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Know Your Rights
Source: Crain's New York Business
Subject: Profiles of MRNY
Type: Media Coverage

Liberals rage over Uber’s racial strategy

Liberal activists in New York have found their new Wal-Mart.

“Despicable,” says Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change.

“A cynical ploy,” says Bertha Lewis, head of the Black Institute.

“Blatantly, outrageously race-baiting,” says Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road New York.

The liberal road rage was for Uber, the car-summoning app service, which is fighting a bill in the City Council that would temporarily cap new for-hire vehicle licenses while the city studies traffic congestion caused by the exploding market.

Under the direction of former Obama adviser David Plouffe, Uber has been seeking to outflank Mayor Bill de Blasio by rallying the mayor’s voter base—African-Americans—to oppose the cap. Mr. Plouffe courted the Rev. Al Sharpton at a breakfast meeting earlier this week. Later, he held a rally with black clergy and elected leaders at Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem to highlight the effect the proposed cap would have on communities of color.

Later, Uber saturated the districts of council sponsors of the bill with negative mailers, sparing the one black supporter, Bronx Councilman Andy King. Mr. King later told Crain’s that he was going to request his name be removed from the bill.

Ms. Lewis, who headed Mr. Westin’s group when it was known as Acorn, slammed Uber for labeling drivers independent contractors, thus depriving them of the benefits of being full-time employees. She also said she found the company’s latest tactics to be unseemly.

“People accuse me of playing the race card,” she chuckled. “Plouffe is pulling every single trick in the book.”

She likened the $45 billion tech company to favored liberal whipping boys Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, two of the most successful companies ever.

“It’s the same business model: a race to the bottom and using people of color as fodder,” she said.

Mr. Westin, a member of the state’s powerful Working Families Party, accused Uber of “exploiting workers and killing jobs.” He refuted Uber’s claim that it provides financial opportunities to low-income communities.

“The overwhelming majority of drivers are part-time workers who don’t make anywhere near the $90,000 they claim,” he said. “The make the drivers responsible for everything, from insurance to their cars to liability. All of these things fall on the backs of the workers while the profits go to the hedge-fund managers in Greenwich, Conn.”

Investments in Uber have valued the company at more than $40 billion, a record for a private tech company. Still, some hedge-fund managers have expressed concern about the company’s attitude toward profits and driver pay.

Ms. Axt said she isn’t opposed to tech companies trying to upend traditional markets, except when workers end up on the losing side.

“If we’re able to use technology to make that more efficient, then that’s great,” she said. “But what we see is Uber raiding good jobs and paying bad jobs.” Drivers of taxis and black-car companies have been moving to Uber in pursuit of better pay as taxi-fare revenues have fallen.

Bhairavi Desai, founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, is organizing Mr. Westin’s, Ms. Lewis’ and Ms. Axt’s groups to rally at City Hall Monday at 1 p.m. against Uber and for the proposed cap.

“They want to take our jobs and turn them into freelance gigs,” Ms. Desai said.

Mr. Plouffe’s strategy is hardly new. Advocacy campaigns often focus on minority communities. Arguably, so did Mr. de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign and his 2009 run for public advocate. When then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to sell congestion pricing in 2007 and 2008, his ads focused on traffic’s impact on minority neighborhoods. Ms. Lewis herself used promises of jobs and housing for minorities to build support for the controversial Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn.

Uber’s main argument has been to portray Mr. de Blasio and the council as tools of well-heeled interests in the yellow-cab industry. Indeed, medallion owners were among Mr. de Blasio’s top donors during the mayoral race. And Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito raised more than $27,000 from fleet owners during the last fundraising period.

An Uber spokesman did not reply to a request for comment, but one ally of the company said, “The real question is why would any progressive leader be used by the mayor to protect wealthy taxi donors who for decades have prevented drivers from making a good living and New Yorkers from getting rides in communities outside Manhattan?”

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