On Saturday, a coalition of labor groups and progressive activists will stage a protest against Uber in Pittsburgh, a city of great significance to the ride-hailing company. Not only is the former steel town the location of Uber’s under-construction advanced engineering facility, but it also has played host to the company’s high-stake experiment with driverless cars.
The protestors say they oppose Uber’s association with President Trump, even though the company’s CEO Travis Kalanick recently announced that he would be stepping down from an economic advisory council to the president. But the groups say they aren’t dissuaded by Kalanick’s resignation, and want to use Pittsburgh’s perch as Uber’s autonomous testing grounds to let their voices be heard.
“Uber's development of autonomous vehicles with no commitment to a just transition for workers will displace hundreds of thousands of workers across our economy,” fumed Tom Conroy with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, in an email.
“All companies on Trump's economic advisory board should understand that we see silence as tacit support of Trump's actions,” says Erin Kramer of One Pennsylvania. “While we commend Uber’s resignation, we expect them to ACTUALLY support the immigrant workforce by treating their workers right and becoming a responsible community actor.”
To be sure, it’s not hard see these progressive groups seizing on the popularity of the #DeleteUber hashtag to gain some publicity for their issues. That said, Pittsburgh is a city of great significance to the global ride-hailing company, and any sign of trouble there could eventually filter all the way up to the company’s executive suites in San Francisco. And as I’ve argued before, Uber’s recent problems have their roots in much older and deeper issues that its customers have with the ride-hailing company.
The protest is a sign that Uber could continue to face a backlash that started a week ago, when the company was accused of breaking a taxi driver strike at JFK airport during protests against Trump’s immigration ban. Even Kalanick’s late-stage departure from Trump’s advisory council won’t be enough for the most motivated anti-Uber activists. A spokesperson for Uber did not respond to a request for comment.
The protestors are calling on Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto “to reject Uber as a partner to this city, and to evaluate other on-demand transportation options that would allow for a more accountable and publicly-controlled expansion of our transit system,” according to their email.
Previously, Peduto has been extremely deferential to Uber. The city helped Uber lease a large plot near the riverfront for a testing track. And when state regulators tried to ban ride-sharing services in 2014, Pittsburgh’s mayor and the state’s governor helped defeat the effort.
But like many mayors around the country, Peduto has been critical of Trump’s immigration executive order, and has even shown a willingness to push back against Uber for what he perceives as a bungled response to it. He scolded Kalanick in a weekend text message. “I was very disappointed by Uber’s conduct this weekend, and told their CEO so,” Mr. Peduto said in a statement earlier in the week. “Uber came here because of the great talent Pittsburgh produces, and the high-tech people we have attracted from around the world.”
But if the activists sway Peduto to at least reevaluate his relationship with Uber, that could have far-reaching consequences for the company and its vision of driverless taxis roaming the streets of the future. Uber has already run into regulatory hurdles in California, forcing the company to relocate its fleet of self-driving SUVs to Arizona. A similar situation in Pittsburgh could set the company’s driverless experiments back even further, which could have an impact on future investments and its eventual IPO.
“We’ve held up our end [of] the bargain,” Peduto said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “but we haven’t seen much from Uber. This is a two-way street, not a one-way. I need to see more interest from them in our communities, both locally and internationally.”
Update February 6th, 9:43am ET: A spokesperson for Mayor Peduto sent over this statement: “Not only do I share the same concerns that the organizers of this demonstration have expressed, I've shared the issues directly with upper management of Uber, including their CEO. Since our conversations started with Uber in Pittsburgh, I've not hesitated to express my disappointment when necessary. But I also believe that Uber has the potential to help change the world of 21st Century transportation. Uber can and should develop a successful business model that cities they operate in can also benefit from. There are very simple ways for Uber to become more open and people-centric in their operations and provide incentives for their employees that can change people's lives. We haven't seen that happen yet, but the potential is there and we expect to see it happen.”
And a spokesperson for Uber sent this statement: “More than ever, it's important that we all support freedom of speech. Like many others, Uber strongly opposes the President's unjust immigration ban which is harming many innocent people, many of whom are drivers. That's why we created a $3 million legal defense fund to help, and why we're offering compensation for lost earnings for any driver stranded abroad. We will continue to stand up for those being hurt by the President's executive order.”