We Need A Boycott

Boycotts like #DeleteUber provide a concrete way for protest to translate into political action.
01/31/2017 09:13 am ET Updated Feb 01, 2017

Yesterday morning, I sat with a friend at a café as he scrolled through his Facebook newsfeed, strewn with calls to #DeleteUber and explicit instructions on how to do so. Virtually overnight, a generation of consumers deleted the app in response to its decision to drop surge pricing at JFK airport, which many viewed as an attempt to undermine the New York Taxi Workers Alliance strike against President Trump’s executive order.

“Why are all these people choosing Uber as their enemy?” he asked. “People’s time and energy are so limited. Why should they focus on Uber?”

It’s a reasonable question. If the challenge to Uber is based on CEO Travis Kalanick’s decision to join Trump’s economic advisory group, then other group members — GE, General Motors, and IBM, among them — are just as guilty. This is a point that Kalanick highlighted in his own self-defense. If the challenge is based on Uber’s relationship to organized labor, then the swift defection to Lyft, another ride-sharing service, is puzzling. Both Lyft and Uber have been eroding taxi unions and soaking up their business for years.

But these criticisms miss the point. The Uber boycott was a powerful first step in a broader commercial boycott that holds genuine promise for an anti-Trump alliance worldwide.

Since the election, there has been one dominant concern among my millennial peers: How do we translate people power into political power? Millions of protestors poured into the streets following inauguration, but the administration paid little attention — even Democrats appeared hesitant to flaunt the largest protests in American history. Meanwhile, calls and letters pour into congressmen’s offices, but Trump’s nominees snake through to confirmation anyway.

Boycotts like #DeleteUber provide a concrete way for protest to translate into political action.

There are two ways that this boycott can effect real change. The first is that boycotts directly affect companies’ bottom line. The #DeleteUber movement, like the Nike boycott in the 1990s, reduces the number of Uber users and tarnishes its brand worldwide. This puts direct pressure on companies like Uber to rethink their relationship to the Trump regime. Silicon Valley companies like Microsoft, Google, and Facebook have been painfully silent since Trump’s election. Even the executive order that banned entry for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries only prompted calls to protect their own employees. A boycott forces these companies to take a stand against the administration, which weakens Trump’s legitimacy even further. Uber’s $3 million concession yesterday is just a start.

Second, and more imporant, boycotts matter because they create room for political opposition — both at home and abroad. If international consumers punish American companies for complicity with Trump’s administration, international leaders will feel more emboldened — and more united — in their own stance against it. Already, over one million people have signed a petition to prevent Donald Trump from visiting the United Kingdom. This puts direct pressure on Theresa May to rethink her obsequious stance toward the “special relationship.”

Donald Trump promised “deals.” If leaders abroad feel pressure to boycott his administration, he will be unable to deliver on that promise. Wall Street has reacted gleefully to the administration’s effort to lower taxes and deregulate industry. The record high of the Dow Jones Industrial Average gives the impression of a surging American economy. But America depends crucially on its trading partners. Their courage in taking on this administration will be crucial to the success of an opposition movement, and a boycott will be crucial to inspiring that courage.

This movement must carry sticks as well as offer carrots. Consumers must punish the private sector for complicity with Trump’s administration. But we must also reward the private sector for resisting them — even if resistance means a paltry donation to the ACLU or free housing for refugees. A robust and clear system of incentives has the most potential for impact.

The call to boycott is growing louder each day. Groups like the Democratic Coalition Against Trump — and a wide range of grassroots organizations fighting against Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-poor platform — have been organizing a boycott since the election in November. There is even an app for it. My point here is only that, while imperfect, consumer movements like #DeleteUber warrant more enthusiasm than skepticism.

The depth and breadth of Trump’s threat to democracy requires us to do more than make calls, write letters, or get out the vote. It will require us to reconfigure our daily lives — as citizens and also as consumers. #DeleteUber is just one step in the right direction.

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