Uber has finally recognized its own driver union. Allow yourself a brief moment of joy before we get into the specifics.
Today, the GMB trade union in the United Kingdom (it’s not really an acronym for anything, as it was shortened from General, Municipal, Boilermakers’ and Allied Trade Union some 40 years ago) managed to wrest union recognition from the jaws of the notoriously labor-hostile app company.
According to The Guardian, “GMB will have access to drivers’ meeting hubs […] It will also be able to represent drivers if they are denied access to the Uber app, and it will meet with management on a quarterly basis to discuss driver issues and concerns.”
It’s unclear whether this arrangement is more akin to traditional union representation as we know it in the United States, or more akin to the Independent Drivers Guild — an outsized advocacy group in New York that meets with Uber and has been widely criticized as a company union.
As a result of working for Uber, drivers will not be automatically enrolled in the union. That’s what we’d call an “open shop” arrangement on this side of the Atlantic, and the company will almost certainly take advantage of it.
Drivers in the United Kingdom recently won the right to be considered Uber “workers,” a category distinct from “employees” but still conferring basic employment benefits such as a minimum wage and a pension.
However, that ruling did not apply to Uber Eats food delivery couriers, and the new union agreement does not cover them. So, right from the start, this new agreement leaves an estimated 30,000 Uber workers in the cold.
GMB has undoubtedly made history in this country, but Uber’s track record gives observers reason to doubt the effectiveness of this new union.
The company has a habit of threatening to withdraw from locations that do not provide the legal favoritism it has come to expect — for example, Quebec in 2017.
It has also attempted to rewrite labor law in the United States to suit its business interests, successfully overturning a California law through a ballot proposition during the 2020 election, which cost the company — as well as fellow travelers Lyft, DoorDash, and Postmates — an estimated $200 million. Drivers in the state have reported that their wages have fallen even further since then. (At the moment, Uber is attempting a similar legal maneuver in New York.)
To make matters worse, the App Drivers & Couriers Union, which helped win worker status for UK drivers, has refused to sign on to a similar deal for recognition, claiming in a statement that “closer trade union engagement with Uber management is always a welcome development, but there is good reason for workers and their unions to be cautious.”
The group cited Uber’s continued hostility toward workers, both in and out of court, in the United Kingdom and the United States. The ADCU wrote, “For us, compliance with legal minimums should be the starting point for any union agreement with Uber.”
Still, a victory is a victory. “This ground-breaking deal between GMB and Uber could be the first step toward a fairer working life for millions of people,” GMB national officer Mick Rix noted in press releases sent to The Verge by both the union and Uber.