Hillary Clinton didn’t say the company’s name. But to her critics, her words during a major economic speech earlier this month left no doubt of their intended target.
“This is a huge thing,” Grover Norquist, the influential president of Americans for Tax Reform, told Business Insider in an interview last week
Norquist was talking about the point at which Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, said during the address that she would “crack down” on employers who “exploit” workers by “misclassifying them as contractors.”
The target, Norquist said, was Uber.
“And so that happens, and we started to write about: ‘Did you notice what Hillary did?’ She just declared war on the future. She just declared war on Uber,” Norquist said.
Uber is part of the ever-growing, so-called gig economy, or sharing economy. Clinton’s comments, and a debate over Uber’s future in America’s biggest city, have exposed over the past few weeks a fundamental divide at the center of the Democratic Party that could have ramifications for the 2016 presidential election and beyond.
Companies like Uber are becoming a trend in Silicon Valley and beyond: A recent study from the software company Intuit a few years ago estimated that as much as 40% of the American workforce could be freelancers, independent contractors, or consultants by 2020.
One on side of the Democratic debate were people like David Plouffe, the former campaign manager for President Barack Obama turned chief adviser to Uber. On the other was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who has become an increasingly active voice in the national debate over the party’s direction.
De Blasio, citing street congestion, pushed for a bill that would have capped Uber’s growth at 1% through September 2016. The push was short-lived.
Uber went on an all-out public-relations assault on the de Blasio administration. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) rebuked him publicly (in what has become something of a habit). Democrats like Dan Pfeiffer, the recently departed senior adviser to Obama, fretted on Twitter that Democrats had become a party “opposing” the future. Others, like Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, took a more veiled shot at Democratic counterparts by noting he was riding in an Uber.
By Wednesday of last week, de Blasio and the city council had dropped the proposed bill. But the future of Uber and other members of the “sharing economy” — Airbnb, Lyft, Task Rabbit, and more — has reverberated all the way up to Clinton. As Norquist and other conservatives see it, she made her position clear during that economic speech earlier this month.
“Hillary staked out a position which would kill Uber — without mentioning Uber. And sort of said, ‘Oh it’s good, but if course we can’t have anybody independent contractors. Everybody has to be an employee.’ Well, Uber doesn’t work that way,” Norquist said.
But Norquist thinks Uber and related companies offer a no-win solution for Democrats. He points to the fundamentals of Democratic Party organising and fundraising, a good chunk of which is performed by unions. One Wall Street Journal analysis in 2012 found unions spent about four times as much as generally thought.
They fill the coffers and get out the vote. And they aren’t happy about Uber, arguing it should follow the same rules as yellow cabs. The heart of Uber’s employees — most of its drivers — operate as independent contractors, meaning they operate as pseudo-freelancers. They don’t receive benefits through their employer, and they’re not obliged to pay the dues that are a feature of taxi unions.
“The whole modern, new economy — the internet economy, the sharing economy — doesn’t work with the old labour laws that were set up to run Ford Motor Company assembly lines. But that’s also the funding source for the modern Democratic Party. It’s not like Hillary has a choice; she can’t do anything other than what she’s doing,” Norquist said.
The Clinton campaign pushed back hard at the suggestion it was going after companies like Uber. Her chief technology officer even wrote a Medium post saying her comments were “misrepresented as an attack on the sharing economy.”
Nevertheless, Republican presidential candidates, who have long struggled to gain support in the technology sector, attempted to pounce on the apparent opening. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) made a point of riding in an Uber in the days after Clinton’s speech. In just 15 days last month, Bush’s campaign used Uber a total of 70 times. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) said Clinton isn’t qualified to make judgments on Uber.
Finally, there was US Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), another potential Clinton rival, who tweeted a not-so-subtle shot last week after the New York City council’s bill went up in flames:
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