Uber recognises driver unionisation with UK’s GMB
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The Uber headquarters in a new building in the Mission Bay District, San Francisco

Thousands of UK platform workers are set to receive collective bargaining powers after Uber agreed to recognise one of the UK’s largest trade unions in a first-of-its-kind agreement for the ride-hailing giant.

The landmark deal with the GMB union follows the Silicon Valley company’s February defeat in the UK Supreme Court, which ruled that gig economy drivers are workers, not independent contractors, and therefore entitled to a minimum wage and holiday pay.

Under the terms of the deal, Uber will now formally recognise GMB. Drivers won’t automatically become members and, for GMB representation, will have to sign up through the usual channels. The union recognition does not apply to Uber Eats food couriers.

Uber is among a coalition of food-delivery companies that has collective bargaining agreements for its food delivery arm in Italy, while in Germany drivers of the ride-sharing app are employed through fleet-management companies, similar to minicab groups.

Mick Rix, GMB national officer, said the “groundbreaking“ deal could be the first step to “a fairer working life for millions of people”.

“History has been made,” he added. “This agreement shows gig economy companies don't have to be a wild west on the untamed frontier of employment rights. When tech private hire companies and unions work together like this, everyone benefits - bringing dignified, secure employment back to the world of work. We now call on all other operators to follow suit.”

Jamie Heywood, Uber's regional general manager for Northern and Eastern Europe, said: “Whilst Uber and GMB may not seem like obvious allies, we’ve always agreed that drivers must come first, and today we have struck this important deal to improve workers’ protections.”

As reported by the Financial Times, Uber will not engage in collective bargaining over earnings, including whether the minimum wage is payable to drivers between passenger rides.

Celebrating a deal that signs away workers rights sadly says a lot about the state of the trade union movement in Britain today

Nader Awaad, chair of United Private Hire Drivers (UPHD), a branch of the IWGB, described the deal as “a dud” and PR exercise for the tech company. 

“Unions should not sign deals which tie their hands behind their backs,” he said. “Trade union recognition agreements at their best are only useful when backed up by workers and unions who are willing to fight fiercely for their rights.

“UPHD is the biggest union for Uber drivers in the UK and has been doing just this for years, organising strikes and protests with thousands of drivers taking part, and we will continue to do so until Uber sits down and listens to the concerns of their drivers.

“Celebrating a deal that signs away workers rights sadly says a lot about the state of the trade union movement in Britain today. This is precisely why grassroots worker-led unions like UPHD have grown to represent more drivers than any of the older, larger unions: workers need a fighting alternative and are willing and able to build it.”

Also commenting on the news, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) General Secretary Frances O'Grady said the agreement was “a huge breakthrough” and will give Uber drivers “a real voice at work”.

“The GMB deserve massive credit for their tireless campaigning. But this deal is just the start,” she added. “Unions won’t rest until platform companies across the gig economy agree to work with their staff on improving pay and conditions.”

TUC polling published last month revealed that more than eight in ten (84%) working people want all workers to have the same basic rights.

The App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) – one of the biggest thorns in Uber’s side of late – welcomed closer trade union engagement with the tech company, but said there was good reason for workers and unions to be cautious of the development.

“At this time [the] ADCU is not prepared to enter into a recognition agreement with Uber,” said the group’s James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam. “This is because Uber continues to violate basic employment law such as the right to [a] minimum wage for all working time and holiday pay despite the recent UK Supreme Court ruling in our favour.”

The ADCU said it was “disturbed” by Uber’s “divisive and anti-union” behaviour in the United States, most recently in California and New York, where the union alleges the platform giant has “used the appearance of blunt collective bargaining agreements to actually weaken the power of workers rather than the opposite”.

This is a brazen attempt by Uber to undermine our Supreme Court victory and weaken Transport for London’s powers to protect workers from terrible exploitation

Overall, Farrar and Aslam said the news was a step in the right direction, but there were “significant obstacles” in the way of the ADCU reaching a similar agreement. “For us, compliance with legal minimums should be the point of departure any union agreement with Uber,” they explained.

San Francisco-headquartered Uber recently applied to the High Court for declaratory relief to confirm its business model does not violate Transport for London's (TfL) regulations, placing 100,000 licensed private hire drivers at extreme risk of exploitation, according to the ADCU.

The declaratory relief includes that an operator licensed under the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 who accepts, pursuant to the Act, a booking from a passenger is not required by that Act to enter into (as principal) a contractual obligation with the passenger to provide the transportation service in respect of that booking.

The ADCU said the High Court action is an attempt by Uber to undermine the Supreme Court’s ruling and weaken transport regulatory oversight of worker rights.

In his judgment, Lord Leggatt wrote: “Uber maintains that the acceptance of private hire bookings by a licensed London PHV operator acting as agent for drivers would comply with the regulatory regime. I am not convinced by this.”

The union, which intends to intervene in the case, said success for Uber would have “catastrophic” implications for workers and the broader public interest, including the platform company likely escaping outstanding VAT liability estimated to be £2.5bn.

“This is a brazen attempt by Uber to undermine our Supreme Court victory and weaken Transport for London’s powers to protect workers from terrible exploitation,” said Farrar and Aslam, who also directed criticism at the transport regulator and Mayor of London.

“TfL and the Mayor’s decision to go along with this legal caper amounts to a terrible betrayal of 100,000 Londoners working as licensed drivers under brutal working conditions. Instead of showing political leadership and standing up for precarious workers, the Mayor is sweeping us and the problem under the carpet.”

In March, Uber announced that all its UK-based taxi drivers would be treated as “workers”, guaranteeing them the national living wage, holiday pay, and a pension plan, although unions argue this move still falls short of the minimum protections provided by the Supreme Court’s ruling.