Car Wars: Uber Forces Democrats to Fight Over the Soul of the Party

A leading Democrat was telling fellow Democrats to reject union and collective bargaining rights for Uber drivers.

Pick a side! (NICOLAS MAETERLINCK/AFP/Getty Images)
Pick a side! (NICOLAS MAETERLINCK/AFP/Getty Images) (Photo: Nicolas Maeterlinck/Getty Images)

It was another Battle in Seattle, and this time the good guys won. Like so many previous battles, the theater of conflict was over the conditions and terms of economic justice. But this skirmish–over badly needed regulation for the ridesharing company Uber (UBER)–contained a Russian doll subplot within a subplot that now can be understood for what it was: a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. The fact that this is occurring in the middle of a presidential election makes it all the more ominous.

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I recently returned from Seattle where there was a great deal of buzz over an impending vote at the city council. Legislation had been introduced that would allow Uber and other ridesharing drivers a quasi-right to form a union, if they so chose. I say “quasi” because these drivers are treated as contractors by Uber rather than regular employees, and consequently according to federal law these workers have no right to organize a union. But some smart labor lawyers had figured out a legal end run to try and rectify this situation by crafting legislation that allowed nonprofits to organize these workers. It was a legally bold (though some say legally questionable) strategy. The pro-labor legislation had been introduced by city councilmember Mike O’Brien, and the nine-member council was composed of eight Democrats plus one of the few elected socialists in the country. It seemed like the formula was there for a win.

But an anti-union Darth Uber figure visited Seattle’s political elite to battle progressives. His name: David Plouffe.

Hillary Clinton and her consultants know that Uber and these other companies are popular among the young, urban, Democratic-leaning constituency that she needs to win.

Mr. Plouffe is a leading Democratic insider that not even most Democrats have ever heard of. But they have heard of what he did: he was the central political strategist who got Barack Obama elected; he was in town to make a play for the soul of the Democratic Party.

After electing President Obama, and serving as a key advisor in the Obama administration for several years, Mr. Plouffe made what seemed like a surprising career move. He went to work as the chief policy and strategy flak for none other than Uber. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick made it clear that now Mr. Plouffe was to be “Uber’s campaign manager.” The Plouffe move cheered many within Uber who hoped that he could act as the adult in charge of babysitting the worst excesses of Mr. Kalanick.

US President Barack Obama (R) speaks with Senior Advisor David Plouffe (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R) speaks with Senior Advisor David Plouffe (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Mr. Plouffe quickly rammed his A-list contacts and spin machine into full gear, with moves like hiring an academic like Princeton economist Alan Krueger, an ally from their Obama administration days, to bring credibility to a bogus report based solely on Uber’s suspect internal data (relying on Uber’s data is like the tobacco companies paying for their own “studies”). The hiring of Mr. Plouffe revealed not only Uber’s panic level over numerous PR disasters, but also the degree to which the company and its billion-dollar backers had been able to penetrate into the highest stratospheres of the nation’s power chambers and back rooms—despite the Uber “parade of horribles” including its questionable business practices, its flouting of local laws and tax regulations, its tirades and threats against critical journalists, its invasions of passenger privacy, inadequate background checks and ongoing mistreatment of drivers.

Mr. Plouffe showed his worth during Uber’s now-celebrated trouncing of New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio in July 2015. Mr. De Blasio, himself a leading progressive Democrat, challenged Uber over concerns about a huge surge of traffic congestion in Manhattan as a result of ridesharing, but also over concerns about drivers’ wages, overcharging consumers and accessibility for those with disabilities. “We wouldn’t let ExxonMobil or Wal-Mart or any other corporate giant operate in New York City without basic rules in place to protect the public,” Mr. DeBlasio wrote in an op-ed in the New York Daily News. “And no number of lobbyists or ad campaigns will change that.”

It seemed like this was a battle Mr. DeBlasio couldn’t lose. Until Mr. Plouffe went to work. The political maestro rallied fellow Democrats to oppose the sitting Democratic mayor of New York. He portrayed Uber’s crummy driving jobs as an economic godsend to the middle class, its livery service as a blessing for minority boroughs, and the mayor himself as beholden to the corrupt taxi industry, which had been one of Mr. DeBlasio’s biggest campaign contributors. It was a brass knuckled, no holds barred political fisticuffs, Democrat against Democrat.

