Uber Deal with Machinists is Worrisome

uberNew Orleans   Uber, the ride-sharing service, has announced that it has come to an agreement with the International Association of Machinists (IAM) to create a guild or association of some sorts that it will informally recognize for its drivers in New York City. James Conigliaro Jr., the guild founder and assistant director and general counsel at the International Association of Machinists District 15, which represents workers in the Northeastern US, said, “…we’ve successfully come to agreement with Uber to represent the 35,000 drivers using Uber in New York City to enhance their earning ability and benefits.”

I’m a big advocate of majority unionism and alternative organizing models and techniques, but whatever this is, it doesn’t quite smell right to me. Uber is still maintaining that its drivers are not employees, yet the union is claiming, based on an “agreement” with the company, that it can “represent” all of the workers. The Machinists are also claiming that they can improve their wages and benefits without offering details about how that will happen other than the fact that they now have a five (5), yes five year, agreement that provides for monthly meetings of some bodies with somebody from Uber.

So, if I get this right, a company without workers is signing an agreement on behalf of those workers with a union without members among those workers to create a way to talk about wages, hours and conditions of employment. Except for the fact that everyone has agreed to play-pretend that the drivers are not real Uber employees, under the National Labor Relations Act this would pretty much categorically constitute an 8(a)2 violation or what is known commonly as a “company union.”

Meanwhile, certainly known to the Machinists, more than 5000 real Uber drivers have already signed authorization cards seeking to be represented by the Transport Workers’ Union in New York City. Both the IAM and the TWU are members of the AFL-CIO, so how does this not constitute an Article XX violation of the AFL-CIO’s constitution or what is known commonly as “raiding?” If not raiding, it’s certain interference.

On Uber’s part they already are familiar with direct unionization efforts in Seattle, San Francisco and other cities. Their recent settlement of a class action suit in California was widely seen as an effort to buy time for the company’s effort to continue to pretend that its drivers are not employees, and they agreed in that settlement to also begin meeting in some form or fashion with their drivers on issues as part of the settlement.

All of this also smells a little like the company was union “shopping” for a partner here. The Machinists certainly do a bit of organizing, though that is not their primary reputation. According to NLRB statistics for the five years between 2008 and 2012 they had an excellent win rate and ranked in the top ten, but during that period they only gained 11869 workers in units they won, which isn’t much over 2000 workers per year, if they converted all of them into members, which never happens. Their organizing totals were five times less than the NLRB results for either the Teamsters or the Service Employees and half as many as the Food and Commercial Workers. Meanwhile they have fallen from 730673 members in 2000 to 570,423 in 2013. I’m not saying they won’t try to take this lemon and make lemonade, but when Uber was looking for a partner, Uber would have known the Machinists were “needy” and desperate to grow, one way or another.

When it comes to benefits, still without either talking to the drivers or the Machinists, Uber also announced that it has contracted, yes, contracted, with the so-called Freelancers’ Union in order to see what they can cook up in terms of portable benefits and the like.

It is easy to see that Uber wants, and is getting, huge cover from all of this, but when the workers are on the sideline reading the news in the paper or getting alerts on their smartphones, it seems more like a scam that something substantial for the workers.

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UAW Objections Withdrawal A Sign They Want a Second Shot Soon

UawHouston    Politicians and the in-plant anti-union committee at Volkswagen in Chattanooga were both chortling and celebrating the announcement that the UAW had withdrawn its election objections before the NLRB hearing on the issues raised in its recent, narrow defeat.  They are laughing too soon.  They are actually totally misreading the organizing tactics, and interpreting a tactical withdrawal as a concession, rather than the more accurate understanding that this is a huge signal from the UAW that they are in fact deepening their commitment to keeping the campaign alive for a second shot at an election.

            There are never any future guarantees in organizing about when the time might be right to go another round, but the UAW at the crossroads faced two choices.  One was to fully engage on the legal struggle around their objections and run the clock out for years in back-and-forth appeals.  This is usually the “long game” after an election defeat where basically the union tries to save face institutionally and to maintain other organizing efforts by giving organizers and leaders’ talking points framed on the notion that there’s still a heartbeat, that justice will be done, and hope is a plan.  It’s a sad organizing strategy since even miraculously winning a second election after years would have tended to alienate the workforce, making a better result difficult. 

The other choice, which is bolder organizing, is to immediately get the clock ticking for a second election, and this is clearly what the UAW is doing, signally in truth that they are committed to the campaign and in fact that they like their chances inside the plant and, perhaps as importantly, with Volkswagen.  You can bet that UAW organizers have done extensive work in the last three months to reassess their “yes” votes and gauge the hardness of the “no” votes and whether they can turn them if they can offset the onset of fear and panic before the last vote count.  You can also bet that UAW leaders have had extensive discussions with Volkswagen union leaders in Germany, who have board seats in the company, about how a second election would work and how the company would react.  The signs have obviously been encouraging on both counts.

            The clock works this way.   The election was February 14th.  A second election could be held at the earliest in only nine more months, and the UAW could file as early as mid-January, only eight months away.  With a unit of a couple of thousand, that’s like tomorrow!

            The other reason it is easy to read the UAW’s intentions can be found in their statements upon the withdrawal.  Shrewdly, they withdrew by laying down the gauntlet to the Tennessee governor and local business establishment to hurry up and restore the $300 million in incentives for VW to locate a new SUV line in Chattanooga which would add another 1000 workers to the mix.  This is a win-win for the UAW.  It gets them back into the framework of being a job creator rather than a job threat, which had sunk their first vote.  If the Governor and the union baiters can’t convince VW to add the line, they are losers, bullies, and blowhards, and the UAW doesn’t have that problem on its shoes.  Moving the campaign right now to restore the commitments to add the line also turns the bargaining power from the politicians back to the company and its allies.  The UAW is no company union, but any Tennessee politicians have to know that VW is not going to add 1000 workers in Chattanooga without a behind the scenes commitment that the pols and the local chamber will keep out of its employee relations in the plant.  This time the Governor and the locals may have to decide if they want a 1000 jobs more than they hate the union.  If the line doesn’t get added by VW, then the Governor and the union-haters are defanged in a 2nd election.  If the line does get added, there will categorically be non-interference concessions privately made to the company, the UAW will have publicly been on the right side in advocating for more jobs, and will face a second election, the workers willing, on much, much stronger ground.  And, they will face it with the same workforce on the re-run election, because even if a plant is added, it won’t be ready in nine months or even two years in all likelihood.  None of this is to say that there won’t be bombast from the peanut gallery, but it will be a distant hum in the background in a second election, not in the workers’ faces as they go to vote.

            Does this kill off the other UAW organizing efforts with transplants in Mississippi with Nissan and with Mercedes-Benz in Alabama?  Of course not.  Both of those drives have been multi-year commitments by the UAW already and will continue to be.  Neither from all reports are anywhere near ready to go forward now, so at this point the UAW will try to rebuild its momentum with its battle-tested committee in Chattanooga, who must correctly feel that they weathered the worst the opposition could throw at them and came within 100 votes, have reassessed their yeses and maybes, and are hunkered down for another run at a second election.  Best for the UAW to wait for the momentum to change with a win, and let Mississippi and Alabama continue to toughen up so they can be ready to capitalize on a VW victory.

            There are no guarantees, but all signs indicate the UAW has now made a decision that it is in it to win it for as long as it takes.  Good news for workers in the South and everywhere!

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