A recent leak of over 124,000 internal emails, texts, and presentations from the ride-hailing app Uber paints a clear picture of the blatant corruption at the heart of capitalism. Originally released to the Guardian and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists including the Toronto Star, the leak outlines how Uber fought to circumvent any and all regulations by cozying up to high-ranking politicians and utilizing criminal tactics such as “kill switches” during office raids. The documents span from 2013 to 2017, during the tenure of Uber co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick when the company was aggressively trying to break into markets globally.
In every jurisdiction that Uber tried to enter they were faced with backlash from local authorities due to their unwillingness to abide by regulations. The former head of Uber’s global communications, Nairi Hourdajian, said, “Sometimes we have problems because, well, we’re just f—ing illegal”.
The documents were leaked by former high-ranking Uber lobbyist in Europe Mark MacGann, whose personal connections to critical bourgeois politicians in Europe gave the company an earnest ear in most of the continent’s parliaments.
According to the Uber Files, Emmanual Macron–currently France’s President–was in frequent communication with Uber executives. When French Uber offices were being raided by the state and operations were suspended in Marseille, MacGann texted Macron asking for assistance. Macron, then Minister of Economics, Industry and Digital Affairs, responded that he would “look into it personally”. Later that evening, local authorities relaxed the ban on Uber.
Such blatant corruption from Uber was not isolated to Europe. The Uber Files describe the same cutthroat tactics used to break into the Canadian market, most notably in their relations with Toronto Mayor John Tory.
Central to Uber’s international strategy was their insistence that they are not a “taxi company” but merely a technology company and as such should be exempt from cities’ often stringent taxi regulations. Uber’s tactic was to simply begin operations in a new jurisdiction without complying with regulations, with internal documents stating it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
When the City of Toronto filed an injunction to halt Uber’s operations in 2014, Uber executives began meeting regularly with newly elected mayor John Tory who was seen as a potential ally. According to the Star, Uber logged more meetings in the mayor’s office than all other taxi companies, industry groups, and taxi worker organizations combined.
One of these meetings between the mayor’s chief of staff and an Uber external lobbyist (and former top campaign aide for Tory) occurred a few days before Tory moved to defer a vote on the future of Toronto’s taxi regulations, a move which upset many taxi operators and prompted an investigation into Tory’s relationship with the company. Despite the clear conflict of interest, the commissioner concluded there was no impropriety.
Later, the city’s injunction against Uber was lost in the courts and Uber was allowed to resume operations. By May 2016 Toronto passed a new series of regulations which explicitly stated that ride-hailing apps like Uber are not taxi brokerages, and so would not be held to the same standard of regulations. According to the Star, Toronto’s new regulations reflected what Uber wanted in its internal “model legislation”.
Uber has utilized more than just backroom dealings to get their way. The documents confirmed Uber’s “kill switch” policy where all devices in Uber offices could be remotely locked and encrypted in the event that offices were raided by local officials. This policy was enacted in at least five countries including Canada when Quebec tax agents raided the company’s Montreal headquarters.
Leaked documents included a “dawn raid manual” which outlined exactly what Uber office employees should do to protect the company’s secrets from authorities in the case of a raid, including notifying the office’s “raid co-ordinator” and escorting authorities to empty meeting rooms without files or computer access. They were also instructed to act surprised and to make up excuses as to why computer access was down.
It is clear from this leak that Uber has successfully been able to strong-arm its way into dominating the market despite the tangle of regulations and laws set in place to supposedly keep corporations in check. Although many see this as another example of a rogue corporation taking advantage of a flaw in capitalism, this could not be further from the truth. In actuality, this is capitalism working as it intended. As long as a company is generating profits for its stakeholders, regulations become secondary considerations. This is clear from the Uber Files where executives were more than aware of their behaviour. MacGann has been open about this in his exposé stating:
The company approach in these places was essentially to break the law, show how amazing Uber’s service was, and then change the law. My job was to go above the heads of city officials, build relations with the top level of government, and negotiate. It was also to deal with the fallout.
The government does not pass laws for people’s benefit, but instead exists to manage the affairs of the bosses. When regulations stand in the way of a corporation’s ability to generate profits, politicians like Macron and Tory will always ensure that any obstacles will be removed.
This leak is a clear example that it is impossible for us to regulate ourselves out of capitalism. The bosses and their politicians have no interest in protecting working class people from the consequences of their profits. What protections we do have are the result of generations of working class struggle, not the benevolence of the bosses.
In recent years there have been increased struggles from so-called “gig workers” employed by companies like Uber. These workers are legally considered “contract workers” in most jurisdictions, which means that Uber is able to offload the usual expense of having formal employees. However, as a result, these workers have no protections that labour laws usually provide.
As we wrote back in 2015, this was an intentional strategy from Uber, promoting contract work as “freeing” and utilizing pay incentives to rapidly recruit drivers so as to drown out their competition. However, as Uber became ubiquitous, the company began systematically slashing its pay incentives and increasing the portion of the fare it pockets. The result is that already precarious working conditions have become untenable, with wages for most drivers plummeting to below minimum wage.
Uber is intimately aware of how little they pay their workers, stating in an internal document that they need to “[m]ake sure drivers don’t end up making more than they need to stick around”. Uber has stated that they believe they can get away with this because most drivers do not take factors outside of gas and Uber’s cut into consideration when calculating their net earnings. However, Uber has begun rolling out a new fare algorithm that further obfuscates how much workers are getting paid relative to Uber.
Although the courts in several jurisdictions have ruled that Uber can no longer treat its workers like contractors but must be considered formal employees, these cases have yet to change any of Uber’s operations. For this reason, Uber workers as well as other gig workers have begun to take matters into their own hands. Small strikes of aggrieved ride-share drivers have become more common and increasingly militant. The Uber Files leak has motivated Uber drivers in the UK to call for a one-day strike demanding pay increases.
Although the decentralized nature of workers on these apps makes strike coordination and unionization drives exceedingly difficult, these corporations fear workers organizing themselves and are terrified of the precedent that would be set by a successful unionization effort. This is illustrated well by the recent example of food delivery app Foodora fleeing Canada after CUPW’s successful union drive of food couriers in Toronto. Uber knows its profits depend on the continued subjugation of its workers and will do anything to ensure this is sustained.
Workers are realizing that they cannot simply rely on regulations passed by corrupt politicians to ensure that companies like Uber are kept in line. Only workers, by taking over the reins of power from the bosses and their politicians, can ensure that the interests of society are not subjugated to those of profit.