Plotting like the campaign strategist that he is, Mr. Plouffe spent $3.2 million to blanket city residents with mass mailings, robocalls and TV and radio spots. He also deployed a sophisticated social media campaign to mobilize young, liberal urbanites via Twitter and Facebook. Mr. Plouffe got the Democratic governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, to support Uber-ization of New York. At one point, with the city council ready to vote, Mr. Plouffe pulled together a group of black leaders into a press conference in Harlem, and they all tore into Mr. DeBlasio’s proposal. In a masterful display of irony, Mr. Plouffe — the mouthpiece of a company valued at $51 billion that had been called by Salon’s Andrew Leonard the closest thing we have today to robber baron capitalism—called into question the mayor’s progressive bona fides.

Facing the multidimensional onslaught of Mr. Plouffe’s attack, Mr. DeBlasio backed down. He got Uber to agree to a few face-saving conditions, then let the proposal sink quietly into the cold deep water of the Hudson River. But the media buzzed about the Uber victory for weeks, with Mr. DeBlasio’s sudden surrender bolstering the recognition of Mr. Plouffe’s political wizardry.

So when David Plouffe showed up in Seattle, the waters of Puget Sound appeared to open and the Space Needle shook. But this time the battle was not over something like congestion, which is not a crucial issue to the base of the Democratic Party. No, it was over something much more entwined with the identity of the Democrats as a party—the right to organize a labor union. The Democrats have not backed strong pro-labor legislation for many years, but at least rhetorically a significant wing of the Democratic Party has remained staunchly pro-labor. Organized labor is central to Democrats, both in terms of philosophy and fundraising capability, and Seattle is a very Democratic as well as pro-labor town.

Yet Mr. Plouffe is a high-ranking Democratic establishment figure, with many key alliances. So here was a leading Democrat coming out against a group of workers not having the right to collective bargaining. Does this mark a new anti-union turn for the Mr. Plouffe wing of the Democratic Party? Does this augur a coming split within the party, as Democrats head into a presidential election year?

In many previous election cycles, the Democrats have been split between their progressive and centrist wings. Bill Clinton in 1992 came out of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council wing of the party. Hillary Clinton has tried to find an in-between sweet spot with many of these issues. When it comes to Uber, Airbnb and the so-called “sharing economy,” Hillary has said that “we need good jobs”—and implied that the jobs from Uber are not very good. But she and her consultants know that Uber and these other companies are popular among the young, urban, Democratic-leaning constituency that Hillary needs to win. So she has tried to straddle this issue, and so far has mostly done this successfully.

But Mr. Plouffe marching into Seattle like an invading army to oppose collective bargaining rights toppled Mrs. Clinton’s balancing act, as well as the uneasy consensus within the Democratic Party over these urban-based issues. He pitted pro-labor Democrats against anti-labor Democrats. Plouffe met with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, as well as with editorial boards and gave a major address with a high-minded title of “The Future of Work.”

But the scene was incongruous, even for these topsy turvy times:  a leading Democrat was telling fellow Democrats to reject union and collective bargaining rights for Uber drivers. And in this case, the brilliant campaign strategist did not prevail. The pro-labor Democrats and lone Socialist on the council held strong, defeating Plouffe and his brand of pro-business centrists by a unanimous vote. Seattle became the first city in the U.S. to establish a framework for contract drivers to organize and bargain over issues such as pay and working conditions. Drivers and backers were ecstatic, bursting into applause after the vote in the council’s crowded chambers, shouting, “When we fight, we win!”

Still, this story will not go away. Uber gets itself into trouble nearly everywhere it goes, and it’s a story that has national repercussions for both its symbolic and its actual value. This issue will continue to pit pro-labor Democrats vs. anti-labor Democrats in the middle of a presidential election. Mrs. Clinton, are you taking notes?

Steven Hill is a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the recently published Raw Deal: How the “Uber Economy” and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers. You can follow him on Twitter at @StevenHill1776.


Car Wars: Uber Forces Democrats to Fight Over the Soul of the Party