Uber Has a Union of Sorts, but Faces Doubts on Its Autonomy
Uber was a pioneer in seamlessly connecting passengers and drivers through an app. Now a union-led group meant to represent its drivers is also taking an unorthodox approach — as well as Uber’s money.
The group, the Independent Drivers Guild, was formed roughly one year ago as part of an agreement for the New York City area between Uber and a regional branch of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Guild officials say the unusual deal was simply the most practical way to improve the lot of drivers, whom the union has a proud history of organizing.
“The drivers need help, and they need help now,” said James Conigliaro Jr., the founder of the guild and a senior Machinists official.
And the guild, which says it represents about 50,000 ride-hail drivers in the New York City area, has produced concrete victories. It took the lead in persuading the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission to propose a rule that would require a tipping optionon Uber’s passenger app, potentially increasing drivers’ income by hundreds of million of dollars.
But the group’s relationship with Uber has also inspired considerable suspicion among labor leaders, activists and experts.
“The way Uber operates, it makes me very distrustful,” said Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University and a former labor organizer, alluding to the company’s sometimes cutthroat posture toward rivals and regulators.
The guild has even attacked Lyft, Uber’s top competitor, using questionable tactics.On May 1, the guild sent an email to members urging them to help create an afternoon work stoppage at Lyft. In the email, Ryan Price, the guild’s executive director, instructed members to order rides on Lyft so they could urge its drivers to join a stoppage. If the driver was “a scab” and refused, the email said, the member should cancel the ride.
Mr. Price, who previously did advocacy and organizing work for a nonprofit group and a union, acknowledged in the email that the tactic violated Lyft’s terms of service, but said the company’s refusal to negotiate with workers justified the action. Besides, he added, “nothing has ever been won without taking a risk.”