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From almost every angle, it looked awkward.
Last week, Mayor Brian Bowman participated in a photo op with Uber Canada to announce the arrival — finally — of the world’s most popular ride-hailing service. The fact Mr. Bowman had long promised to help bring Uber to Winnipeg no doubt gave him some degree of comfort participating in what amounted to a rather shameless marketing stunt.
"Simple message," the mayor said after sliding out of the rear seat of a minivan. "Winnipeg, your Uber has finally arrived."
There’s something uncomfortable about an elected official — in this case, the city’s most powerful elected official — shilling for a global corporate entity. But it’s particularly disconcerting when one considers how dramatically the world, and Uber’s place in it, have changed since Mr. Bowman first endorsed the ride-hailing giant.
The pandemic has shattered many business models, and right at the top of the list is anything connected to travel. From airplanes to taxis, the threat of COVID-19 has driven away customers. Winnipeg’s taxi industry is a case in point.
Recently, taxi companies appealed to the City of Winnipeg to allow them to drop two mandated service fees in a bid to lower the cost of their services. The taxicab industry claims to have lost as much as 85 per cent of its business during the pandemic. Mr. Bowman might consider the optics of offering his services as a spokesmodel for Uber when an existing local industry is suffering so badly.
It is not the mayor’s place to block Uber’s arrival in Winnipeg, nor to take specific measures to protect the existing taxi industry, but his enthusiastic support for the ride-hailing service seems somewhat out of step with the economic reality facing similar businesses and, quite frankly, with the state of Uber itself.
Uber has been teetering on the brink of financial uncertainty for years, losing billions upon billions of dollars as it struggles to find a profitable business model. In 2019, the company lost US$8 billion and was able to report a net increase in revenues only because of the sale of one of its operating units.
Uber management believes further expansion and acquisitions in the food-delivery sector will help make it profitable next year. But a quick look at that sector — and the restaurant industry in general — suggests that belief might be a triumph of optimism over empirical evidence.
Adding to all that financial uncertainty are class-action lawsuits in several jurisdictions, including Canada, many based on claims that Uber drivers, whom the company classifies as contractors, should be eligible for the wages and benefits afforded to full-time employees. The potential cumulative liability of these suits is massive; the Supreme Court of Canada last month approved a $400-million class action by Canadian Uber drivers to proceed.
For Mr. Bowman, Uber seemed to be something innovative that could help differentiate him from other, older mayoral challengers. Getting behind it allowed him to portray himself as the candidate for a new generation of younger, hipper, cyber-savvy voters.
However, by so resoundingly endorsing a company with a dubious business plan and uncertain future, Mr. Bowman may unwittingly have allowed Uber to take him for a ride. And that’s not a good look for any political leader.
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