Unions Divided on Pathway to Organize Gig Economy Workers

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. 

Seattle Proposes Alternative Collective Bargaining Law for Cab Drivers

One limit of the National Labor Relations Act is that it applies only to employees. Independent contractors are not covered by the Act. A Seattle city council member recently introduced legislation that would bring collective bargaining to cab drivers that work as independent contractors who are not covered by the Act. This is another creative way unions have found to increase revenue by skirting traditional labor laws.

The legislation proposes creating a process so that a majority of independently contracted drivers who work for the same company could choose to join a “driver represented organization.” The organization would negotiate pay rates and other conditions of employment for cab drivers and drivers for services such as Uber and Lyft, as well as other for-hire drivers. The city of Seattle would have to review the agreement reached and would also be tasked with enforcing the agreement.

Alternative labor organizations like the ones envisioned by this bill are unlawful under the NLRA, but have been implemented elsewhere. Volkswagen recently agreed to meet with any organization certified to represent at least 15% of the workers at VW’s Chattanooga, Tennessee plant. [See, “Volkswagen Agrees to Meet With Any Organization Representing 15% of a Group of Workers”]  VW would meet with these organizations even though its employees lost a union election. Similarly, graduate students at New York University formed a “union” that lies outside the National Labor Relations Board’s jurisdiction. [See, “NYU Graduate Students Ratify Union Contract”]

Matt Austin is a lawyer based in the Columbus, Ohio office of Roetzel & Andress, LPA who limits his practice to representing employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. You can call Matt at (614) 723-2010 or email him at maustin@ralaw.com.

If Employees, Uber Drivers Could Organize into a Union

Uber has become a household name. The latest controversy with Uber is determining whether its drivers are employees or independent contractors. A California labor commissioner has ruled that an Uber driver was an employee, and Uber must reimburse the employee roughly $4,000 for bridge tolls, mileage, and other expenses incurred while working as an Uber driver. The implications of Uber drivers being employees are significant, such that companies may need to begin granting health insurance and minimum wage to these drivers – items that are not required for independent contractors.

So what does this have to do with unions? If Uber drivers are employees, they can unionize. It appears that Uber drivers may have already begun the process toward unionizing. In 2004, the California App-Based Drivers Association was established, and this group recently met with the Teamsters Local 986 in California.

Uber drivers unionizing would be yet another example of unions expanding into a new industry, albeit perhaps a short-lived industry. Uber has grown so quickly because of its low overhead, which is passed on to passengers through low fares. If Uber drivers unionize, they will no longer be distinguishable from union-dominated taxis services and their rates will surely increase. There is already a taxi industry; how long will there be a ride-share industry?

Matt Austin is a lawyer based in the Columbus, Ohio office of Roetzel & Andress, LPA who limits his practice to representing employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. You can call Matt at (614) 723-2010 or email him at maustin@ralaw.com.

Teamsters Driving Both Sides of Uber vs. Taxi Driver Standoff

Teamsters on the West Coast are trying to organize Uber drivers and other drivers of similar companies. Currently, those drivers are generally considered independent contractors who pay a fee for the ability to drive for Uber or its competitors. Since unions can only organize employees, and thus only employees can be in bargaining units, the Teamsters are trying to pressure the companies into changing their business models – a tactic that is frequently quite successful. The California App-Based Drivers Association (CADA) was created for this purpose and has a list of complaints drivers have about Uber specifically, and what are characterized as unfair practices by ride-sharing services in general. CADA recently held a 3-hour “walkout” by turning their app off in solidarity to protest working conditions.

While the Teamsters are organizing Uber drivers in California, they are lobbying against them on the East Coast. Teamsters on the East Coast, specifically in Washington D.C., are working with taxi unions to stifle the proliferation of Uber and other ride sharing companies. Teamsters control the Washington, D.C. Taxi Operators Association (WTOA), a trade group dedicated to fighting ‘unfair regulations and lack of respect.” Uber, as you can imagine, is at the top of the list of issues WTOA is tackling. Either the Teamsters right hand (East Coast) doesn’t know what its left hand (West Coast) is doing, or the union is hedging its bets on Uber. You be the judge.

Matt Austin is a lawyer based in the Columbus, Ohio office of Roetzel & Andress, LPA who limits his practice to representing employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. You can call Matt at (614) 723-2010 or email him at maustin@ralaw.com.