Muhammad Ejaz Butt, 48 years old, has been an Uber Black limousine driver in Toronto, Canada, since 2013. At 4:45 AM on Jan. 27, Muhammad awoke and struggled with sleepy eyes to groggily decipher the words beaming through blue light on his phone screen.
It was an announcement from Uber.
“Through this agreement, we’re prioritizing what drivers and delivery people tell us they want: enhancing their flexibility to work if, when, and where they want with a stronger voice and new benefits and protection,” Andrew Macdonald, Uber’s senior vice president of global rides and platform, said in the announcement.
What was perhaps most surprising about the announcement for Muhammad was that, like many drivers in Canada, this was the first time he had heard anything about this “agreement.”
“Uber and the United Food and Commercial Workers [UFCW] union had come to an agreement without any involvement from the drivers,” Butt told TRNN.
The deal outlines something like a union-for-hire situation with HR functions. Basically, the UFCW Canada will provide representation to Uber Canada workers if the company fires them or if they must resolve other health and safety issues. The union will also offer group discounts and free online training, according to its website. What the agreement explicitly does not do is recognize rideshare drivers’ status as Uber employees.
Instead of recognizing these workers as employees, Uber will continue to classify them as independent contractors, which means it is not responsible for paying them minimum wage, workers’ compensation, sick pay, or other benefits. For years the Big Tech companies have fought relentlessly to justify treating workers as contractors and to offload the costs to individual workers or the state, effectively pushing them to subsidize gig workers’ insufficient take-home pay through social programs like food stamps or paying for health insurance out of pocket. Tech companies say they don’t have any control over workers, as independent contractors are supposedly their own bosses unbeholden to the whims of any honcho. That is a key criterion for determining whether someone is a contractor devoid of labor rights—including wage-and-hour laws, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation—or an employee protected by these workplace laws. The much-touted independence Uber claims its workers have is belied by how the company exerts control via behavior codes, vehicle requirements, not to mention the deactivation of drivers who don’t abide by its policies and get poor ratings from passengers.
To evade or defang state regulations that narrow the parameters for classifying workers as independent contractors instead of employees, Uber Canada and UFCW Canada will lobby for “government reforms that introduce benefits but also protect worker flexibility.” The company and the union will fight for government rules to increase the minimum wage and create a benefits fund covering pensions and sick pay. Translation: they will jointly lobby to establish a third legal category of worker, something like an independent contractor (or, in the company’s lingo, “independent contractor plus”) with some workers’ rights thrown in.
At a very cursory glance, an agreement between Uber—possibly the tech company that has been the most adamant about keeping its workers classified as independent contractors—and a labor union would signal progress in the struggle to establish, defend, and expand the rights of workers in the so-called gig economy. But why would workers opt for an informal agreement between their employer and nominal union help, instead of the enforceable contracts and labor standards that come with employee status and full-fledged union representation?
“Uber’s move is to position a prominent union as progressive voice supporting lobbying efforts to create division within the broader labour movement,” said Jennifer Scott, a food courier and president of Gig Workers United.
Uber has been relentless in its pursuit of paper partnerships with unions because these worker institutions stand as bulwarks against the power of capital to bulldoze the security and livelihoods of working people. This is why the partnership with UFCW Canada is a win-win: it provides convenient cover for Uber Canada, which can point to the agreement as “proof” that it is protecting workers, while also ensuring that the union can do little to stop the company’s continuing push to cap workers at the knees, batter down their wages, and marginalize them politically.
And some unions are clear-eyed about that. The Canadian Postal Workers Union, which supports GWU, was unequivocal in condemning the backroom deal: “The best future for app-based workers is full employment rights. Period.”
Last March, UFCW Canada vocally opposed Uber Canada’s proposal to provincial governments to establish an alternative set of regulations to govern gig workers, and expressed a similar commitment to full employment rights.
“This is just Uber’s latest tactic to circumvent the labour laws and deny Uber workers the same rights as other workers,” Pablo Godoy, UFCW Canada’s national coordinator for gig and platform employer initiatives, said then in response to the proposal, which Uber Canada called “Flexible Work.” “The idea that employers like Uber would like to unilaterally impose business models is not only a dangerous proposition. It also ignores decades of hard-fought legislation meant to protect workers.”
