Uber drivers get (kinda) unionised in New York, but disappear in Austin, Texas…

Uber, the ride-hailing company valued at $62.5bn last December, has announced that it will recognise the Independent Drivers Guild to represent 35,000 drivers in New York City. The guild is affiliated to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), an AFL-CIO/CLC trade union representing more than 500,000 workers in over 200 locals (or branches) in the US and Canada.

But the guild itself is not a union in the familiar sense of the word, and the IAM has agreed with Uber not to attempt to unionise any of its drivers. The guild has been established chiefly to provide a forum for the drivers, and a channel between the drivers and Uber. It is also an ally for Uber in its lobbying of the New York state legislature to reduce the company’s tax liability. Uber is the most valuable private technology company in the world.

Not all Uber drivers in New York want the guild. Abdoul Diallo, a founder of the Uber Drivers Network, told the New York Times that the guild is no substitute for a proper union, and his organisation has already signed up 5,000 drivers in favour of  representation by the Amalgamated Transit Union, which claims to be “the largest labor union representing transit and allied workers in the US and Canada”, with around 200,000 members in some 240 locals.

Unionisation of Uber drivers is progressing in a patchy way. For example, Seattle voted last year to approve a bill allowing drivers for Uber and other on-line ride-hailing companies to form unions. But Uber recently settled a class-action lawsuit with 385,000 drivers in California and Massachusetts who had sought to be categorised as employees with the associated rights to employee benefits and protections. The company agreed to pay an estimated $100 million in compensation and loosen some of its restrictive practices, but the drivers will continue to be classified as freelance contractors.

San Francisco based Uber has been striking deals in an attempt to bypass unionisation. The company demands that it must be able to continue classifying its drivers as contractors and does not allow organisations representing drivers to negotiate contracts or engage in collective bargaining of any sort.

While maintaining that its drivers are freelances,  Uber insists on setting fares and remuneration rates. There remains plenty of scope for real unions to take on Uber and other “gig economy” players. In fact, Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney representing the drivers in the California class-action, said in a statement. “Importantly, the case is being settled—not decided.”

Meanwhile, Uber no longer has drivers at all in Austin, the state capital of Texas. Uber and its competitor, Lyft, shut down their operations in Austin after failing to win a referendum on a city council ordinance requiring the companies to conduct fingerprint checks on their drivers to screen out anyone with a criminal conviction. Conventional taxi companies already run fingerprint checks. So, curiously, does Uber in New York and Houston.

According to the New York Times, Austin city councillors were ready to negotiate with Uber and Lyft, but the companies rejected the council’s approaches and apparently chose to undertake a hugely expensive campaign, costing millions of dollars, in an attempt to persuade the local voters to throw out the ordinance. Presumably they didn’t have to pay out any redundancy money to the drivers who lost their gigs.

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Gary Herman

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