If your Uber driver ever seems excessively paranoid about not getting a five-star rating or outright begs you for one, there’s a reason. Drivers who find their accounts deactivated by the company have long complained that the appeals process seems opaque and tough to resolve in their favor. That may be about to change: Uber says that by the end of the year, drivers in New York City will be able to appeal deactivations to panels of other drivers in meetings refereed by the American Arbitration Association. Professional labor representatives will argue their cases at no cost to the drivers.
“We don’t have a successful business if we don’t have enough happy, productive, motivated drivers,” says David Plouffe, the Uber adviser who guided Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. “We’re listening.”
There’s more than one catch. The drivers’ advocates will be provided by a quasi union called the Independent Drivers Guild, which Uber funds. Uber and the IDG will determine which drivers can sit on the panels.
Uber unveiled the IDG in New York this spring in partnership with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), a union that has organized other black-car drivers. The machinists say the IDG represents all 40,000-plus Uber drivers in the city. Besides arbitration, it offers them such perks as discounted legal assistance and chances to air grievances at monthly meetings with Uber officials.
The IDG isn’t a traditional union. Drivers didn’t vote for it. It has no formal collective-bargaining rights. And its very existence helps the company resist formal unionization, says Arun Sundararajan, a business professor at New York University who researches the economics of the tech industry. “This is just them planting something in the ground that might deter more contentious forms of labor organizing,” he says.
Uber says the guild boosts its efforts to attract and retain drivers. The IDG successfully advocated for the arbitration association’s role in the New York deactivation hearings; in Seattle, only Uber oversees the hearings. James Conigliaro Jr., the IDG’s founder and regional general counsel for the machinists’ union, says the guild has won more concrete benefits for Uber drivers than any formal union. The guild has helped bring Uber management to the table, says driver and IDG organizer Muhammad Barlas. “When they are more comfortable, it’s easier to try and negotiate with them,” he says.
In return, the IDG won’t instigate strikes or try to get the government to treat drivers as employees with the right to unionize. (Uber says they’re independent contractors, with no such right.) If a government official grants the drivers those rights, the IDG can pull out of the agreement; otherwise, it has agreed it won’t try to form a traditional union before the deal expires in 2021. Uber and the guild say they’ll jointly lobby the state legislature for more favorable tax treatment for Uber rides. If the taxes fall, Uber says, it will return the savings to drivers, including by contributing to a new IDG-managed benefits fund....MORE