Last Saturday, as word spread that President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and migrants from seven countries had left several people stranded at airports, in legal limbo and under threat of being deported, immigrant and community organizations called for protests at the airports.
What followed was an outpouring of support that drew news crews and made headlines. Thousands of people flooded the airports, demanding the release of those being detained. Lawyers created portable offices, working pro bono all night even after judges temporarily stayed parts of the executive order.
On Saturday evening as the protests spread, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a 19,000-member union of taxi drivers, released a statement condemning the ban: “As an organization whose membership is largely Muslim, a workforce that’s almost universally immigrant, and a working-class movement that is rooted in the defense of the oppressed, we say no to this inhumane and unconstitutional ban,” it said. “We know all too well that when government programs sanction outright Islamophobia, and the rhetoric of hate is spewed from the bully pulpit, hate crimes increase and drivers suffer gravely.”
But the drivers went beyond simply making a statement. Using the strongest tool available to workers’ organizations, they took action: They stopped work, refusing to pick up passengers at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York in solidarity with the refugees and migrants stranded there. In response to the strike, Uber, the putative “sharing economy” company that usually switches to “surge pricing” in moments of high demand for cars, instead declared that it would lower rates.
The response to Uber’s statement was immediate: #DeleteUber began to trend on Twitter. Former users of the app posted screenshots of the company’s website, with their commentary on why they were deleting their accounts: for collaborating with Trump (Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick recently joined Trump’s business advisory council), for undermining collective action, for breaking a strike. In short, for scabbing.
The age-old labor movement term “scab” has lost weight in recent years along with the decline in labor union membership and the corresponding decline in militancy among the remaining union members. Where scabbing — crossing a picket line, taking the job of a striking union member, thereby undermining the power of the strike — used to be considered among the lowest things a person could do, these days it often carries little sting. The definition commonly cited in union literature of about 100 years ago, attributed to Jack London, underscores the seriousness the term used to connote: “After God finished the rattlesnake, the toad, the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which He made a scab. A scab is a two-legged animal with a cork-screw soul, a water-logged brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue…No man has a right to scab so long as there is a pool of water to drown his carcass in, or a rope long enough to hang his body with.”
These days (and in this economy), we’re more likely to hear justifications for crossing a picket line that are born of necessity, but also of the ascendance of neoliberal, me-first ideology. “I have to take care of myself,” people will argue. “No one else is going to do it for me.”
Yet the promise of the labor movement, summed up in the old Industrial Workers of the World slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all,” is that we will, in fact, take care of each other. It is in that spirit that the taxi workers struck, and in that spirit that protesters struck back at Uber. And indeed, according to the Taxi Workers’ statement, Uber drivers were among those who struck Saturday night, and the union stressed its representation of Uber and Lyft drivers as well as those who drive traditional cabs.
Critics of the #DeleteUber call noted that many of those who were deleting the app were replacing it with Lyft, an app with a very similar business model to Uber that has faced similar lawsuits over its labor practices. Yet the move was prompted not simply because Kalanick joined Trump’s business advisory council, arguing to his employees, “We’ll partner with anyone in the world as long they’re about making transportation in cities better, creating job opportunities, making it easier to get around, getting pollution out of the air and traffic off the streets.” It was prompted by a labor action. It was a revival of the idea that a strike is to be honored, that scabbing is something to be reviled.
Uber drivers, it should be noted, have no control over the fares they receive. (This fact is central to the lawsuits that have claimed Uber drivers are employees, not independent contractors.) They did not make the decision to lower fares nor to donate money to the legal defense fund for drivers affected by Trump’s order that Kalanick promised after the outrage made itself felt; just as Lyft drivers had no say in the $1 million donation the company made to the ACLU. Their very lack of power is key to the business model of the “sharing economy,” which, as journalist Rebecca Burns notes, is less a tech-age innovation than a throwback to the days before unions built power, when working with your own materials and getting paid by the piece was common. Indeed, another statement from the Taxi Workers Alliance argued, “Uber’s greed and disregard for social values was evident before the company’s CEO Travis Kalanick became an adviser to Donald Trump. And Uber drivers along with other professional drivers bear the brunt of that greed.”
Solidarity, the Taxi Workers noted, is the way forward through dark times. Their action was an example of the power that the labor movement can have in an era of newly invigorated protest, organizing, and resistance to corporate capture of the government. And the #DeleteUber response is an example of what added power labor would have if people around the country made up their minds to stand with workers who go on strike for their rights and for the rights of us all.