Uber drivers consider guild representation

Uber drivers in Pennsylvania want more security and better pay, and are seeking a guild to negotiate for them with the ride-hailing company.

The Independent Drivers Guild, a New York association, is petitioning Uber drivers to speak in favor of participating in the guild by Labor Day, said Ali Razak, president of the Philadelphia Limousine Association, who is driving the effort. He is hoping to get at least 3,000 drivers in the state to text the guild to express interest. That should be enough, he said, to convince Uber to talk to the IDG.

"This is the opportunity," said Razak, who said he approached the guild. "It doesn't cost drivers anything."

The guild would be open to all Uber drivers, from the livery service Uber Black to the widely used UberX service.

Drivers who use the Uber app to connect with passengers have an unusual relationship with the company. They are called independent contractors, but there are suits underway nationally that seek to redefine the drivers as employees. Unless that happens drivers can't unionize. A guild might be the next best thing.

Drivers have several big items on their wish list. They want a tipping function available on Uber's app. Lyft currently offers this but Uber does not. They would like the option to refuse to pick up passengers through the UberPool service. Uber and Lyft are both pushing car pooling hard. It allows a single car to make multiple passenger pickups on a single trip, but the passengers pays less for the ride than if they were riding solo, which can mean less money for the driver. They also are seeking to prevent Uber from cutting a driver's access to the app, something the company can do if customer ratings decline, Razak said.

The IDG cannot engage in collective bargaining for the drivers, but might get Uber to the table to talk about worker issues, the organization said.

The guild is affiliated with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and already represents 35,000 drivers in New York City.

In New York, though, the guild is partially funded by Uber, which raised eyebrows from Anthony Marchetti, a Cherry Hill labor lawyer. He likened the guild to "company unions" of the early 20th century, when industrialists created unions they could keep on a leash.

"The reasons why you don't allow a company union is because you can never quite represent the workers as efficiently and sometimes as tough as if you were truly independent," he said.

Whether Uber will financially support the IDG chapter in Pennsylvania would be addressed in negotiations, said Moira Muntz, a spokeswoman for the guild.

Uber said Thursday night in a statement: "We value the voices of our independent partners. They have a diverse and varied set of goals and viewpoints. To say that one small group can speak for this population would have the unfortunate effect of silencing those partners who fall outside this much smaller group."

Muntz described the guild as an option short of unionization that would give drivers more leverage than they have now.

"The guild is absolutely, totally focused on drivers to make sure they can make an affordable living and have a voice with Uber and a voice legislatively," she said.

The IAMAW union represents black car drivers in New York, she said, and could potentially represent Uber drivers if they are allowed to unionize, she said.

Uber issued a statement explaining the advantages drivers enjoy as independent contractors.

"Nearly 90 percent of drivers say the main reason they use Uber is because they love being their own boss," the statement said, and added that as employees they would have less flexibility.

There's an argument that drivers using ride-hailing apps do fit the definition of employees, Marchetti said. Uber sets standards for its drivers and establishes pay rates, he said. The guild may be a good option for a group of workers who don't have much leverage right now, though, he said.

"In this oddball situation, it could theoretically be a positive before the unionization efforts," Marchetti said.

jlaughlin@phillynews.com

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