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N.Y.C. Uber Drivers Finally Allowed To Organize

But don’t call it a union.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images Staff

“So, how do you like driving for Uber?”

Bored in the backseat, I inevitably return to this question, and my driver inevitably gives me a less-than-rosy answer. But following the announcement on Tuesday that a 5-year deal has been struck between the Northeast’s International Association Of Machinists, a group representing members from the trucking and black car industries, and Uber, the ride-sharing monolith currently valued at $62.5 billion, at least drivers can voice their concerns at a monthly meeting hosted by the company.

The agreement forms a new association, the Independent Drivers Guild, which automatically covers 35,000 Uber drivers in New York. But it stops well short of unionization and offers few tangible benefits beyond the promise to communicate. In talking to drivers, who are classified as independent contractors rather than employees despite many of them working full-time hours, I’ve found that the biggest complaint is the recent 20 percent cut Uber has started taking from their fares. Without collective bargaining, the group still has no seat at the table when it comes to determining this percentage, nor the actual rates for their work, which dropped 15 percent this past January.

During the 5-year agreement, which is the first of its kind to be approved by Uber, the Independent Drivers Guild has promised not to unionize its members, which means the fight for employment status, benefits, and rate protections will happen down the road. That is, if it happens at all. In return, drivers can now receive life and supplemental disability insurance, roadside assistance, and discounted legal services. The guild will also represent drivers appealing “deactivations” (Uber’s codeword for “firing”), a relief for some who have been banned from the service without warning or clear reasoning.

Uber’s blessing is not exactly applicable to other cities. Earlier this week, the company—along with its primary competitor Lyft—pulled out of Austin in protest of the city’s adamence on deploying their own background checks. A Seattle court recently approved collective bargaining for drivers, but just last month, lawsuits from contractors in California and Massachusetts were settled by the company for $84 million in total (with an additional $16 million promised when they go public).

“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach that can address the myriad different needs of the drivers using our app,” said David Plouffe, Uber’s chief advisor, in a statement. “It’s why creative, individually tailored solutions—like today’s agreement with the Machinists Union—are the best way forward.”

Headed east on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, I asked my driver if he was excited by the prospect of representation. He had no clue what I was talking about, but said he had little hopes of anything changing. He shrugged off his lack of power, and said, beyond Uber’s cut being too much for his tastes, the system’s biggest issue was its laughable terminology. “The funniest is when the passenger leaves, and on the way out, they go ‘I gave you five stars!’ as if that’s a tip,” he said. “You like it so much? Give me a dollar! Five stars is fantasy, man.”

Over at UberPeople, a driver message board where frustrations tend to simmer, there wasn’t much optimism. “The Guild is another Uber scam,” read one message. “It’s almost the same deal [they] reached with California and Massachusetts, except that one cost them $100 million. The New York deal is free, no lawsuits, and it protects Uber from the drivers’ unionizing for five years.”

Abdoul Diallo, a driver who helped found the 5,000-member Uber Drivers Network, told the New York Times that the guild “was no substitute for an actual union.”

But is the deal bogus or not? It really depends how one defines “guild.” The most common definition says that a guild is formed when a group of independent contractors bands together to collectively negotiate the terms and standards of their employment. In this sense, Uber is using a much softer definition, essentially an “association of drivers,” similar to the unofficial one Diallo helped start, and a phrase the company itself used in those recent court settlements when they made similar promises to listen to their workers.

If anything, the commitment to monthly driver meetings is a positive step, but it’s clear Uber has really been listening all along. The shouts just got a little too loud, the protests a little too visible. By making these small concessions and pledging to cooperate with drivers, Uber hopes to tone down the rhetoric in New York City as it gears up to battle elsewhere. And the drivers, like my guy on the BQE, are left pretty much where they started, taking what they can get when the app demands it.

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