Gig Companies Co-opting Unions

Ideas and Issues
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January 3, 2021

            Pearl River     This may seem like ancient history, but it’s not that hard to remember in the before times when gig companies were a bit more fledgling and there were nascent efforts to unionize them after a fashion. In the US, this was particularly true in New York City and on the west coast in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles where Uber drivers particularly were assembling to demand employment rights. In Europe, bicycle delivery drivers have been at the forefront of several unionization drives in many cities in the United Kingdom and elsewhere on the continent.

All that is hard, hard work and the hopes and dreams of all of us are riding with these efforts. At the same time, it’s hard to ignore that there is also a common strategy that many of the big-time gig companies employ in trying to deal with their workers and protect their own pocketbooks and business plans, and that’s trying to coopt unions and make self-interested deals to exploit their workers.  When the foundation of the business model is pretending that its workforce are not employees so that most of the costs and responsibilities can be pushed onto the workers, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the modus operandi for all of these outfits requires not respecting them and assuming they are supplicant fools as well as brute machines and easily conned by whatever deal the company offers. Nonetheless, it’s embarrassing to see the disdain with which they see their unions as well and how easily they are suckered into deals to sell out the workers for the sake of a small voice and perhaps some membership.

Uber particularly has tried this strategy by offering workers’ associations all manner of bells and whistles on the condition that they agree with the company that the workers are not employees where the company would have to obey labor laws and pay unemployment and social security benefits. They made these offers up and down the West Coast. In New York, they offered regular consultation meetings and modified grievance procedures. They have tried to lure unions from SEIU to the Machinists and others to make these deals.

According to the Wall Street Journal, in Italy where the government threatened the regulate the Uber and Amazon-backed Deliveroo,

…the companies are championing a recent labor agreement with a small right-wing union in Italy as an alternative. Under a deal agreed in September, a group of companies including Uber and Deliveroo promised couriers in Italy €10 per hour spent making deliveries, equivalent to about $12, as well as equipment and insurance. That’s above the typical €7 an hour minimum wage but comes without holiday pay or sick leave. The companies struck the deal, which covers all of their food-delivery workers in the country, after the Italian government threatened to regulate the sector. The companies say the deal doesn’t add to costs for their customers. Larger unions have said the deal leaves workers worse off than if they were treated as employees, but it remains in force. The companies say they are interested in pursuing similar arrangements elsewhere, including in France and Spain. While Uber and Lyft Inc. offered drivers in California modest benefits after winning a state vote to keep workers as independent contractors, the Italian deal goes further by introducing collective bargaining for independent contractors.

Gulp! Not only are the companies dead set to make weak deals to prevent their workers from gaining rights, but it now seems that we have unions willing to sell them out for higher member totals, spurring the companies to pursue even more weak unions on sweetheart agreements. The only thing that can cure this travesty is a major effort by something besides company unions to actually work with these giggers to organize real unions.