14,000 NYC Uber and Lyft drivers sign union authorization cards

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.

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Sharing economy workers seek their fair share

As the result of a grassroots campaign by Seattle ride-share  and taxi drivers, the Seattle City Council in December voted 8-0 to allow drivers who work for Uber and Lyft as well as taxi drivers to form unions and bargain collectively.

Ride-share and taxi drivers in Seattle are classified–some would say misclassified–as independent contractors, and as such, they do not have the same protected right to organize and bargain collectively that most workers have.

The Seattle ordinance gives them that protection.

Ride-share drivers aren’t the only unprotected workers. They are joined by a large contingent of workers who work in many fields.

These so-called independent contractors make up the bulk of labor in the new sharing economy, businesses that operate internet platforms that link customers to service providers by apps.

In California, state Representative Lorena Gonzalez has introduced the 1099 Self-Organizing Act, which if enacted would extend organizing and bargaining protections to workers in the sharing economy.

The sharing economy is a growing part of the US economy. About 20 percent of jobs created since the end of the Great Recession are in app-based companies like Uber and Lyft and temporary staffing agencies, both of which rely heavily on a precarious workforce, unprotected workers who work for low pay and receive few if any benefits.

Companies like Uber have been able to stay afloat and attract investors such as Goldman Sachs, which has $1.6 billion invested in Uber, by shifting much of their business costs and risks to their workers.

Uber drivers pay for their vehicles, pay for their insurance, don’t have any safety net benefits such as company-sponsored health care.

If they are hurt on the job, they won’t be able to collect workers compensation because the company doesn’t pay their workers compensation insurance premiums.

If the economy takes a downturn and drivers don’t work because there isn’t enough demand for Uber services, drivers can’t collect unemployment insurance because Uber doesn’t pay for it.

When Uber drivers are too old to work and must retire, they won’t collect Social Security because Uber doesn’t make Social Security contributions for its drivers.

The lack of protections and other reasons led some Uber drivers in Seattle to organize the App-based Drivers Association, which is affiliated with Teamsters Local 117.

“Since I started driving for Uber, Uber has cut our pay without notice, terminated drivers without giving a reason, and blocked our efforts to improve our working conditions. We’re looking for fairness and the ability to earn a living wage,” said Peter Kuel, a member of the App-based Drivers Association after the Seattle City Council passed its worker organizing ordinance.

The Seattle ordinance allows drivers for app-based companies and taxi companies to choose a non-profit organization to represent them.

The ordinance requires the city to share the names and contact information of app-based and taxi drivers registered with the city to any non-profit organization interested in helping the drivers form a union.

When a majority of drivers for a company express an interest in joining the non-profit organization, the company must recognize and bargain with the non-profit organization.

“This (ordinance) means a lot to us drivers,” said Fasil Teka of the App-based Drivers Association. “It can have a positive impact, not just for drivers in Seattle, but for independent contractors across the country.”

The bill introduced in the California General Assembly by Rep. Gonzalez seeks to accomplish the same thing for workers in the sharing economy but in a slightly different way.

The bill would allow independent contractors working for app-based companies to organize themselves and bargain collectively. The bargaining unit wouldn’t have to be affiliated with an established union.

“There are pitfalls and benefits to the (sharing) economy,” said Rep. Gonzalez to the Los Angeles Times, “We need laws that promote it and protect it, but also protect workers and ensure they don’t slip through the cracks.”

Gonzalez’s bill is far from being a sure thing to become law, but it does represent an acknowledgement among some policy makers that rights of independent contractors need to be redefined and expanded.

It’s not likely that companies like Uber will give up their ability to shift their business costs to their workers without a fight.

Uber has already indicated that it will challenge the Seattle ordinance in court.

Nevertheless, passage of the Seattle ordinance and the introduction of the California bill show that the fight to extend basic protections to independent contractors has begun and won’t be going away.

