Hours before a scheduled protest Thursday at Uber Headquarters in San Francisco, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced to employees he would step down from an economic advisory council assembled by President Donald Trump.
Now, experts are weighing in on the potential fallout from Uber’s engagement with Trump’s administration, following the president’s executive order to block incoming travel from visa-holders and refugees of seven majority-Muslim countries.
In an email to his employees, Kalanick wrote, “Earlier today I spoke briefly with the President about the immigration executive order and its issues for our community. I also let him know that I would not be able to participate on his economic council.
“Joining the group,” he continued, “was not meant to be an endorsement of the President or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that.”
Critics were in an uproar this week, alleging Uber acted as “scab drivers” at a recent New York City taxi protest of detained refugees. The opposition used hashtags like “#DeleteUber” and “#UberRideswithHate,” and celebrities from Janelle Monae to Susan Sarandon asked their fans to delete the ride-hail app.
So many riders deleted the app that Uber created an automated process to facilitate deletions.
“Even a very big ego, like Kalanick, ultimately has to deal with the realities of business,” said Larry Kamer, a crisis communications expert who has represented Nike and the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
Kamer noted Uber has been in the hot seat before, when it threatened to target journalists, came under fire from disability groups for refusing rides to people with guide dogs, and was accused of sexism as Kalanick bragged his company should be called “Boob-er.”
But Uber did not shy from those fights, Kamer said.
“The other stuff is all bad, right,” he said. “But once you get in the realm of national presidential politics and you’re hooked into a Trump controversy, people lose their companies this way.”
Trump’s policies hit home with Uber’s own drivers, too.
Rome Aloise, vice president at-large of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which is organizing Uber and Lyft drivers into collectives, told the San Francisco Examiner that many of those drivers have immigrants in their immediate family or are immigrants themselves.
“Even the ones without legal issues are scared to death to go home,” Aloise said, adding that Uber depends highly on immigrants in its ranks. “If every immigrant left, whether here legally or not, this company would stop in its tracks.”
Headquartered in San Francisco, the global company has butted heads with Mayor Ed Lee over self-driving cars and with local transit officials over traffic congestion.
At a small protest Thursday evening outside Uber Headquarters on Market Street, Uber drivers and other detractors of the tech giant said San Francisco’s pressure on Kalanick is vital.
“It only took a little bit of lobbying” from city and state officials to get Uber’s self-driving cars off San Francisco streets, said Edward Escobar, an organizer with the Alliance for Independent Workers.
The alliance is allied with SEIU National, which is also organizing Uber drivers.
Escobar fears Uber will continue “back-channel” communication with the Trump administration, which, he said, must be protested.
Kalanick’s one-time position on Trump’s board may have also put him at odds with the growing opposition to Trump in San Francisco.
State Sen. Scott Wiener said Kalanick’s announcement brings Uber in line with other local tech companies and San Francisco.
“The tech community is part of our San Francisco community, it’s important for us to stand together and lock arms against this bully, this would-be dictator,” Wiener said of Trump.
And that opposition isn’t merely symbolic, Wiener added, because, “Donald Trump is a threat to many, many Uber drivers, Uber customers, and frankly to the entire technology sector, which is so dependent on very talented immigrants.”
Though Mayor Lee has repeatedly stumped The City’s position as a sanctuary city, the Mayor’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.
Still, Kamer doesn’t think Kalanick’s dust-up over Trump will linger in the minds of the public.
“We have so many other important issues and five fights a day coming out of this White House,” Kamer said. “I think it goes away probably quickly.”
In the midst of Uber’s woes, the ride-hail giant’s close rival, Lyft, appeared to be reaping the benefits.
As people around the United States posted on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to “#DeleteUber,” Lyft became one of the country’s most downloaded apps.