26.07.2022, Tomasz Konicz
The cruel lobbying and business practices of the app-based transport service Uber are in line with its brutal business model. And they are an expression of the processes of barbarism in the centers caused by the crisis.
Some 124,000 internal documents comprise the so-called Uber Files, leaked to the press by Mark MacGann, the transport service’s former chief lobbyist for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The corporate correspondence, analyzed by the UK’s Guardian, exposes the cruel, early-capitalist methods used by arguably the best-known company in the internet-based gig economy to pursue its aggressive expansion strategy between 2013 and 2017.
Uber’s core business consists of organizing and exploiting day laborers who are placed on a digital marketplace for passenger transportation. The group collects a commission of 25 percent of the fare on all transport provided through its app, although in many countries the providers of this service are pseudo self-employed workers who have to bear all the risk and provide their own vehicles.
In some cases, it was perfectly clear to Uber’s management that the transport service was simply operating beyond the applicable laws and regulations. Senior management correspondence stated, for example, that the group should refrain from making “antagonistic statements” because its business model was “not legal in many countries.” Managers joked in internal emails that they had now “officially become pirates.” The company’s head of communications explained in a 2014 email that the company often gets in trouble simply because its practices are “illegal as fuck.”
In order to secure its own legal position, according to the correspondence analyzed, Uber made efforts to press for corresponding changes in the law as part of an elaborate lobbying campaign. In 2016 alone, the company, which is endowed with lavish venture capital, is said to have budgeted around 90 million US dollars for greasing the political machine. Leading politicians from the US and the EU are said to have been receptive to the demands of the rapidly expanding gig company, which, according to the Guardian, liked to seek “unofficial routes to power” by acting on “friends and intermediaries” of decision-makers and preferred to seek out politicians for intimate talks “without the presence of advisers.” Influential officials were turned into “strategic investors” to ensure their support in countries such as Russia and Italy. In addition, Uber bought academics who gave the company a good report on its business practices in commissioned reports.
Hundreds of politicians are said to have been worked on by Uber lobbyists. Among the prominent targets of the lobbying campaign is even the current US president Joe Biden, who according to the leaks had a meeting with Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2016 when he was vice president. In an email, Kalanick complained that Biden was running late and that he let the vice president know that “every minute he is late will be one less minute with me.” Biden, who supported Uber at the time, gushed after the Davos meeting that Uber gives millions of workers the freedom to “work as many hours as they want, live their own lives as they want.”
Another prominent Uber supporter currently resides in the Élysée Palace. The Uber Files reveal that French President Emmanuel Macron met several times with representatives of the transport service during his tenure as Minister of Economics and intervened on its behalf in 2015 in the southern French port city of Marseille, where a de facto transport ban was to be imposed on Uber following disputes and protests by taxi drivers. Macron reportedly agreed to “look into the matter personally” after MacGann intervened. Shortly after, the Marseille police prefect’s order was defused. In an assessment by the group, this was chalked up as a success achieved through “massive pressure from Uber.” According to internal correspondence, the meetings between Macron and Uber representatives took place in a “warm, friendly and constructive atmosphere.”
How the notorious revolving door between politics and business works in concrete terms is made clear by company correspondence about former EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who informally lobbied for Uber while still on maternity leave after leaving office – even though the EU Commission had forbidden her to do so. According to the group’s email correspondence, Kroes, who is Dutch, allegedly intervened with the Dutch government during a police raid on Uber in Amsterdam to “force the authorities to back down.” However, the email went on to say that the cooperation with the former EU commissioner was “strictly confidential” and should not be mentioned in company documents.
Due to legal conflicts with authorities and frequent police raids, Uber branches are even reported to have installed “kill switches” in their IT systems, which can be activated to make all sensitive data inaccessible. This software is also said to have been used in searches in several countries, including France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Moreover, the company’s management is said to have been prepared to risk or even provoke violent clashes between Uber drivers and taxi drivers. After riots by taxi drivers in Paris, Kalanick called for counter-protests to be organized. Kalanick downplayed warnings of attacks that could come from “far-right thugs,” saying that “violence would guarantee the success” of the protests.
Uber’s strategy, according to the Guardian, has been to use drivers as “weapons” and to exploit the violence directed against them in order to gain political concessions on rules and regulations. This method was used in Italy, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The “violence narrative should be allowed to run for a few days,” emails about riots in the Netherlands said, “before offering a solution.” Internal correspondence sometimes encouraged management to “embrace the chaos” of a crisis-ridden late-capitalist world in which even legal business practices were becoming increasingly brutal and mafia-like. Uber needs to generate growth even when “fires are breaking out,” Kalanick said in a motivational email to managers; that’s “a normal part” of the Uber business: “Embrace the chaos. It means you’re doing something meaningful.”
Although this forced expansion did not succeed in all countries and cities, the lobbying investments were successful overall: Uber is now valued at 43 billion US dollars with an annual turnover of 17 billion US dollars and handles 19 million rides in 72 countries every day. Tens of thousands of pseudo self-employed workers, who sometimes have to sleep in their cars because of their wretched wages, eke out a living as day laborers for the internet platform.
Uber’s meteoric rise was hardly slowed down by legal regulations and a political establishment that was always open to lobbying money – only the pandemic, which led to a decline in sales and heavy losses, did that. In addition, the critique of digital day labor, on which the platform economy of Uber & Co. is based, has received new ammunition with the publication of the Uber Files. In Italy, taxi drivers protested against the corporation and the liberalization plans of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government in response to the revelations. At the same time, in the Swiss canton of Geneva, trade unions called on the state to intervene, as Uber was effectively continuing to circumvent the labor regulations according to which Uber drivers are employees.
Originally published in jungle world on 07/28/2022