Unions remain baffled in how to organize workers in the gig economy. The gig economy is a term use for companies, like Uber, whose business model is built on the use of independent contractors. Independent contractors are, by law, not allowed to join unions. But that is not stopping unions from creatively trying to represent the independent contractors.
Remember when Seattle City Council passed an ordinance allowing ride-share drivers to join unions? Well, that ordinance is on-hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce seeking to invalidate it. In the meantime, union organizers are considering quasi-union models for independent contractors. One option bandied about is to create an industry-wide oversight board with the power to audit sharing-economy businesses and negotiate certain terms and conditions of work.
The gig economy is not limited to just Uber. It also includes Lyft personal car service, Instacart personal grocery shoppers, Postmates food deliverers, and home cleaning and repair service providers linked with customers through online platforms such as TaskRabbit and Handy, to name a few. As technology continues to develop, conventional wisdom believes that the gig economy will proliferate which means 1) less employees for unions to organize, and 2) more independent contractors for unions to figure out how to organize.
A Teamster lobbyist recently said “Labor unions are kind of split, and they certainly don’t have a single voice on how to [unionize gig workers] and how to create an organizing model that makes sense.”
The Independent Driver’s Guild is trying to fill some of that void for Uber drivers in New York. The Guild is funded by Uber and works in partnership with the International Association of Machinists. (IAM representing independent contractors in the taxi/ridesharing industry sounds about right these days.) The Guild has established an appeals system for drivers kicked off of the Uber platform and convinced Uber to scrap a policy requiring luxury vehicle drivers to also pick up lower-paying fares.
Notice the Guild hasn’t done anything with prices or pay. When you have a bunch of businesses (which independent contractors are) coming together to fix prices among them, you may have antitrust issues. Antitrust law exempts unions that bargain on behalf of employees they represent. But, according to Mike O’Brien, a member of the Seattle City Council, “My understanding of antitrust law is that it was intended to break up the robber barons colluding to limit competition. [To say] that these companies want to use it to stop low-wage workers from joining together seems to be a stretch.”
To be sure, unions would like dues money from gig workers, but as it relates to rideshare gig workers, unions would rather they go out of business. Follow me here. Each effort that chips away the rideshare gig worker from being an independent contractor places the worker, and the company, closer to a traditional taxi company which will ruin the very thing (whatever that is) that makes the gig economy successful. Americans outside of New York City and Chicago do not regularly use taxi cabs. Americans throughout the United States use Uber. Organizing Uber equals turning Uber into a cab company which equals no one will use it which results in Uber going out of business. A union wins if it organizes a company or the company goes out of business. A union loses if its workers are non-union.
Matt Austin owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm based in Ohio that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. You can reach Matt by calling him at (614) 285-5342 or emailing him at Matt@MattAustinLaborLaw.com.