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Uber Tries to Stand Up to Trump While Working With Him

Timothy L. O'Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include "TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald."
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Corporate America should start getting used to living in Trumplandia. That means adjusting to a new reality: Business leaders are going to have to do more than merely stage manage President Donald Trump's random tweets about where jobs and factories belong.

Case in point: Uber, the ride-sharing company that is one of Silicon Valley's most prominent startups.

QuickTake Immigration Reform

Like many other U.S. companies, Uber relies on thousands of hard-working, ambitious immigrants to fuel its fortunes. Uber's founder and chief executive, Travis Kalanick, sent a reassuring note on Saturday to his employees, telling them that his company's "People Ops" team had already identified about a dozen staffers affected by the new White House restrictions on travel and immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries, to offer them assistance with immigration issues.

Kalanick also noted that Trump's executive order "has far broader implications as it also affects thousands of drivers who use Uber and come from the listed countries, many of whom take long breaks to go back home to see their extended family." 

Uber said it's trying to identify all of those drivers and will compensate them over the next three months "to help mitigate some of the financial stress and complications with supporting their families and putting food on the table."

This is in keeping with steps some other companies -- including Netflix, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, General Electric and my employer, Bloomberg LP -- have taken to assist employees blind-sided by the immigration ban. Kalanick spoke for all of those corporations when he noted to Uber's employees "that allowing people from all around the world to come here and make America their home has largely been the U.S.’s policy since its founding."

Kalanick and Uber, however, are also juggling some added twists. The company -- an innovative, fast-growing, and in many ways remarkable startup -- has also been plagued by public relations and corporate snafus over the years (including Kalanick bragging about being a babe magnet, Kalanick being dismissive about the safety concerns of female passengers, Uber's sometimes indecipherable "surge pricing" and a militant attitude toward combating critics).

Uber also has been repeatedly called out for taking advantage of its drivers, depriving them of benefits, and treating them as dispensable fodder in its march to dominate the for-hire car and taxi industry. (In response, Uber has resisted unionization and regulation, points to the jobs it has created, and says that it has worked hard to improve working conditions.)

All of this was lurking in the background last Saturday evening, when taxi drivers at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport went on strike for an hour to protest Trump's immigration ban. Uber decided to keep sending drivers into JFK. A social media backlash ensued, with some people suggesting that the best form of protest was for customers to delete the Uber app from their phones (giving birth to a #DeleteUber hashtag on Twitter).     

Kalanick's thoughtful letter to Uber's employees, which he posted on Facebook on Saturday and linked to on Twitter on Sunday, may have helped blunt the concerns of the #DeleteUber crowd. If that wasn't enough, the note also highlighted something else: Kalanick is a member of Trump's economic advisory group, a panel that includes several other prominent corporate leaders and is tasked with giving the president economic advice.

On Twitter, Kalanick assured Uber's employees and observers that he planned to use his seat on the panel "to stand up for what's right":

travis kalanick @travisk
3/ I'm going to use my position on Pres economic council to stand up for what's right - https://t.co/L6U9LOv3IX
Twitter: travis kalanick on Twitter

 

What will "right" be in Kalanick's calculation and what, exactly, will be the message he'll take to the White House? That any sort of an immigration ban is bad for business and bad for American values? That the rule of law and stable expectations are also good for business, and that the Trump administration's haywire approach to both is counterproductive and disconcerting to corporate leaders?

The posture Kalanick decides to take goes well beyond his or Uber's place in the political and economic landscape. It will speak to how the business community as a whole decides to communicate with and respond to the White House at time when other pivotal institutions -- like Congress, local governments, law enforcement, the judiciary, colleges, the media, nonprofits and advocacy groups -- are also pondering their relationships with the Trump administration.

The recent corporate kabuki around Trump's fascination with auto plants in Mexico and jobs in Indiana is giving way to a White House that is now showing some of its policy stripes. American businesses will have to acknowledge that and be willing to stand up for what they believe.

(Deletes erroneous reference to surge pricing during JFK Airport protests in ninth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net