UFCW was also a signatory to the Gig Workers’ Bill of Rights, which spells out clearly and forcefully that “a worker is a worker” and that so-called gig workers are entitled to “full employment rights with no carve-outs from minimum wage, sick leave, vacation pay, and other minimum employment standards.”
Yet, in a statement to Labor Notes, UFCW Canada championed the agreement with Uber Canada, highlighting a dubious joint commitment to unionize app-based workers.
“The drivers had nowhere to turn before. They do now, including reaching out through ufcw.ca/uber. This is all about worker’s rights,” the statement reads in part. “Laws have not caught up, and the need for action is urgent. Moving forward, the agreement with Uber is just a starting point, including a joint commitment to press for legislative changes to provide app-based workers the ability to unionize.”
What’s at stake for Uber is yet another chance to rewrite the rules to deny workers legal rights and protections to which drivers and delivery workers are already entitled as full-fledged employees.
A trade unionist in his native Pakistan and a leading worker leader in UFCW Canada’s efforts since 2019 to organize Uber Black limousine drivers in Ontario, Butt was nonplussed when he learned of the about-face. Instead of hearing the news from his union, he got it in the form of an early-morning announcement from the very gig company he had been fighting against to win union representation as an employee.
The agreement between Uber Canada and UFCW Canada enshrines the kind of worker misclassification that the entire gig economy is based on. This has been Uber’s endgame for a long time: deny workers’ claims to employee status at all costs because it pays dividends (Uber and Lyft’s market value soared to a combined $13 billion after successfully defeating regulations in California that would have classified workers as employees). To that end, Uber has tried to broker deals with unions that support the misclassification of a workforce that is largely made up of people of color and immigrants, especially when these workers are organizing and winning local and state victories.
Understanding the demographics of its worker pool, Uber has sought support from organizations rooted in communities of color to put a progressive spin on its gutting of labor law. They have found dependable allies in organizations representing people of color that are looking to cash in on their representational bona fides by writing op-eds in favor of the tech companies’ lobbying efforts. In California, Uber won the alliance of ten NAACP chapters, the California Black Chamber of Congress, Black Lives Matter Sacramento, and other prominent social justice organizations.
On Feb. 21, Wond Sebehat, an Uber Canada driver since 2015, penned an op-ed in the Toronto Sun extolling the virtues of the deal. “And over the years, I’ve seen Uber continuously evolve and change for the better. This Uber-UFCW agreement is the latest example of that. Both organizations have found common ground to improve working conditions and redefine the value of gig work.”
Sebehat, a pitch-perfect spokesperson for the company and its business model, added, “Especially since this package of reforms also protects the flexibility so critical to rideshare and delivery work. That’s why I started with Uber, to be my own boss and provide a service to my community. As an independent contractor driving on Uber, I have total control over when, where and how long I want to work.”
He concludes with a call to the Ontario government to act on the proposed reforms. “The package of reforms they—the largest private-sector union and the leading rideshare and delivery platform—have proposed is the result of listening and talking to drivers and delivery people over years.”
The justifications for these reforms have a historical lineage. In Jacobin, Akil Vicks recalls the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from US labor law. “The cruel joke is that where capitalists once leveraged the naked racism of the time to ensure access to a cheap and disposable workforce, this time they are using the aesthetic of social justice and anti-racism to do the same.”
Fast-forward to 2022. To cleave gig workers from the same legal rights employees are guaranteed is to relegate them not only to the realm of sub-employees; it’s also to cast them into the sub-human.
In 2017, Rideshare Drivers United emerged in California, bringing together Uber and Lyft workers to fight against subminimum wages at Los Angeles International Airport. Then, one year later, in its decision on Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles, the state’s Supreme Court ruled against misclassification, creating a framework for standards to determine employee status that would subsequently be adopted and expanded in Assembly Bill 5, sponsored by longtime labor advocate and then-Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and enacted in January 2020. In response to the growing momentum spurred by the California Supreme Court ruling, the passing of AB5, and grassroots worker organizing, Uber and other gig companies like DoorDash and Postmates struck back by spending a record-breaking $205 million on a lobbying and misinformation campaign to sway Californians to vote yes on Proposition 22, a ballot initiative crafted to nullify the regulations of Assembly Bill 5 and rewrite state law to deny gig workers the possibility of ever being classified as employees in a way that would be virtually impossible to ever repeal or amend. (In August of last year, however, California Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch ruled Prop 22 to be unconstitutional, dealing what could be a major blow to gig companies’ efforts to limit app-based workers’ rights, although Prop 22 remains in effect while his ruling is appealed.)
