When the New York Symphony goes on strike for better wages and benefits in the web TV series Mozart in the Jungle, its members find new ways to make do. Union Bob, a piccolo player whose nickname underscores his commitment to union rules, starts taking Uber fares in his Prius.
Uber couldn’t have asked for a better endorsement: Even for striking union leaders, the service offers but a harmless opportunity for micro-entrepreneurship. “Work that puts you first,” Uber’s website declares. “Drive when you want, earn what you need.”
Reality proves more complex. On Saturday, in response to President Trump’s executive order restricting immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) issued a work stoppage at JFK airport, one of metro New York’s major international hubs. In its statement, the Alliance cited the large Muslim and international population among the city’s 50,000 licensed taxi drivers.
Shortly after, Uber lifted surge pricing, its demand-quelling fare-increase mechanism, to JFK airport. The NYTWA, along with already-agitated protesters across the country, saw this as a deliberate, even if unconscious, act of organized strike-busting. Uber drivers became de facto scabs.
The public took notice, using the hashtag #DeleteUber to call for customers of the service to remove their Uber accounts as punishment. It wasn’t the first mark against the company in the Trump era. Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, was among the business leaders who had joined the president’s Strategic and Policy Forum, making some see him as a Trump apologist.
The general public’s commitment to the taxi protest is notable, but even more remarkable is the fact that the taxi drivers’ dispute with Uber gained attention as a side-effect of race, creed, or nationality. It took a crisis of identity politics to reveal a crisis of economic politics.