Labor

Former Top Obama Aides Are Now in the Business Of Undermining Unions

David Plouffe’s move to Uber is the latest.

San Francisco's taxi drivers are fighting ride-network companies like Uber.
Photo Credit: SFCDA.org

Another top Obama presidential campaign consultant has crossed over to the dark side, not merely becoming a lobbyist but signing on with a decidedly un-progressive cause: working for Uber and against organized taxi driver unions.

“We’re in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber, and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi,” Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, said at a tech conference in May. “Nobody likes him, he’s not a nice character, but he’s so woven into the political machinery and fabric that a lot of people owe him favors.”

Enter David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign manager and then a senior White House advisor. On Tuesday, Plouffe signed a contract to work as a top political strategist for Uber, the ride-networking company that helps people make money by ferrying passengers. Uber is in a nasty fight with the unionized taxi industry, which is heavily regulated and more costly to operate. Uber was valued at $17 billion in June and has been assembling its own political army, the Daily Beast reported.

“I could not be more excited to join such a vibrant company and its people who will be at the absolute leading edge of tomorrow’s innovations and changing people’s lives and their cities for the better,” Plouffe said in an Uber blog post, announcing he will become senior vice president for policy and strategy. “It will be a privilege to jump in the foxhole with the team.”

Plouffe is the fourth highest ranking ex-Obama campaign consultant to sign on with anti-labor clients, according to Buzzfeed.com, which noted that Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign manager, Jim Messina, left to work for England's Conservative Party, whose platform includes outlawing strikes. There’s also ex-White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, and 2012 campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt, “who are using their talents in a campaign against the power of teacher’s unions,” Buzzfeed said.

The politicos have replaced the politics of hope and change with making big money.

“David’s done everything he can do in politics and he’s served at the highest levels of government. He’s still a young man and there are other mountains to climb for him,” said David Axelrod, another ex-Obama advisor, on Uber’s blog. “This is the perfect place for him.”

The revolving door in politics is nothing new. Before President Obama took office, he pledged to make his administration as lobbyist-free as any in modern history. Obama largely has done that, the Washington Post reported this week, saying there were only 65 ex-lobbyists in administration posts, the lowest number since Obama took office and a historically low figure.

But that count includes people who still are in government, not those who left to cash in on their expertise. While every administration sees top aides resign before the president's term ends, most don’t go on to clients whose values clash with their ex-boss. Top union officials in Washington didn’t want to say much about these politicos’ career moves. Organized labor has a complex relationship with the administration. On one hand, Obama supports many labor issues, but he also supports trade agreements that undermine manufacturing jobs.

“Key staff from Obama for America are translating their political success into personal economic success,” Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, told Buzzfeed. “If anything, it points to the need for the rest of us to build a movement that gets big money out of politics so the change we voted for in 2008 can become real.”

Cohen’s money-in-politics comment is notable, because money is the glue that tends to hold the political world together more than principles. Campaign consultants are the quintessential hired guns. Their expertise combines aspects of the least trustworthy professions, according to ongoing Gallup polls: advertising, political office, car sales and lobbying.

What may be most eyebrow-raising about Plouffe’s departure for Uber is not that it was all but inevitable for someone in his trade, but that several high-profile Democrats have praised it, according to Uber’s blog post, “A Leader For The Uber Campaign.”

“David Plouffe and Uber are a natural match,” said Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. “From my insurgent campaign in 2006 and since, David has shown an interest in and an appetite for challenging established ways—and winning. As we have seen in Boston, one of its first cities, so has Uber. I wish them both well.”

“In Colorado, we embrace innovation and disruptive technology. We push to be in the vanguard. Colorado has led the way on innovative transportation options like Uber,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. “Having worked closely with David, I know he brings the same progressive approach.”

“David is as smart and strategic as they come in politics,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “Wherever he goes and whatever he does his presence is immediately felt.”

While these career moves surely are swell for this group of top consultants, they seem to underscore organized labor’s shrinking influence in national party circles.

“We’re focused on the policies pushed by those who currently work for the president,” the AFL-CIO’s Amaya Smith told Buzzfeed, when asked about Plouffe and Uber. 

You can be sure that Americans will see more of these former Obama aides, especially as Obama's term ends. In January, Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign manager, became head of Priorities USA, the Democratic super PAC throwing its weight behind Hillary Clinton for 2016.   

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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