Don’t #DeleteUber, #OrganizeUber
I had an inspiring realization while supporting an effort by Nissan workers to organize a union with the United Auto Workers (UAW) at a the “March on Mississippi” last Saturday. The moment for American labor unions to redefine themselves to a new generation is now. With an anti-union billionaire occupying the Oval office, now is the perfect time to present a united labor movement that resists efforts to divide working people along racial lines. The current generation of young people that I represent as a union leader uses Uber and AirBnb without thinking twice like our parents used cabs and hotels. May not care about or in some cases even know what the labor movement used to be how the “gig economy” is damaging that legacy. As a result these transformational apps have changed our expectations and how we move through time and space. For people of color who could never get a cab, Uber has changed the cab’s willingness consider picking us but has not completely solved the problem of racism. Previously in cities like New York and Washington, D.C, catching cab was always an exercise in humiliation and patience. Now, we can avoid that hassle altogether, for the most part. What are unions doing to match the ease of access that ride-sharing companies have pioneered?
The once apparently infallible Uber is suffering two of its worst months in recent memory. First, Uber was accused of profiting off the ill-fated travel ban enacted by President Trump in his first week in office by offering lower ride prices during a union solidarity effort by cab drivers, causing thousands of riders to participate in the #DeleteUber campaign. Then many women stepped forward to complain about systemic sexual harassment within the global corporation. Now, a video has surfaced Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in a “heated exchange” with one of his drivers. Unfortunately, none of these problems will be solved by a lawsuit or media attention.
No class action can completely solve systemic sexual harassment and workers who want a say in the direction of a company have but one option: A union. With Kapernick openly asking for leadership help, I believe it should come from his employees. If women on staff at Uber who were being subjected to these terrible conditions had union representation, they could’ve been heard by filing a grievance based on discrimination and maybe the problem wouldn’t have risen to such a problematic level.
Given the potential for a union that represents Union workers to solve these major problems, its disheartening to see that just this past week that Uber is subjecting it’s drivers to “company-run podcasts on voting rights, collective bargaining and city council hearings” according to the Wall Street Journal. This equates to classic captive audience meetings where employees describe unions as a third party that will get in between workers and their employer. They even mischaracterize monthly dues paid by union members, usually neglecting to mention the lifetime gains union members gain and keep over their non-union counterparts.
Uber is just one example of a bad acting American corporation, fighting to keep employees from joining a union. This is a special moment in our nation’s history given the low point in union density and political climate. Trump has been proven a fraud in his claims of helping working people, unable to ensure that American steel will be used in the Keystone Access pipeline, what alternative narrative will unions put forward to ensure American works have healthy environment, good job, and family sustaining wages? Unions should start by organizing new groups of workers like web developers and investing in organizing the ride sharing economy to ensure Uber and Lyft drivers are able to exercise their fundamental right to organize themselves. That would mean millions of drivers in the U.S. and eventually overseas would be able to earn higher wages, enter the middle class, and possibly even change the employment deal Uber offers it’s drivers altogether. This will not be easy however. Uber exploits a loophole in labor law, calling its drivers independent contractors, much like FedEx does with its truck drivers. This allows the company to avoid unionization and pretend like each driver works for themselves. UPS is not allowed to exploit this same loophole, therefore allowing its drivers to enjoy better pay, benefits and pension while the company still competes in earnest.
Though many Uber drivers are part time, I’ve never taken a ride in Uber where a driver didn’t agree that unionization would be a huge plus, or that Uber can afford to pay them more. Indeed, the independent contractor problem is tough, but it is not insurmountable challenge, especially in the labor movement unites to tackle it. To take on these transformation unions don’t need to create a completely different narrative. They simply need to remind people, and in some cases teach for the first time, that union workers make more across the board on average. People of color, black women and women and general make more over the course of their career in union positions as well. Unions must be clear that the trade union movement is the solution to the problem of chronically low wages as they bring democracy to the workplace and that Corporations cannot be trusted to police themselves. The major difference in our approach is that we must adopt the Jemez principles in our efforts to support these workers in organizing. Workers must be able to speak for themselves and make decisions that affect their future. The era of top down union management and organizing over, and the era of self-determination is here. Users can help too. Don’t #DeleteUber, #OrganizeUber.
Larry Williams Jr. is a former union organizer, Founder of UnionBase.org, and President of John Muir Local 100. JML Local 100 represents staff and employees at the Sierra Club, America’s largest green group in Washington DC and around the country.