Ride-hailing platform Uber and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) announced a “historic national agreement” in January, which they billed as a step toward union representation for gig workers.
But after an investigation found that both organizations pressured the government to weaken regulations and deny workers’ their legal rights, organizers are calling the deal a setback.
Gig workers are taking stock of the obstacles to challenging hard-driving efforts by app-based services to reduce labour standards and erode pay. Unions appear divided on how to approach the high-intensity lobbying and norm-setting of companies like Uber. But some organizers see Uber’s increasingly open antagonism to workers’ rights as an opportunity to win support and turn the tide.
Promises made: “new benefits” and “worker choice”
In a January 2022 news release on Uber’s website, Andrew Macdonald, Uber’s senior VP of global rides and platform, called the deal a “quintessentially Canadian” collaboration, which would help employees and employers “find common ground and blaze a new trail towards a better future for app-based workers.”
In 2020, UFCW had announced an organizing effort among drivers for Uber Black—the company’s luxury vehicle service. The union drive was brought to an end by the agreement.
Uber said the agreement allows UFCW to represent workers who want to appeal their account deactivation—“at no cost to drivers and delivery people.” In other words, no union dues needed.
The union also said it would advocate for enhanced health and safety rules and push provincial governments to introduce “reforms that provide new benefits” while preserving the flexibility for workers to choose their hours. Among the reforms proposed: a “minimum earnings standard,” a benefits fund, and access to workers’ rights.
At the time, UFCW Canada national president Paul Meinema, promised the deal was “just a start in advancing a better future for app-based workers.”
Behind the scenes, a different story was playing out.
Collaborating to weaken regulations
Globe and Mail reporter Vanmala Subramaniam obtained documents through access to information which revealed that Uber and UFCW collaborated to pressure the Ontario government to exempt gig workers from Ontario’s Employment Standards Act. Among other things, the Act mandates companies to provide a minimum wage to employees.
The Uber-UFCW alliance pressed a sympathetic Ford-led Ontario government to maintain gig workers’ classification as “independent contractors”, rather than employees. The designation prevents gig workers from being covered by the Act’s basic protections.
The result divided workers.
The Digital Platform Workers’ Rights Act, or Bill 88, which Premier Doug Ford signed into law in April, essentially created two tiers of workers in Ontario, with one class given all the rights afforded under labour laws while many gig workers are denied the same protections.
Organizing in the gig economy
Brice Sopher, who delivers meals for Uber Eats, woke up to news of the deal through an early morning push notification on the Uber app on his phone. There was no direct communication from UFCW.
Sopher, who is also an organizer with Gig Workers United—an effort to organize gig workers under the aegis of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers—said he had two reactions to the announcement: one as a worker, and another as an organizer.
For Sopher the gig worker, the deal seemed like “just another tactic” that Uber was using to squeeze its workers for as much as they can.
“When you’re working for these apps, they never bring in something that’s going to end up being a positive change in your life,” said Sopher. “Changes are always for the worse.”
As an organizer, Sopher saw an opportunity.
“It made me feel like it was more important than ever to go and organize in the real way, in the proper way, that we had always been doing with Gig Workers United,” Sopher said. He describes this approach as “going out there, talking to every worker that we can, having the most democratic union that we can have, having the highest level of involvement of workers, so we get to a point where we can certify a local.”
While Uber reached an agreement with UFCW without consulting workers, Gig Workers United, he said, can seize on the company’s tactics to deny workers’ rights to organize and make material gains on behalf of those who work for Uber and other apps.
At publication time, UFCW had not yet responded to a request from The Breach to comment on Bill 88 and criticisms of the agreement.
Working hours, legislated as unpaid
The company’s efforts “put a veneer of legitimacy” on gig workers’ systematic misclassification, Sopher explained.
“Basically, Uber’s job is to lower the minimum to ensure that we have a new worst employment standards regime in Ontario, throughout the country and throughout the world.” The independent contractor classification is a “fiction that has been invented by Uber” to justify treating its workers as a subclass of the working class, Sopher said.
As this article goes to publication, Gig Workers United has announced a new “unfair labour practices” complaint against Uber under the Ontario Labour Relations Act.
Bill 88 does ostensibly provide gig workers with a minimum wage, but this wage only applies to “engaged time”: when workers are actively making deliveries or driving with passengers. Sopher says this is an underhanded way to deny workers their rights while purporting to uphold them. It sets, he said, a dangerous precedent that allows employees to determine what aspects of a job count as work, and which don’t.
“Even when I’m waiting, I’m still working. Even when I’m going to the restaurant, I’m still working. When I’m going from the place I dropped off the food at, and then going back to a busier area so that I get more orders—that’s all part of the work,” he said.
“[Bill 88] discounts a large part of our work, so it’s completely unacceptable.”
Sopher added that he found it “strange” UFCW, a union accountable to workers in adjacent sectors, would work with Uber to deny workers basic protections. But he’s keeping his own focus on Uber itself.
“It’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t change the facts on the ground that workers are organizing.”
“Workers believe that they deserve these rights and Uber is trying to lobby… against them getting those rights,” he said. That open and direct antagonism, he believes, can fuel successful organizing.
Gig-ifying the economy
Jordan House, a Brock University labour studies professor, told The Breach that the UFCW’s deal with Uber is a capitulation to the realities of the gig economy. Far from being an “intermediate step” to unionization and full rights, House sees it as a retreat.
“UFCW is showing that it’s totally willing to adapt itself to Uber’s business model,” said House.
Lobbying governments to define gig workers in ways that deny hard-won rights and protections is core to Uber’s playbook, House explained. But Uber doesn’t have to get its way.
“There are going to be more political battles over this in the near future.”
That’s not to say that the changes don’t represent a real danger to all workers. “Something gig workers have pointed out for a long time now is the possibility of a kind of Uber-fication, gig-ification, of the labor market more broadly,” said House.
“If companies keep getting away with trampling all over workers rights, misclassifying people, then what is to stop other employers from looking at that as a model and shifting in that direction?”
A class action suit arguing Uber employees are workers—and thus should be entitled to the same basic protections—is making its way through Ontario’s courts after a judge gave it the go-ahead in August 2021. House said that it shows some promise.
The labour relations bureaucracy is generally more sympathetic to the plight of gig workers than politicians are, House added. He cites the case of Foodora, whose workers’ efforts to unionize with CUPW got the green light from the Ontario Labour Relations Board, which argued that gig workers aren’t truly independent contractors, since their bosses have such strong control over their working conditions.
Foodora, which made a big show of packing up and leaving Canada in response to the unionization before going bankrupt, ultimately had to pay a $3.46-million settlement to the workers it abandoned.
There is definitely hope, House emphasized, pointing to recent union victories for workers at companies like Starbucks and Amazon, or in the cannabis retail sector. “These are industries and companies that were thought to be unorganizable even five years ago,” he said.
“It really seems like there’s a kind of disconnect within the labor movement about how to move forward. Is it kind of like the hard work of back-to-basics organizing, or are there shortcuts that could be taken?”
While courtroom victories show which way the winds are blowing, Sopher believes there’s no substitute for organizers building power by speaking to every worker. “It’s not built in a day. It’s not done with a pen. It’s not done in the back room. It’s done out there on the streets, and it’s active, and it’s built from the ground up,” he said.
“That’s the only way you can do it.”