“Going forward, you will see us more loudly advocate for new laws like Prop 22, which we believe strike the balance between preserving the flexibility that drivers value so much, while adding protections that all gig workers deserve,” said Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in November 2020.
Making good on that promise, Uber hotfooted it out of California, taking clones of Prop 22 more than 2,000 miles to the east coast.
In 2021, in New York, Los Deliveristas Unidos beat back draft legislation supported by the state AFL-CIO, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), and the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG), an organization of Uber and Lyft drivers affiliated with the Machinists but financed by Uber and Lyft. That legislation would have created a legal framework for a second-class status union membership, one with severely limited collective bargaining rights: no strikes, no boycotts, no picketing, and—as if to flatter the authoritarian streak of any boss—no whiff whatsoever of a negative comment about the employer.
Regardless of these setbacks, Uber and other app-based companies have been on the move, bankrolling lobbying efforts, to the tune of millions of dollars, to carve gig workers out of existing labor protections and standards and to create new worker classification schemes in Washington state, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.
More than 70 unions, advocacy groups, and other organizations—including UFCW and TWU—wrote a letter to members of Congress in January of 2021 opposing app-based employers who seek to exempt themselves and their workers from existing federal labor laws through Prop 22 copycat schemes.
“A proposal to supposedly provide limited benefits to some ‘independent workers’ would threaten our most fundamental understanding of what work ought to provide,” the letter reads. “A federal ‘Proposition 22’-like scheme would shunt more and more workers to piecework labor, performing jobs here-and-there with neither individual security nor the possibility of collective action.”
The letter’s authors also warned that a “new federal classification scheme would break open the dam” for whole industries to gigify health care, retail, hospitality, and even law firms to union-bust and shirk employer obligations like workers’ compensation, minimum wage guarantees, paid family leave, sick pay, and unemployment insurance.
Uber isn’t an outlier for putting the squeeze on workers. They are one player among many in a larger capitalist system of exploitation that is, by its very nature, constantly looking for “innovative” ways to restructure work relationships for the benefit of the bosses.
“Temp workers, independent contractors, and gig workers all have to ask, ‘Who’s the boss?’ They’re different names and legal sleights of hand for the same thing: systems that force mostly Black and Brown workers into doing equal work for unequal pay and second-class treatment,” said Dave DeSario, executive director of Temp Worker Justice, in a Feb. 11 press statement announcing the filing of an amicus brief in The Atlanta Opera, Inc v. Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Union, Local 798, IATSE, a case brought before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) involving a union campaign by makeup artists and hairstylists for the Atlanta Opera. The 12 workers’ rights organizations that filed it, including the National Black Worker Center, Warehouse Workers for Justice, and The Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, are asking the NLRB to reconsider its standard for determining independent contractor status.
“Subcontracted workers who routinely perform core tasks for major businesses are subjected to blurred lines of employer responsibility and to employers’ avoidance of their legal liability for workplace ills,” the brief argues. These contingent employment relationships in the logistics sector, big tech, and the app-based platform economy include treating workers as misclassified independent contractors and “perma-temps” under a staffing agency contracting model. The brief argues that these are system-wide problems for “how employers use both forms of non-standard employment in complementary and interchangeable ways to evade their legal obligation to provide all employees with the right to form unions and collectively bargain.”
Uber and its ilk are trying to wallop workers as they try to organize, in part because their business models depend on a contingent workforce that is underpaid, precarious, constantly surveilled, and locked out of federal labor protections, and in part to deny them any chance of forming a union to change those conditions.
“The union will likely get a financial remittance from the company, and in turn, Uber gets to say it has made a deal with a powerful union,” said Veena Dubal, a law professor at University of California, Hastings, about the agreement between Uber Canada and UFCW Canada. “Meanwhile, the workers get next to nothing. It’s important to note that this happened at the same time that gig workers in Canada have been engaging in powerful, independent collective organization, and they have even had judicial victories.”
