On Thursday evening drivers with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance were joined by labor, community and immigrant rights organizers outside Uber’s Long Island City headquarters. The hundred or so drivers and organizers had braved the cold to protest both Uber’s labor practices, which drivers say undercut their fares, and Uber CEO’s decision to join Trump’s business advisory council. They saw both as attacks on the Alliance’s membership as well as the wider immigrant and Muslim communities across the country.
As protesters arrived with signs and banners, word came down that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick had announced that he was leaving Trump’s business advisory council.
“Uber fundamentally destroys what’s a full-time profession and turns it into a gig economy,” Bhairavi Desai, the Taxi Workers Alliance’s executive director, told the Voice, adding that as a result, taxi drivers are working longer hours but earning less. “Its business practices are very much in line with this president.”
On Saturday, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents 19,000 drivers, the majority of whom are Muslim, announced a one-hour strike on rides to JFK airport to protest Trump’s Muslim Ban, which blocked refugees and severely restricted the ability of people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Drivers already at the airport were urged to join the protest.
Less than three hours later, Uber announced that their surge pricing had been turned off for rides of JFK, saying that the move would allow airline passengers to reach the airport without incurring additional costs because of increased demand. The announcement was widely viewed as an effort to break the Taxi Workers Alliance’s strike and, coupled with Kalanick’s participation in Trump’s business advisory council, resulted in public backlash, including a viral #DeleteUber campaign in which more than 200,000 people deleted their accounts. Kalanick also faced internal pressure from his staff to leave the council.
Calling Kalanick’s announcement a “victory for the larger movement,” Desai reiterated, “the goal of our strike was to express our opposition to the ban. We’re keeping our eyes on the prize.”
“We didn’t have Uber on our mind when we went out on strike,” she added. “The beating that Kalanick took was collateral damage.” But many of the people rallying that evening did, noting that Uber has negatively impacted their livelihood.
Sonam Sherpa has been driving a yellow cab ever since he immigrated from Nepal in 1999. He owns his own medallion, which allows him to lease his cab to others when he himself isn’t driving. Once Uber began undercutting the regulated fares of yellow and green taxis, he’s seen both a drop in fares and a decrease in drivers wanting to lease his cab. “Now, everyone is going to Uber,” he said. Though that was his main reason for showing up outside Uber headquarters, he’s also worried about the direction the country is heading. “America is the land of opportunity, but it’s not easy to live here,” he reflected, noting the high costs of living. “But here you can say what you want. The main value of this country is the freedom.” With the Trump presidency, he worries that that freedom is quickly eroding.
Nancy Reynoso has driven a green borough taxi for the past seven years—and also felt the impact of Uber and other ride-sharing apps. “We have been hit very hard,” she said. But like Sherpa, that’s not the only reason she came out—she also feels that drivers need to make their voices heard, both in opposition to Uber’s practices as well as their CEO’s involvement with Trump.
Rizwan Raja is an organizer with the Taxi Workers Alliance. He points out that the fares charged by yellow cab drivers are regulated by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. In contrast, Uber fares fluctuate in response to the ratio of drivers to demand. “Uber really lowered wages for all drivers,” he said.
Some of Uber’s own drivers came out to the protest as well. Oselig Lantigua has been driving for both Uber and Lyft for little over a year. Though he works for Uber, he doesn’t agree with their business practices, noting that their plans for driverless cars will mean even more job loss. “It doesn’t matter if I work for Uber. I have the right to protest,” said Lantigua, who is also a member of New York Communities for Change, a coalition of families fighting for social and economic justice. He added that he spent this Sunday in Battery Park City protesting Trump’s Muslim Ban. “I’m here supporting the Muslim community and also a ban on the wall,” he said.
Those at the rally viewed Kalanick’s announcement as a victory — and a reminder that protests do indeed work. “It’s great to see all this activism leading to results,” Senator Michael Gianaris, who represents the 12th district in Queens, told the Voice. But, he added, “we have to keep fighting.”
Organizers cut the rally by an hour so that protesters could also attend the rally to mark the five-year anniversary of the shooting death of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham, who was unarmed when he was killed in his Bronx home by NYPD Officer Richard Haste. As the rally wound down, Desai reminded the crowd, “Your loyalty should not belong to an app or a corporation. It should belong to the workers.”