Uber and Lyft drivers in New York City rallied at the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission on September 27 for the right to join a union.
The drivers at the rally were among the 14,000 Uber and Lyft ride share workers in the city who have signed union representation cards in response to an organizing campaign initiated by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1181-1061.
Michael Cordello, president of Local 1181-1061 said that such a large show of support should not go unrecognized.
“We’re asking the commission to order Uber and Lyft and those other companies to negotiate with us, and we believe under their charter, (the commission has) the ability to do so,” said Cordello to Vice News.
But there are several obstacles that Uber and Lyft drivers must overcome before they can join a union.
For one thing, they are classified as independent contractors, not employees which makes union membership for them problematic.
Independent contractors have no US labor law protections. Employers don’t have to provide them with minimum benefits such as overtime pay and unemployment insurance and can’t form unions to bargain collectively.
Local 1181-1061 says that it is unjust to deny union membership to ride share drivers, who are treated like employees but classified as independent contractors.
“We say that together we can change this injustice and make it possible for a person who wants to join a union to do so freely,” said Local 1181-1061 in a letter to ride share drivers.
In addition to putting pressure on the Taxi and Limousine Commission to order a union election, Local 1181-1061 is pursuing other routes to give ride share drivers the right to unionize.
“We are making progress on the legislative side with the city council and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB),” said the local in another letter addressed to ride share drivers.
The union wants the city council to pass an ordinance similar to one passed last year by the Seattle City Council. The ordinance gives ride share drivers in that city the right to join a union.
The union also is monitoring an NLRB investigation involving Uber. The labor board is gathering information to determine the employment status of Uber drivers. If the NLRB determines that the drivers are in fact employees, then drivers will have the right to join a union.
The NLRB has issued a subpoena seeking information from Uber that will help the board make its determination. Uber is fighting the subpoena in court.
In response to the challenges to its labor practices, Uber has partnered with the International Association of Machinist and the Freelancers Union to create the Independent Drivers Guild in New York.
Guild representatives meet regularly with Uber’s management to address concerns raised by drivers, but Uber’s agreement with the Guild stipulates that fares can’t be discussed and that the Guild will not act as a collective bargaining representative.
ATU argues that the meetings between the Guild and Uber’s management are no substitute for collective bargaining that can reach an enforceable contract.
Without a union unfettered by rules created solely by the company “workers will never have the power to achieve what they need or want,” states Local 1181-1061 in its letter to drivers.
One of the things that Uber drivers need and want is some relief from the fare reductions that Uber implemented in January. The fare reduction means that Uber drivers must work longer and harder to maintain a decent income.
“Before they lowered the rates, I used to make $400 or more a day,” said John Zapata to Vice News. “Now I have to work harder for that–now sometimes there’s a fare for as little as $3.
“They dropped the fares so much that we have to work 15, 16, 17 hours a day to make some money,” said Peter Acosta to Vice.
In addition to drivers wanting to organize a union, Uber is facing other problems resulting from the way it treats its employees.
In June, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance filed a wage theft suit against Uber for not paying overtime to its drivers.
The Alliance in July joined two former Uber drivers who lost their jobs in filing a suit to compel New York’s Labor Department to investigate unemployment insurance claims by the two drivers and other Uber drivers seeking unemployment insurance.
The suit contends that the drivers earned wages, which makes them eligible for unemployment insurance. Uber claims that the drivers’ earnings were not wages because the drivers were independent contractors.
In August, a judge overturned a settlement in a class action lawsuit claiming that Uber misclassifies its drivers. The settlement required Uber to make payments to the plaintiffs but left open the question of whether they were employees or independent contractors.
According to Local 1181-1061, Uber’s labor practices are impoverishing hundreds of thousands of workers.
Whether these practices are allowed to stand will have an impact on the millions of workers who like Uber drivers are misclassified as independent contractors instead of employees.