May 26, 2016
By Joe Maniscalco
Brooklyn, NY – Next month, Uber drivers in New York City will have an opportunity they’ve never had before recently teaming up with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, District 15 [IAM] — air longstanding grievances across the table from representatives of the notoriously anti-union ride sharing giant. And it’s all due to work IAM District 15 started in New York City’s Black Car industry two decades ago — long before iPhones or apps ever existed.
On May 10, the Machinists union — the group representing some 19,000 mechanics, truckers, Black Car drivers and others in NYC — announced a five-year labor agreement with Uber establishing a new union affiliate representing the company’s 35,000 New York City drivers known as the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG).
In addition to providing a progressive European-style conduit for driver concerns in the form of monthly Works Councils — the IDG will also support Uber drivers in a variety of other ways including, appealing deactivation actions, providing legislative advocacy, challenging traffic violations and extending professional assistance.
Furthermore, successful work to reform the current sales tax on the Black Car industry would also result in the creation of a special fund designed to offer Uber drivers a whole menu of benefits that look a lot like the kinds of benefits fully unionized employees enjoy.
All of this comes at a time when the battle over the classification of ride sharing drivers is raging from coast to coast. But the fight over employee versus independent contractor status is actually a very old fight that IAM District 15 has fought the hell out of for last 20 years in New York City.
Although employee status has continually eluded them, that fact hasn’t prevented the Machinists from winning significant rights and benefits for the Black Car drivers they represent — just as it isn’t stopping IAM District 15 from successfully securing real and tangible benefits for tens of thousands of New York City Uber Drivers now.
“This is the result of our experience in the industry,” IAM District 15 General Counsel and Assistant Director Jim Conigliaro, jr. recently told LaborPress. “We went through those fights. We had class action lawsuits, we had collective bargaining, we organized drivers and had National Labor Relations Board hearings. We did all that — and that led us to this.”
Last summer, when a proposed cap on the number of Uber drivers in New York City hit a wall and hard-pressed drivers were no closer to employee status, IAM District 15 talked with LaborPress about efforts to devise an effective strategy to help Uber drivers regardless of the ongoing legal wrangling.
That effort has now resulted in an association model and the Independent Drivers Guild.
IAM District 15 has always fought for Black Car drivers on the premise that they are, indeed, employees, while also maintaining the ability to effectively press the fight for worker rights when government and the courts didn’t come down on their side.
“We always skated around that issue [of employee versus independent contractor status] in order to get the benefits for the workers,” Conigliaro, jr. said. “That was every agreement we ever had.”
Conigliaro, Jr. maintains that IAM District 15 remains in a prime position to fully unionize Uber drivers in New York City should their employee status be legally determined. But fear of losing that legal battle after years of fighting was a real concern for the union.
“If there is going to be a long, drawn out fight – what happens to the workers?” Conigliaro, jr. said. “And that’s why we think this is the best of both worlds — because right now, we can fight for these drivers as much as possible; try to get as much money as possible into their pockets; try to get them a benefit platform to help their families. And then, at some point if it’s figured out, or if there’s a new form of classification legislation, then we’ll go that way. But there was a legitimate fear that what if we fight ten or fifteen years and it just doesn’t go our way. Then what?”
Conigliaro, jr. said that he is "cautiously optimistic" about the prospect of working on labor issues with Uber managers. The union is also pressing ahead with efforts to help “fix the tax imbalance in the industry” which places a sales tax on Black Cars but not taxi cabs or livery vehicles.
Since announcing its labor agreement with Uber in New York City, ride sharing drivers in Florida, Philadelphia and Massachusetts have also reached out to IAM District 15 seeking similar help.