The ongoing struggle over what regulations will apply to transportation network companies, or TNC’s, has largely turned into a battle between Uber and Austin City Council, with a handful of PACs serving as the company’s intermediaries. Recent coverage in The Guardian shed some light on the people behind those PACs, and what this may mean for the future of the city.
While they have largely refused to speak to local reporters, the two Republican operatives who founded Austin4All did agree to speak to The Guardian. Austin4All is the PAC behind the recently failed attempt to recall Councilmember Ann Kitchen. Calling Kitchen “absolutely corrupt” on the basis of $4,000 in total campaign contributions from lobbyists and taxi drivers, they told The Guardian that they weren’t deterred by their first recall petition’s defeat. “We’re just getting started.”
Interestingly, for these two, a company worth billions of dollars attempting to write the policies that would regulate it’s operations through a petition drive doesn’t seem to fall under the “special interest” category – that label is reserved for pro-regulation local elected officials.
Austin4All isn’t alone in its focus on ousting Kitchen. Texans for Accountable Government, another conservative-leaning PAC honing in on Austin politics, is also targeting the councilmember. The Executive Director, Justin Arman, spoke to The Guardian, and made a case against regulation straight out of the GOP playbook, calling it “a threat to the social and economic freedoms that create local prosperity.” Further, “These regulations really infantilize the good people of Austin. There’s no such thing as zero risk, and according to Kitchen’s logic, everyone should be fingerprinted – and hey, why not even chipped? – before leaving the house.”
For Arman, and the founders of Austin4All, the Austin City Council’s efforts to address public safety concerns are nothing more than government overreach, which is par for the Republican course. But in a city whose voters lean solidly Democrat, are these Republican-led PAC’s, flush with cash from the technology sector, a sign of things to come?
For Kitchen, this shows a dark underbelly to Austin’s flourishing technology community. “These guys out in Silicon Valley like to consider themselves disrupters, but they’re just another version of what we’ve had before: big business [types]who think they can write their own laws,” Kitchen told The Guardian.
As more information comes out about Uber’s practices, Kitchen’s statement rings true. Uber treats its drivers like contract labor, avoiding any responsibility towards them that would exist were they classified as employees. And this doesn’t stop with the drivers. Customer service representatives (CSR’s), who are at the center of Uber’s supposed commitment to customer safety and satisfaction, report being misled, offered little to no support, and replaced through outsourcing.
But this should come as no surprise, even to the progressive Austinites who have come to rely on the apps to get around the city. When a business is looking at ways to maximize profits, decrease oversight, and maintain the environment that allowed them to grow, these are the kinds of choices they would make. And that is why businesses shouldn’t be making policy.
Uber has already left two cities in Texas in 2016, and is preparing to leave a third, in response to a push for stricter safety regulations from city governments. Now that they have effectively forced the Austin City Council to hold May elections in order to repeal the policies passed by the council last year, they are challenging the ballot language by going to the Texas Supreme Court.
The request, filed by a local Uber supporter on behalf of the company, is asking the court to intervene in the preparation of ballot language they claim to be misleading.
Such an argument is dubious at best, coming from a company that has consistently relied on spreading misinformation to gain support for the very petition that spurred this local election in the first place.
It is important to note that not all technology companies espouse Uber’s bully model when working with municipal governments. In a SXSW panel presented by Dell, industry leaders proposed strong government relations programs to foster positive and collaborative relationships with city governments in order to secure the best outcomes for residents and companies. For them, Uber is a worst-case scenario.
For Austinites, this saga is far from over. Republican-led and technology-backed PACs will continue to fight to unseat democratically elected officials who favor regulations, and Uber has doubled down on their threats to leave Austin, and any other city that dares to regulate them. Perhaps it’s time for voters to call their bluff.