Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Crain's New York Business: The other Uber fight: Unions brawl to rep drivers

By Will Bredderman

Who speaks for Uber drivers?

As market saturation and driver suicides wrack the taxi and black-car industry, and the city gears up for another street fight with ride-hail apps, three powerhouse unions are in an equally heated drag race to represent car operators working under Uber, Lyft and their competitors. All call themselves the definitive voice of tens of thousands of drivers and claim the others are frauds.

One twist in this union fight is that Uber and Lyft drivers are independent contractors, not employees, and thus cannot bargain collectively. That has become one of the biggest disputes among the combatants: the Independent Drivers Guild (an offshoot of the International Association of Machinists), the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (aligned with and partly staffed by building workers union 32BJ SEIU) and the Amalgamated Transit Union.

As proof of its legitimacy, the Taxi Workers Alliance, a volunteer organization founded in 1998 to organize drivers of yellow cabs, cites its lawsuits to get app-dispatch drivers recognized as employees of the tech giants. One of those suits won unemployment benefits for some Uber drivers; another, accusing the company of misclassifying its entire workforce, found the company skimming its hacks' fares.

Battling Uber, 'opportunists'

The alliance contrasts itself from the IDG, which came into existence in 2016 after the Machinists reached an accord with Uber. In exchange for the company's recognizing the Guild as the representative of Uber drivers and helping fund the organization's internal operations, the Machinists agreed not to push for employee status.

"It's not defending workers' rights when you decide that workers who don't have the ability to set the price of their labor are contractors," said Eugenio Villasantes, a spokesman for Taxi Workers Alliance benefactor 32BJ.

"We not only had to fight the company that had become the highest valuated company on earth," said the alliance's executive director, Bharivai Desai, "we also had to fight opportunists in the labor movement that were trying to be the first to make a deal with Uber."

The IDG denied Desai's accusation that it is a "company union." Noting that Desai's husband is a taxi medallion owner, the Guild insinuates that her group's push for regulations on apps—notably Mayor Bill de Blasio's failed 2015 plan to cap their growth—are really attempts to drive the new tech companies out of the market.

IDG steward Sohail Rana defended his organization's acceptance of Uber funding, saying it has paid for legal assistance, classes and organizing space for drivers. He said IDG petitions had compelled Uber and Lyft to introduce in-app tipping, and the IDG is now lobbying the Taxi and Limousine Commission to mandate minimum pay for drivers.

"These other organizations, they were not there," said Rana. "IDG is the only union that really helps drivers in real time."

The ATU, which has long represented bus drivers, argues that it is the most natural fit for the industry and claims it has gotten 16,000 drivers to sign union cards since 2016. The ATU's competition dismissed this as a stunt because the drivers are classified as contractors and cannot join the union. 

But the ATU deemed it "an experiment" that could lead to something dramatic.

"All organizing is to prepare for a strike," Chris Townsend, director of field mobilization for ATU Local 1181, told Crain's. Townsend demurred on whether such an action was imminent and said his union focuses on getting legal assistance for aggrieved drivers.

De Blasio and the City Council recently reopened discussion of passing legislation to contain the sector's astronomical growth, though a consensus has yet to emerge on how. The Taxi Workers Alliance has revived its calls to limit the number of new vehicles the Taxi and Limousine Commission can approve; the IDG has demanded a cap on the number of new drivers. Uber and Lyft, meanwhile, appear to be revving their engines for another fight.

Meera Joshi, chairwoman of the TLC, told Crain's its 180,000 licensed drivers would continue to be a target for union organizing. But she warned that the labor groups' disunity and self-interest could hobble efforts to curb the tech giants. "Because there is this hostility of 'who's going to own this space?,' it could end up being counterproductive," she said. "There's a question of, will any regulation come out at all? Why don't you focus on that, instead of fighting each other?"

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