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What Uber drivers think about CEO Travis Kalanick yelling at one of their own

Since the beginning of 2017, Uber has seen non-stop controversies from #deleteuber to accusations of technology theft. (Video: Daron Taylor, Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

A slew of fascinating passengers have ridden in the back seat of Mike Twist’s car since he started driving for Uber last summer. Others have been less pleasant, the Boston resident said, such as the passenger who threw a bottle at him.

So when a video surfaced Tuesday of Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick arguing with and cursing at a driver at the end of his ride, Twist was “incensed” that the executive’s behavior seemed to tacitly condone the mistreatment of drivers.

“It’s a trickle-down way of treating people, and it really hit me personally and made me see that” starts at the top, Twist said. “I’ve always felt if you treat an employee or partner with respect, they’re going to go the extra mile generally.”

The driver in the video, Fawzi Kamel, told NBC News that he was frustrated that Uber had introduced low-cost services, such as UberX and Uber Pool, that are less lucrative for drivers, especially those who purchased more expensive vehicles when Uber was exclusively a luxury service.

Kalanick later issued an apology and said he would seek leadership help, but not before the video featured prominently on major media outlets and made the rounds in online forums where Uber drivers gather to swap stories, complaints and advice.

The comments did not simply pile criticism on Kalanick or Uber, however. For many, the driver wasn’t exactly blameless.

“I better Never have a driver treat me like that!” one poster remarked.

Others remarked that the way the driver spoke to Kalanick would be a fireable offense if it were any other passenger.

“If I did that to anyone off the street, I wouldn’t be driving,” someone offered.

To Twist, the driver was unprofessional but Kalanick should also have responded differently. “As the CEO and founder of such a large company, he is never really off duty,” he said.

The video shows Kalanick riding in the back seat of an Uber black car with two companions. As he prepares to exit, the driver, Kamel, engages Kalanick in a conversation about the company’s business model and the financial pressure that low-cost services put on drivers.

“We didn’t go low-end because we wanted to,” he told Kamel. “We went low-end because we had to.”

The conversation turns heated shortly thereafter. When the driver tells Kalanick that the company dropped the price of Uber’s black car service, Kalanick points a finger and says “bullsh–.”

When the driver says he has lost nearly $100,000 and tells Kalanick, “I’m bankrupt because of you,” the chief executive fires back.

“You know what? Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own s‑‑‑. They blame everything in their life on everyone else,” Kalanick says.

Jessie Newburn, of Columbia, Md., began driving for Uber more than a year ago and has documented the experience in books called “Uber Chronicles.” Uber is running a business, not building a “family,” she said, and drivers have to engage with the company accordingly.

That means having multiple streams of income, Newburn said. If you work in the”gig economy” — meaning you draw money from multiple small jobs — then you cannot rely on any single contract.

“A lot of people come to Uber with this sense of ‘I’m going to make a lot of money.’ It’s not always as profitable as it may sound,” Newburn said. “When people are upset, they throw their blames and criticisms all over the place.”

But an Uber driver in Phoenix named Mark said his pay has taken a hit three times in the past year as Uber slashes fares. He declined to provide his last name out of concerns about retribution. The only fare hike in that time was 20 cents tacked onto the booking fee — a charge that Uber doesn’t split with its drivers, he said.

“They just keep doing things that get under your skin,” Mark said of Uber. “One little thing after another.”

In January, Mark decided to give competitor Lyft a try and finds himself picking up more rides there. Lyft also runs more promotions and incentives for drivers, he said, making it easier to pull in bigger paychecks from time to time.

Twist, the driver in Boston, also works for Lyft, but sparingly. It doesn’t have the same name recognition as Uber, he said, and ultimately his income depends on rider demand.

“I feel like a bit of a sellout saying that … but at the end of it I need to make a living, too,” he said.

The latest exchange is the third high-profile controversy for Uber since the start of the year. In January, the company was criticized for providing service to New York’s JFK Airport despite a taxicab protest of President Trump’s immigration ban. That led to an Uber boycott and Kalanick’s resignation from Trump’s business council. Last month, a former employee publicly claimed that Uber failed to address her sexual harassment allegations, prompting the company to launch an internal review.

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