The threat of regulations and organizing are why gig companies will pony up money via a customer surcharge to cover the cost of representation that many of these schemes promise, eschewing member dues. Alternatively, they can create two tiers à la company union IDG with a free riding option and a paid one. In effect, these schemes transform unions from vehicles of worker power into defanged, employer-funded charities. IDG, for example, receives an undisclosed amount of funding from Uber and Lyft.
But Uber is scared. According to its initial public offering documents, the company would be “adversely affected if drivers were classified as employees instead of independent contractors.” In response to European Union regulations, the company’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi tried to appease investors last December by telling them the company could make an employment model work. This is hard to believe.
The agreement in Canada with UFCW comes as Uber ramps up its efforts to fight or bypass regulations across the globe. Last August, Spain enacted a law requiring gig companies to classify drivers as employees, with Just Eat (Europe’s largest food delivery platform) signing a contract with Spanish unions that increased wages, extended vacation, and cut back working hours. In response, Uber pulled a page from the Amazon playbook—hiring a fleet of drivers through third-party contractors to circumvent the law. (In the US, Uber has already partnered with temporary staffing agencies such as TrueBlue to use outsourcing as a workaround that will enable them to circumvent new regulations in California. TrueBlue has presented itself as “ready to pivot” in response to new regulation and committed to “take on the cost and burden of employing a compliant workforce.”)
In the United Kingdom, courts ruled in February 2021 that Uber had to reclassify 70,000 of its so-called independent contractors as employees, entitling them to a minimum wage, vacation pay, and a pension. In January of this year, Uber threatened to suspend its delivery service in Brazil after the country’s president signed into law bills making it mandatory for app-based companies to provide accident insurance, personal protective equipment, and other benefits.
“What happened here?” Butt asked when he got to the UFCW Canada office the same day the agreement was announced. “I was shocked.”
Even if he agreed with parts of the agreement—Butt said he is “60 percent” in favor of it—he was also confused by the whole ordeal and how these decisions were made. For instance, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) also represents gig workers—why weren’t they chosen as a partner for this agreement, and why weren’t the workers themselves presented with that choice? Uber had picked UFCW Canada to be its partner in a deal that affects tens of thousands of workers without the workers having any say.
“If you have any problem with Uber, if you have a matter of deactivation, if you have a safety problem, you must contact UFCW, who will work as the arbitrator to solve your problem,” Butt said, parsing the language in the announcement.
“Food delivery drivers are part of the postal union, but that agreement Uber did with UFCW covers everyone,” he continued. “I don’t understand why.”
“Uber and other apps use well-known strategies to create confusion and division among workers. What they fail to understand is that gig workers know when something is a bad deal and we build communities to support each other,” said Gig Workers United’s Scott.
As gig workers, “we know our work and what needs to change for it to be better. We sit at the table with our employers and put forward our collective demands, and we choose the union that sits at the table with us,” she added.
Like in the US, Canadian labor law prohibits employers from funding unions. Labor law also bars employers from choosing representation on behalf of their workers in a contest between different unions. One notable exception is neutrality agreements, which define the conditions of union organizing at a place of employment, including support for unionization.
“The question arises whether it is unlawful for Uber to enter into an agreement with UFCW that gives the UFCW special rights that are not equally available to CUPW,” noted labor lawyer and York University professor David Doorey.
There’s also the political dimension of class conflict: the labor movement must be independent of the bosses. There’s no place in its line of march for company unions.
“This is the same cooptation of labor power that Uber has been attempting all over the world. After shopping this model of a company union around, and getting rejected by most unions, Uber succeeded in striking a bargain with the Machinists in New York City in 2016,” said Dubal, referencing the Independent Drivers Guild. She noted the company appears to seek to replicate a similar model in Canada.
“I think many people and institutions in the labor movement are afraid to speak ill of unions that come to agreements with Uber,” she added. “But it’s important to note that these kinds of agreements actually undermine the larger movement. Why would workers feel an allegiance to a movement whose leaders throw them under the bus?”