Uber driver wins misclassification case

The California Labor Commissioner recently ruled that former Uber driver Barbara Berwick was an employee of the ride share company, not an independent contractor, and therefore was owed more than $4000 in job-related expenses that Berwick paid while working for Uber.

While the ruling applies only to Berwick, the commissioner’s ruling could have far-reaching consequences for Uber and other employers who classify workers as independent contractors in order to lower their labor costs.

According to Bloomberg, the commissioner’s ruling, “strikes at the heart of (Uber’s) business model, (which) like other ‘sharing economy’ startups has built a business around a flexible car fleet piloted by people it contends are independent contractors. If Uber’s drivers were treated as employees, the company would be required to guarantee them a minimum wage, compensate them for mileage, and pay into social security.”

After the ruling was issued, Uber announced that it would appeal the commissioner’s ruling in court.

In announcing its decision to appeal, Uber touted its labor policies, which a company spokesperson said gives workers “complete flexibility and control.”

But some Uber drivers have a somewhat different view of Uber’s flexible labor policies. “Uber’s like an exploiting pimp,” said Arman, an Uber driver in Los Angeles to  writing for Jacobin. “Uber takes 20 percent of my earnings, and they treat me like shit — they cut prices whenever they want. They can deactivate me whenever they feel like it, and if I complain, they tell me to fuck off.”

Other Uber drivers critical of the company’s labor policies are a bit less caustic than Arman, who asked Asher-Schapiro not to use his last name. For them, the word that best describes Uber’s labor policies isn’t “flexible;” instead it’s “indifferent.”

Some Uber drivers have responded to the company’s indifference by organizing. One of the new app drivers organizations in Southern California is called the California App-based Drivers Association (CADA).

“(Uber’s) manifest indifference to the plight of its drivers . . . led drivers to form CADA,” said Lotfi Ben Yeder, a member of CADA’s leadership council.

Among other things, members of CADA complain that Uber doesn’t provide them with enough protection on the job.

One female driver who didn’t want her name used said that when a customer sexually harassed her, she wanted to end the ride but didn’t do so because she feared that the customer might give her a negative approval rating, which could lead to her being fired.

When she reported the harassment to Uber management, she said that she received no meaningful response.

Other drivers who belong to CADA complained that Uber’s approval rating system is arbitrary and not transparent. If drivers receive a bad rating,which could lead to their firing, there’s no way for them to appeal.

In addition, drivers are responsible for paying for gas, tolls, insurance, repairs, and other work-related expenses and receive no company benefits including health insurance. The company also doesn’t make social security or unemployment insurance contributions on behalf of the driver.

CADA has affiliated with Teamsters Local 986, which issued a statement after CADA was formed in 2014.

“We look forward to working with CADA to help the drivers win fairness in the workplace and help them get recognized for the work they do making Uber and other app-based companies successful,” said Chris Griswold, secretary-treasurer of Local 986. “These app-based companies need to start treating their professional drivers with the respect and dignity that they deserve.”

Like their counterparts in Southern California, Uber and other app-based drivers in Seattle have formed their own organization–the App-based Drivers Association (ABDA).

Members of ABDA also complain about Uber’s non-transparent approval rating system and are seeking a voice to make it more fair.

“The association will give us a voice, more control over our working conditions, and an opportunity to be heard,” said Ydediya Seifu, a member of ABDA’s leadership council.

ABDA has affiliated with Teamsters Local 117.

The Berwick ruling by the California Labor Commissioner affects only one former driver, but the commissioner’s ruling does not bode well for Uber, which is facing challenges from other drivers, who contend that they are employees, not independent contractors.

The Berwick ruling dismisses Uber’s claim that it’s nothing more than a neutral technological platform that connects passengers with owner operator drivers.

According to the commissioner’s findings, “(Uber) controls the tools the drivers use,” closely monitors their approval ranking, and “terminates their access to the application (in other words, fires them) if the ratings fall below a specific level (4.6 stars).”