May 16, 2016
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – The newly-minted labor agreement between ride-sharing giant Uber and the International Association of Machinists [IAM] District 15 is being denounced this week as the “worse kind of surrender” in the ongoing battle to win employee status for hard-pressed drivers currently classified as independent contractors.
“This is capitulation,” Bhairavi Desai, executive director, New York Taxi Workers Alliance, recently told LaborPress. “For Labor to consent on the question of status is nothing short of surrender — and it’s the worse kind of surrender.”
Last week, IAM District 15 announced the formation of the Independent Drivers Guild [IDG], a new association created to represent New York City’s 35,000 Uber drivers. The IDG will strive to secure job protections and benefits for Uber drivers without actually engaging in collective bargaining, and comes with a five-year agreement in which the Machinists will join Uber in campaigning for industry-wide tax reform.
“Anyone in this industry knows that Uber is more of an employer than anyone we’ve seen,” Desai said. “They have more levels of direct control and profit than any Black Car company that we’ve seen in this sector. Why capitulate on that issue, and why agree to be silent on it for the next five years?”
Jim Conigliaro, Jr, IAM District 15 director and general counsel, argues however, that after two decades of attempting to organize drivers in New York City’s Black Car industry, the IDG is the “best model for drivers right now.”
“The structure that we have today in the Independent Driving Guild is a successful campaign to alleviate a lot of the concerns of drivers in the industry,” Conigliaro, Jr. said. “We took the demands of drivers, we took our experience in the industry, we took all of our successes and failures we’ve had over the last 20 years, and we came up with a creative structure that provides immediate assistance for drivers right now. In supporting that and fighting for higher pay and fighting for benefits – while still reserving the right to unionize these drivers if those drivers are declared to be employees.”
According to Desai, however, the new IAM-Uber pact actually gives Uber a pass on the whole question of driver classification.
“This isn’t just about building an association, this is fundamentally a question about the agreement,” Desai said. “An agreement that says that this association consents to not brining up economic issues at the table and not challenging the company in the courts for any kind of labor violations — including misclassification.”
Under existing legislation, the Black Car industry in New York City pays almost nine percent in sales tax, while taxis pay a 50-cent surcharge, and livery or car services pay neither a sales tax or surcharge. By “fixing that imbalance,” the Machinists maintain that thousands of dollars will be put back in drivers’ pockets and allow for the creation of a meaningful benefits fund — all without raising fares on customers.
“If we’re successful leveling the playing field, that will facilitate the creation of a benefits fund for drivers in New York City, which will be fully funded without raising fares on consumers,” Conigliaro, Jr. said. “So, you now have an organization that is providing job protection, a voice in the workplace and benefits. All of those things are core values of the labor movement when applying to a group of workers who have literally been in limbo for years.”
But that's not the way it looks to the NY Taxi Workers Alliance leader.
“Look at the way the agreement was reached — the way that they’re going to raise wages is not by raising the rates that Uber cut earlier in the year — they’re going to raise wages by jointly lobbying to repeal a tax on the general state budget,” Desai said. “The agreement is about giving Uber political cover. Respectable unions sign an agreement and immediately put more income into the pockets of the workers they represent. How does this agreement do that?”
The fight over Uber driver classification is currently raging from coast to coast and it remains to be seen exactly what kind of impact New York City’s Independent Drivers Guild will ultimately have on that battle.
“This was a move for us only because we know the New York City Black Car market,” Conigliaro, Jr. said. “We fought every fight you could fight over the last 20 years. This is a very specific guild for the New York City Black Car industry sector. I can’t answer how it will affect other states. I just know today, this is the best structure and the best leap forward we can have for drivers in New York City.”
The IDG’s first Works Council meeting, in which Uber drivers are promised a platform to air grievances, is expected to be held next month.
“What about the fact that they [IAM] have collective bargaining agreements with real black car employers,” Desai added. “Neither the Machinists or Uber get to dictate that the drivers are independent contractors. Ultimately, neither Uber or anyone complicit with Uber gets to sign away drivers’ rights to eventually be found to be employees. That’s still in the courts and the NLRB. Those cases and investigations continue.”
Editor's Note: Both Jim Conigliaro, Jr. and Bhairavi Desai will be guests on the next episode of LaborPress' "Blue Collar Buzz" airing Sunday, May 22, on AM970 The Answer at 9 p.m.