NYC Uber Drivers Are Organizing. Just Don’t Call It A Union
For the first time, Uber has agreed to officially recognize a group that lets its drivers organize to air their grievances.
Uber and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union jointly announced the formation of the association for New York City drivers today. Under a five-year agreement, The Independent Drivers Guild will represent the city’s 35,000 or so Uber drivers, who do not need to do anything to formally join. The guild will operate as an affiliate of the union, which will represent drivers in meetings with Uber, most notably when drivers appeal Uber’s decision to deactivate them. But the guild falls short of full union status itself. Guild members won’t be able to negotiate matters like pay, paid time off, health insurance, or workers’ compensation.
But the affiliation does come with some perks. Through the Guild, Uber drivers will be able to access discounted legal services, life and disability insurance, education courses, and roadside assistance, as well as an online hub of driver assistance resources.
Still, those benefits come with a catch. For the next five years, under the union’s agreement with Uber, the Guild won’t try to unionize its drivers or seek to have them recognized by the National Labor Relations Board as employees of the company. If Uber drivers do later gain legal status as employees, drivers won’t have waived any labor rights by joining, the guild says.
In the meantime, along with quelling driver unrest, Uber gets a crucial ally in its mission to change a New York State law that imposes a 9 percent tax on black car rides, something Uber says has an unfair impact on its business, given the significantly cheaper 50 cent surcharge for yellow taxi trips. The machinists union has promised to help Uber lobby state lawmakers to charge all types of hired vehicles the same rates.
In December, lawmakers in Seattle approved a measure allowing drivers to form unions that Uber called “flatly illegal.” The agreement with New York City drivers, however, appears to signal a further softening of Uber’s previously hard line. In April, Uber reached a proposed $100 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit brought by California and Massachusetts drivers who sought to become recognized as employees of the company rather than independent contractors. Keeping drivers classified as contractors is crucial to keeping Uber’s operating costs down. Uber says the model gives drivers more flexibility to work when and how they choose, but they don’t benefit from many worker protections enjoyed by full employees under the law.
The move also highlights Uber’s seeming willingness to address driver unrest by taking the same city-by-city approach that has fueled its dramatic growth. Uber has largely succeeded in new cities by understanding the unique ways each locale works. In Uber’s world, all politics is definitely local.