Uber’s Union Deal in the UK Doesn’t Mean Its Battles Are Over

The company’s first-ever union agreement could distract from more changes that need to happen, both within the gig economy and governments. 

After years of fighting them in court, Uber has given drivers unprecedented collective bargaining power for the first time by striking a deal with one of the largest unions in the UK.

In an agreement coined with the GMB union following weeks of negotiations, the ride-hailing company says it will recognize trade union representation for its 70,000 UK drivers and has committed to giving workers a seat at the table, pledging to meet union leaders quarterly to discuss driver issues and concerns.

The deal announced on Wednesday evening is the only time the Silicon Valley firm has recognized a union anywhere in the world, and is a first for any ride-hailing platform in the UK. But this does not mean that Uber’s employment battles are over.

The GMB and Uber are long-time courtroom foes: The union was one of the main players representing drivers alongside original claimants James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam in the original employment rights case that forced the ride-hailing company to rethink the way it operates in the UK.

It led to Uber’s reclassifying its drivers as workers earlier this year, a major u-turn following a Supreme Court judgment that determined that drivers should be entitled to rights such as minimum wage and holiday pay.

The new agreement goes further. It was described by GMB leaders as a “historic union” that will “raise the standard of flexible work across the industry”. Alongside existing terms guaranteeing national minimum wage while they are driving for Uber (only while they completing trips) , drivers will be able to officially access union advice through driver hubs for the first time.

The GMB will also be allowed to represent drivers who have lost access to the Uber app, a move that union organizers expect will speed up readmission for those who are found to have been unfairly deactivated. In theory, it could also mean that drivers who may have previously been forced to take Uber to court over algorithmic dismissals could simply be reinstated if the union intervenes.

In a statement, Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional general manager for Northern and Eastern Europe, admits that Uber and the GMB “may not seem like obvious allies”, but that they have “always agreed that drivers must come first”.

Years of court defeats have led Uber to this moment, explains Steve Garelick, regional officer at the GMB. “Uber has had to do a whole lot of growing up,” he says. “I always say, wars have to come to an end. I prefer to be sitting around the table and trying to get solutions.”

When asked about the terms agreed with Uber, he says that “not everything may be perfect” in certain agreements, but insists that this is a positive step. “I prefer us having an agreement than not, and ultimately trying to work on behalf of drivers when they’ve got a problem and find solutions for them.”

Garelick hopes that Uber’s actions are a signal that these agreements should now be embraced by other app companies in the gig economy. The GMB has so far struck one other agreement, with courier giant Hermes, in 2019.

But others aren’t convinced—and this won’t be the end of Uber’s legal battles. The fine print gives no indication that Uber will allow collective bargaining on pay, and there are ongoing employment tribunals to enforce the Supreme Court ruling on minimum wage: Uber argues that it only applies when drivers are actually on a trip, the unions are outraged at this “twist” and say it should apply the whole time a driver is logged into the app.

They say drivers could miss out on 40 to 50 percent of their entitled pay as a result—hearings for the employment tribunal on this point started this week. Meanwhile, drivers who claimed back-pay and holiday pay through Uber’s compensation scheme have started to receive offers from the ride-hailing company, based on the premise that they are only entitled to money when they are conducting trips on the app. Those that accept the deal cannot pursue further compensation if the terms change in the future.

The App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU), formed by original Uber claimants Aslam and Farrar, is also planning to fight Uber in the High Court as it attempts to validate its business model in London, in a move that they claim will undermine the Supreme Court judgment and allow Uber to avoid a multi-billion pound tax bill.

It would be difficult to believe that if Uber had won the Supreme Court case that this agreement would have taken place at all, says Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of the Arts and author of the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. “Let’s be pleased about it, but realistic about the fact that if it wasn’t for the work that the drivers did, and the unions did, we wouldn’t have gotten to this point.”

Part of the motivation for Uber to strike this deal could be a simple matter of optics, Taylor says. “Uber is a big company that cares about its reputation, and operates in the public gaze. It is probably the case that there will be growing pressure on other companies that also care about their reputation and have a high profile to do things.”

For now the gig economy stronghold is standing largely firm against repeated assaults, says Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown. She predicts that there will be fresh capitulations, “not just due to public opinion but because more institutional investors are focusing more attention on environmental social and governance issues, with workers’ rights increasingly under the spotlight.”

But Uber’s agreement with the GMB could distract from further changes that are needed. The ADCU quickly sent over its opposition to engage with the company in a similar manner to the GMB, citing Uber’s interpretation of workers’ rights as the main sticking point.

“Overall, this is a step in the right direction, but there are significant obstacles in the way of ADCU reaching a similar agreement. For us compliance with legal minimums should be the point of departure for any union agreement with Uber,” they said in a statement.

They said that there are reasons to be “cautious” about this agreement. They cite concerns that drivers represented by the GMB may receive “preferential treatment” if they are dismissed from the platform. “We believe that any such arrangement would be unlawful. We will continue to defend our members and hold Uber to account for all unfair dismissals and any adverse licensing action arising as a result,” they said.

“We communicate with Uber all the time,” says Farrar. “We have never requested a recognition agreement or even a meeting to discuss it because we will not negotiate with any employer for statutory rights.”

But without legislation from the government, there is not only no pressure on other companies to change worker status—it would be easy for them to adjust their working contracts to attempt to dodge the same legal challenges as Uber, Taylor says. He argues that instead of relying on courts to do all the work, the government needs to produce its employment bill.

In the five years since he wrote his original report on working practices for the government, Taylor says his thinking has changed regarding the classification of employment status to better reflect the reality of the gig economy now. Rather than three statuses of employee, worker and self-employed contractor, there should be only two: employed or self-employed, aligned with other countries in Europe and the US.

But the government has yet to implement any of the recommendations from his original report, which he says denotes a worrying “lack of urgency”. This, however, could soon change. “There is a feeling that with the courts having done this [Supreme Court ruling] that it is less politically dangerous, that they can get on with doing it [reform] now and that there won’t be this pushback from entrepreneurs or investors because all they’re doing is putting into law what the courts are already deciding.”

While laws are still unwritten, this is when this deal with the GMB could truly be leveraged to benefit Uber’s working model. “I worry about Labour front bench now praising Uber on worker rights when they are still violating basic rights and at a time when the government has done nothing,” says Farrar. “It sends a dangerous message to the government that they can ease off the pressure on Uber to comply with the law and that is assuming the government was ever bothered to apply such pressure—which quite evidently they were not.”

This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.

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