Opinion: A new organization has begun to represent Uber Drivers. The Independent Drivers Guild formed last year when New York City reached an agreement with Uber and a local body of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The organization formed with the intent to provide representation for Uber Drivers who lack access to many of the more traditional forms of representation offered by unions. The agreement means that they will now have a much more effective voice in negotiating what has been decried by some as grossly unfair treatment. “The drivers need help, and they need help now,” said James Conigliaro Jr, the founder of the Guild, in an interview with The New York Times.
The guild claims it represents about 50,000 drivers in New York City. So far it has met with a fair amount of success, leading the way on several pro-driver initiatives. It lead the charge to persuade the Taxi and Limousine commission to propose regulations that would require tipping on Uber’s app. This has for many drivers been a competitive advantage for driving with Lyft. Lyft has allowed passengers to tip for some time, while in some places, Uber still does not.
The guild has engaged in some questionable tactics though. On May 1st they attempted to organize a Lyft stoppage. Drivers who would not join were accused of being “scabs” and had rides canceled. With organizing comes the risk that the risk that power may become concentrated in the hands of only a few; however, most drivers’ experiences with the Guild have been positive so far .
Members of the machinists union had been in contact with Uber drivers for several years before the guild was formed. Uber drivers began approaching the union looking for ways to have some type of organized voice. “Thousands of drivers were coming to us, and we were building a mailing list we still have today,” Conigliaro said. The agreement struck by the guild resulted in regular meetings between members and top Uber officials in New York City. The guild originally approached Uber late in 2015 to explore what types of agreements might be possible. Currently the guild is the only organization that represents drivers through a union and is in regular contact with Uber. In addition to regular contact, the Guild has also secured due process for drivers that are banned from driving for Uber.
The nature of contractor drivers makes organizing very difficult. With a high turnover rate and non-localized employment, the Guild may prove to be very important in advancing organized labor. The most important victory of the guild may be its battle to allow tipping. Originally Uber was unwilling to consider it. The Guild would not be so easily deterred, “We couldn’t go back to drivers and say, ‘The company said they’re not going to do it,” but the Guild persisted, “So we took that one issue and moved it throughout the year.” Conigliaro recalled. The Guild also advocated for minor increases in fare to pay drivers more competitive wages. Many of the issues the Guild is advocating for are changes that drivers around the country have wanted for some time. “We envision a regulated mile and minute pay” the Guild wrote in a letter in April. Many Uber drivers have found themselves in unfortunate positions where they will drive long distances to pick up passengers without knowing where their fare is headed. This has caused consternation when the passenger is only going a very short distance, not covering the time of the trip or cost of gas.
What the Guild will ultimately accomplish is speculative. However, it emerges at a time where the gig economy is becoming increasingly popular. How Uber ultimately reacts, and whether similar organizations form elsewhere remains to be seen. It is of extreme importance though, that organized labor balances the representation of drivers with what makes companies like Uber and Lyft unique. If bargains are pushed too hard, Uber may become just another taxi service in everything but name. The prevalence of drivers can make it easy to ignore the needs of drivers and simply replace them, eventually however the market will likely take abusive companies to task with or without union support.
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