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ATU Jumps Into Uber-Organizing Fray

October 3, 2016 
By Steven Wishnia

Queens, NY – Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181-1061 took a big plunge into the field of labor groups trying to organize Uber and Lyft drivers Sept. 27.

Saying 14,000 drivers had signed union cards, it delivered a letter to the Taxi and Limousine Commission demanding that it “schedule and conduct a free and fair election” for drivers at the two companies to choose whether they want union representation.  

“As you are aware, the TLC sanctioned the entry of these two companies into the New York City market but has unfortunately ignored the devastating effects this has had on the incomes and livelihoods of all drivers,” the letter told TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi. “It is time for the TLC to use its regulatory role to select the union of their choice.”

“We need a union,” Lyft driver Oselig Lantigua told LaborPress at a rally outside the TLC’s Long Island City offices, where drivers go to deal with summonses. The rally was small, with most of the 50-60 people who turned out ATU officials and rank-and-file members, although a number of drivers going into the TLC offices signed union cards.

Drivers’ complaints, according to a flyer handed out at the rally, include lack of benefits, being forced to work longer hours because of the constant addition of new drivers competing for the same work, no due process when they are “deactivated,” and arbitrary cuts in pay rates. Their demands include the right to form a union with real collective-bargaining power and “living-wage fares,” so they can make a living without having to work 14-16 hours a day or seven days a week. 

The different labor groups trying to organize drivers at Uber, Lyft, and other app-based services—International Association of Machinists District 15, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, Local 1181-1061, and to a lesser extent, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1420—face one major obstacle. Like the city’s yellow-cab owners, the app-based companies classify drivers as independent contractors, which means they are not legally allowed to bargain collectively.

They have pursued different strategies to get around this. The Machinists, who have had some success organizing black-cab drivers over the last 20 years and won an NLRB ruling allowing them to organize “independent” drivers in 1997, announced a five-year deal with Uber in May to create a group called the Independent Drivers Guild. It holds monthly “works council” meetings with company officials to express drivers’ concerns, and represents drivers who are appealing being “deactivated”—cut off from access to the app. It does not have collective-bargaining power.

“The purpose of the Guild was to provide as much support and protections now while building an organization that allowed drivers to push for real change industry-wide. The classification issue is unsettled in the courts and until that time, maybe five or ten years from now, we want to help drivers earn a living wage,” District 15 President James Conigliaro Jr. told LaborPress. “If it is decided drivers in New York City are employees, then we will organize the drivers and fight hard to collectively bargain on their behalf just like we have for the last 20 years. But until that time, it’s important that we continue to fight for them now.” 

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, founded in 1998, uses a “worker center” collective-advocacy model, and became the first union of independent contractors to affiliate with the AFL-CIO. It claims 18,000 members. Over the last year, it has taken several legal actions on behalf of Uber drivers. It has lodged complaints with the National Labor Relations Board challenging their classification as independent contractors and alleging unfair treatment. In June, it filed a federal class-action suit charging that Uber pays drivers less than minimum wage. In July, it sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Department of Labor for delaying unemployment benefits for former Uber drivers, by keeping them under “executive review.”

IBEW Local 1430, a small local based in Armonk that focuses on organizing, took the traditional route. In February, it filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to represent 600 Uber drivers at LaGuardia Airport, submitting union cards signed by at least 30% of the drivers, but withdrew it a few weeks later. It filed another one in mid-September.

The ATU’s strategy is to pressure the TLC and the City Council to change the classification rules, backed by the muscle of numbers.

Uber and Lyft are “acting as traditional employers,” says Local 1181-1061 President Michael Cordiello. “They’re setting rates of pay. They’re hiring and firing. Discipline.”

“We chose the TLC because we believe they are the responsible party,” says ATU field-mobilization director Chris Townsend. “They created this. We’re putting them on the spot.”

City Councilmember I. Daneek Miller, a former ATU local president who spoke at the rally, said he plans to introduce legislation with “Seattle-style language.” Seattle, where the Teamsters have been campaigning to organize Uber drivers, enacted an ordinance last December that requires taxi, for-hire, and app-based vehicle-dispatch companies to let drivers organize and bargain with the unions they form.

Cordiello says he feels “very positive” about the organizing campaign. “It’s not ten people standing on a corner. It’s 14,000 people saying they want to be represented by a real union.” Local 1181-1061 currently represents more than 14,000 transportation workers in the metropolitan area, including school-bus drivers and paratransit drivers.

 “We organized in a traditional fashion,” he says. “We went to the workers.”

The ATU campaign began in late 2014, with a group of drivers disgruntled by Uber’s pay and fare cuts. Over the next year, they contacted several unions for help. Local 1181 was “the only one that helped us out,” says Jean Nash, a Panamanian immigrant from Queens who began driving for Uber in late 2012. “Even though they didn’t have an answer, they were looking for an answer.”

The NYTWA’s Desai is sharply critical of the ATU campaign. “If they’ve met the 30% threshold, why not go to the NLRB?” she asks. “The TLC has no authority.”

“We strongly disagree with that assertion,” the ATU responds. The TLC “is the agency charged with regulating this industry in New York City,” it says, and therefore “must use its regulatory role to allow Uber and Lyft drivers to select the union of their choice.” The union says it has not submitted signed cards to the NLRB, but reserves the right to do so in the future.

“While the TLC has no role whatsoever in unionization, we have long valued the importance of driver protections in our rulemaking and regulatory processes,” Commissioner Joshi said in a statement Sept. 27.

Changing regulations, Conigliaro says, could win improvements such as fare regulation, better benefits, and basic worker protections. “And we do that through the collective action of the workers in the industry,” he adds.

Desai argues that any labor group serious about organizing app-based drivers should challenge their misclassification as independent contractors. If they don’t, she says, they’re allowing the core of Uber’s exploitative business model to continue unmolested.

But even if Uber drivers were reclassified as employees, she adds, the company’s employment structure creates further complications for organizing. If a union needs 30% of workers to sign cards to gain a vote on representation, who counts as an employee? The Machinists say Uber has 35,000 drivers in New York. Uber claims it has 58,000, Desai says, but no one knows how many of them are working regularly and how many are just still signed on to the app.

Her biggest worry is that union organizers going up against a company as rich, politically connected, and aggressive as Uber can’t be sloppy, or they’ll “disservice workers.”

“Our choice of the TLC as our target was done so to push into new ground,” an ATU spokesperson told LaborPress, calling it a “fifth strategy” after those pursued by other unions. “Absent our push, the TLC and New York City are let off the hook completely. These different tactics are mandated by the fact that Uber and Lyft drivers are marooned in an employment status no-man’s-land. So long as that exists, these workers will starve.”

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