Organizing Uber? It Could Happen

July 24, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco

James Conigliaro, Jr. joins cabbies on the steps of City Hall.

James Conigliaro, Jr. joins cabbies on the steps of City Hall.

New York, NY – A controversial cap on the amount of additional cars Uber can continue pumping onto New York City streets may have been left on the side of the road for now, but that doesn’t mean that the welfare of all those drivers is being ignored. 

According to James Conigliaro, Jr., general consul for the Machinists Union District 15 — the union representing for-hire black car drivers in New York City — the labor group is actively pursuing ways Uber drivers might one day be unionized. 

“We don't believe that anybody should have 20,000 independent contractors doing the same job – these guys are employees,” Conigliaro, Jr. told LaborPress at a City Hall rally on Monday. “The company benefits from these drivers alone, and that shows that these guys are employees. They should be able to unionize and have all the rights under the National Labor Relations Act, as well any other rights that employees are granted under New York State Law.”

Uber’s critics argue that drivers working for the $50 billion international conglomerate take home far less than 50 percent of the fares they earn, while foregoing even the most basic worker protections.  

“Uber drivers are coming to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance [for help], but they say they are afraid to protest because they’re invested in the car, and what if Uber takes them away from the app in retaliation,” New York Taxi Workers Alliance organizer Victor Salazar told LaborPress. 

Uber cars now outnumber yellow taxis on New York City streets, although traditional cabbies still pick up far more passengers than their app-based counterparts who work part-time hours.

Taxi Workers Alliance Executive Director Bhairavi Desa, says that Uber has successfully suppressed drivers’ grievances, and is actually attempting to take what is a full-time occupation for thousands, and reduce it to a part-time gig through a “backward economic model.”

“Everybody does not just work part-time," Desa said on Monday. “Uber has drowned out the voices of workers and they will go after the right of any workers to earn a full-time living in this job.”

A number of important factors conspire to make the road to unionizing Uber drivers very challenging, however. 

“It would be a big campaign and huge undertaking, but at the end of the day, we want to fight for people that need help, and if we can help these drivers  — and I think we can — we're going to do that,” Conigliaro, Jr. continued. “We're thinking about it. We're trying to think of a strategy, but the amount of drivers and independent contractor status makes it difficult.”

The outcome of a class action lawsuit filed earlier this month in San Francisco which seeks to classify Uber drivers as company employees rather than independent contractors, will have a huge impact on organizing efforts in New York City. 

Uber’s incredibly high turnover rate, paralleled in the equally difficult to organize retail industry, also presents serious challenges to successful organizing. 

Conigliaro’s group is one of the largest districts in the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, representing some 19,000 active and retired members, including drivers in New York City’s for-hire black car industry.

Uber has not responded to requests for comment. 

July 23, 2015

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