pledged the money to the ACLU, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick responded with a statement condemning the immigration order and a pledge of $3 million for a legal defense fund for its drivers.”It’s important that as a community that we do everything we can to help these drivers (affected by the immigration order),” read the email Kalanick sent to Uber drivers, which is also posted on the company’s website. Details on the legal defense fund were scant, as the email said only that Uber will “Create a $3 million legal defense fund to help drivers with immigration and translation services.” It also said the company will compensate drivers for lost earnings and provide a 24/7 tip line through which drivers can contact lawyers and immigration experts.

Kalanick, who had previously accepted an invitation to participate in Trump’s economic advisory council, also announced Thursday that he declined the offer. Via email, an Uber spokesperson pointed Oakland North to Kalanick’s statement on the immigration order and a separate statement announcing his withdrawal from the economic council.

“Earlier today I spoke briefly with the President about the immigration executive order and its issues for our community. I also let him know that I would not be able to participate on his economic council. Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the President or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that,” Kalanick wrote in the statement. “Immigration and openness to refugees is an important part of our country’s success and quite honestly to Uber’s.”

Former Uber driver Amanda Sheldon said the company’s decision to set up the fund for drivers was “too little, too late.” Sheldon, a California native who recently lost her job on the East Coast, is moving back to California where she had planned to drive for Uber again. But now she has changed her mind.

“I think what they said specifically is [the fund is] for drivers who were affected by this,” she said. “Really they don’t need to worry about just their drivers, they need to worry about the country.”

Sheldon said she was disturbed by Uber’s decision to allow drivers to pick up passengers at the airport during the strike, which she feels undercut the taxi union’s leverage to oppose the immigration order.

“That was a way that [taxi drivers] were using their power to express their anger at the executive order. And Uber just kind of swooped in there and said, ‘We will not make this difficult or uncomfortable for anyone.’ So actually in a way they were facilitating business as usual, when it was not business as usual for thousands of people who were stuck in detention, being detained at the airport,” she said.

The Daily Beast reported over 200 people were denied entry to the U.S. after their planes landed, and several hundred more were prevented from ever boarding over the weekend.

Sheldon said she feels a religious duty to protest the executive order. “This isn’t a time where we can look the other way and say we agree to disagree. This is a strike at our most fundamental values as Americans,” she said. “And actually one of the major reasons I’m supportive of refugees and immigrants is because I’m a Christian. So my faith is really strongly part of this as well.”

But not all Oakland residents will be deleting Uber. June Lin, who helped organize a “Tech Workers for Racial Justice” event in Oakland on Inauguration Day, strongly opposes Trump’s immigration order, but doesn’t believe boycotting Uber is the best way to fight it.

“I’m not really mad or anything about what they did in New York. I think they handled it poorly from a PR perspective,” she said. “I think people are kind of overreacting to it. I was trying to figure out why people got so mad. … Turning off surge pricing has a small effect in decreasing supply. It kind of helps out the taxi strike.”

Lin said she doesn’t support Uber as a company, but for reasons having nothing to do with the #DeleteUber campaign. “Uber a few months ago had self-driving cars on the streets of San Francisco without getting the proper permits,” she said, referring to a widely-reported incident late last year. “I just don’t use them for other reasons, you know, kind of hubris and lack of regard for safety.”

Lin doesn’t think Lyft’s decision to donate to the ACLU proves they truly care about immigrants, either. “I think it’s great that they’re donating money to the ACLU, but it is also a marketing ploy, kind of. Because they want to go off the attention Uber is getting,” she said.

Simone Obidah, an Oakland resident who drives for Lyft, said she thinks Uber drivers did wrong by picking people up during the strike, but she still doesn’t fully support the #DeleteUber campaign.

“To my knowledge, Uber is not the greatest of companies in a lot of ways, and this has been a thing for a while already and not just because they supposedly, allegedly broke the ban,” she said. “But I don’t really feel comfortable saying whether or not people should delete the app. They’re a big company, and people rely on them to get from point A to point B.”

But she said she thinks Lyft’s decision to donate to the ACLU was the right choice.

“I think it’s a really great move. I think it’s so important for big businesses to be leveraging their influence,” she said. “People who have been here for the better part of their life, who have raised kids here, are just as American as me. … I don’t think it’s up to someone who has a lot against immigrants in general to decide who belongs based on some really twisted fear.”

Uber is planning to open their new headquarters in downtown Oakland later this year, in the old Sears building which the company bought for a reported $123.5 million. Despite the widespread social-media activism against the company, a planned protest in front of the company’s current San Francisco headquarters on Thursday night only drew an estimated 30 people.

One Comment

  1. Ricky Rango

    A small correction is required in the first sentence. Uber is not relocating their HQ to Oakland. Uber HQ will remain in SF (they are actually planning to build a new campus in Mission Bay at a site formerly owned by Salesforce – http://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/blog/real-estate/2016/09/uber-breaking-ground-mission-bay-hq-sf.html).

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