As the iconic company of the terrifying new “gig economy,” Uber has long been a prime target of labor activists who want to make sure its drivers are protected. Uber has effectively conned the hell out of all of them.
As of this summer, Uber was valued at $68 billion. It is as valuable as General Motors, Harley-Davidson, and Ferrari combined—all without having to build or sell anything. It is the peak of the gig economy, in which a company finds a way to un-tether itself from all of its traditional obligations to employees. Uber’s business model is dependent on the classification of its drivers as contractors, rather than formal employees. If they were employees, they could unionize and demand workplace protections and health care benefits and all of the other things that our system provides to employees. As contractors, they have little power and are subject to the whims of the company.
Uber will do anything to ensure that its drivers do not win classification as real employees. Earlier this year, the company pulled off a coup by settling two major lawsuits over the issue with a relatively small payout and an agreement to support the creation of “drivers associations”—which are, most assuredly, not unions.
In Bloomberg Businessweek, Josh Eidelson looks at the newly created Uber drivers association in New York City: the “Independent Drivers Guild,” a group whose mission statement says it will “protect, support, and represent drivers who wish to maintain their independent status while enjoying the protections and benefits of association with their fellow drivers.” Wow. Who are these Uber drivers who “wish to maintain their independent status,” rather than wishing for, say, higher pay and health insurance? It’s almost as if this entire enterprise is...
Bullshit! In fact, the Independent Drivers Guild is administered by the Machinists Union but funded by Uber itself. Uber will have a say in the arbitration hearings conducted by the group on behalf of drivers. The scoff-worthy aspects of the group are almost too much to bear:
The IDG isn’t a traditional union. Drivers didn’t vote for it. It has no formal collective-bargaining rights. And its very existence helps the company resist formal unionization...
[The] IDG won’t instigate strikes or try to get the government to treat drivers as employees with the right to unionize. (Uber says they’re independent contractors, with no such right.) If a government official grants the drivers those rights, the IDG can pull out of the agreement; otherwise, it has agreed it won’t try to form a traditional union before the deal expires in 2021.
Uber, which fears nothing more than having its drivers classified as employees with the right to unionize, has successfully set up a group that looks superficially like a union but in fact exists specifically to prevent a union from forming. Instead of fighting to win Uber drivers what they need—a real union with collective bargaining power—labor groups have accepted a few small concessions from Uber in exchange for giving up the right to pursue what really matters. These “associations” are little more than a barrier that Uber can use to block any real union effort by insisting that it already has a group for its workers.
Don’t settle for crumbs when you can have the cake.