After angry protests and several lawsuits, Uber is finally letting its drivers have representation from a union. Uber's 35,000 New York City-based drivers will be represented by a special arm of the International Association of Machinists (IAM). But it doesn't mean they're unionised, exactly. Through IAM, Uber drivers will be able to join something called the Independent Drivers' Guild, giving them access to legal services, life and disability insurance discounts, roadside assistance and an online support community. But Uber drivers will remain independent contractors, and still won't have access to collective bargaining, which is the most important benefit of a union. However, IAM is apparently helping Uber with one critical issue at the state level: establishing a flat $US0.50-per-ride tax for all on-demand ride services, the same as what taxis pay now.
IAM also won't supply benefits to drivers, which is probably the most important thing that Uber's contractors need. But as part of today's announcement, Uber says it's working with the Freelancer's Union to get insurance deals.
The newly created website for the Independent Drivers Guild
Uber's been navigating similar labour issues in several US states. The agreement with IAM comes just two weeks after Uber settled class-action lawsuits in California and Massachusetts. Drivers in those states will continue to be recognised as contractors and not employees, but Uber was required to make some changes, including allowing its drivers to ask for tips. Some cities like Seattle have ruled that Uber should allow its drivers to unionise, although Uber Austin's city council also voted this week to kill Uber, Lyft and their ilk, due to a disagreement about how drivers should be vetted.
Even though drivers won't be unionised per se, IAM will certainly help Uber drivers to have some semblance of job security, especially in situations where drivers are being "deactivated" from the app without any warning. Helping its New York City drivers to have some legal recourse, as well as the potential promise of benefits, is smart, and this could eventually help other drivers at similar companies as well.
All of this makes Uber look good, of course. But if the Independent Drivers' Guild delivers, this might represent a real turning point in Uber's relationship with its drivers. As Uber's policy head David Plouffe said in remarks published by Uber today, "We haven't always done a great job working with drivers. As our CEO, Travis Kalanick said two weeks ago, that's not good enough. It's time for a change. And that's why today's agreement is important."
Top: AP Photo/Seth Wenig