From Brad Gerstman for NYETA featured in Crains New York Business:
One of the greatest ironies in New York City and other cities controlled by so-called progressives is the irrational exuberance for Uber, a disruptive phenomenon that uses contract workers and puts local businesses at risk. Uber already has more than 30,000 cars on the road here, yet has not been required to adhere to many of the regulations that the uber-liberal city has imposed on the taxi industry.
Probably the most egregious example of this is the failure of the City Council and mayor to require that any Uber cars be handicapped-accessible. Under the Bloomberg administration, a law was passed mandating that half of all taxis—6,000 in all—must accommodate wheelchairs by 2020. Uber remains exempt.
This has not sat well with advocates for the disabled who, with my assistance, have begun an ad campaign to shame city officials by claiming that they have failed to live up to their progressive label.
All of which raises the question of why elected officials seem to be so full of forbearance when it come to all things Uber when another disruptive company, Wal-Mart, has been greeted with vicious hysteria?
We know that there is a good deal of public support for Uber, as shown when Mayor de Blasio’s effort last year to cap the number of Uber cars was thwarted.
However, since when is popular support so instrumental? Wal-Mart has been thoroughly stymied, notwithstanding its demonstrable public support. Throughout the past 10 years as the company was attempting to gain entry into New York City, it was able to show through unbiased polling that New Yorkers would embrace the discount retailer.
Wal-Mart’s support rests on its ability to provide shoppers with very low prices for a wide range of goods. Uber enjoys similar customer satisfaction. But in Wal-Mart’s case, city officials ignored their bargain-shopping constituents, charging that the retailer hurt local businesses and exploited workers.
This is a variant of the “high cost of low prices” argument that progressives have been trumpeting for the past decade as Wal-Mart has tried to overcome the progressive barriers to entry here.
But a funny thing happened to that argument when Uber came to town. Now, a popular company that definitely harms local business and arguable treats its workers poorly—so much so that the workers held large protest rallies in New York City a little over a year ago—is being treated with kid gloves and is not being held to the same standards as taxi businesses.
On top of this, Uber does not directly serve the disabled, something “bad actor” Wal-Mart was never accused of doing. (Uber’s app can be used to hail handicapped-accessible taxis, but its own cars don’t accommodate wheelchairs.)
Why is there such a stark difference between the two companies? The reason lies with who is behind the start-up. Unlike Wal-Mart, controlled by the conservative Walton family, Uber is a creature of Wall Street hedge fund darlings with close ties to politically-connected Democrats. In addition, its lobbying effort is “run by former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe and stocked with Democratic operatives.”
As the genuinely progressive Thomas Frank has observed (paraphrased here by Kyle Smith of the New York Post), “Innovation … is often just code for new methods (from Uber to credit default swaps) to evade necessary protective regulations. Many such innovations pump up profits for rich entrepreneurs and shareholders by unloading employees with benefits in favor of part-timers and freelancers with no benefits. Democrats take big donations from such firms, laud them in speeches, and tell everyone else to get out of the way of the ‘disruption.’”
When it comes to Walmart, however, disruption—the sacking of small business and the destruction of downtown shopping areas—is reviled. Those who feed at the Uber Wall Street trough—just like their cousins the Waltons—care little about those businesses it destroys as the company gets to play by its own rules. And when the Uber store closes—after the taxi industry is decimated—the newly enriched investors will wring their hands and laugh all the way to the bank.
It is time to end the Uber double standard. The Taxi and Limousine Commission should hold the company to the same regulatory requirements that taxis are forced to comply with. That means providing cars for the disabled, not just an app that refers riders to an accessible taxi.
If we are going to welcome Uber into the city, ignoring its glaring similarity to Wal-Mart, we must also make sure that its workers are protected and not treated like sharecroppers to be exploited in the advancement of corporate greed.
Brad Gerstman is a spokesman for New Yorkers for Equal Transportation Access, a coalition of taxi-medallion owners, advocates for the disabled, and immigrant support groups.