Uber was a pioneer in seamlessly connecting passengers and drivers through an app. Now a union-led group meant to represent its drivers is also taking an unorthodox approach — as well as Uber’s money.
The group, the Independent Drivers Guild, was formed roughly one year ago as part of an agreement for the New York City area between Uber and a regional branch of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Guild officials say the unusual deal was simply the most practical way to improve the lot of drivers, whom the union has a proud history of organizing.
“The drivers need help, and they need help now,” said James Conigliaro Jr., the founder of the guild and a senior Machinists official.
But the group’s relationship with Uber has also inspired considerable suspicion among labor leaders, activists and experts.
“The way Uber operates, it makes me very distrustful,” said Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University and a former labor organizer, alluding to the company’s sometimes cutthroat posture toward rivals and regulators.
The guild has even attacked Lyft, Uber’s top competitor, using questionable tactics.
On May 1, the guild sent an email to members urging them to help create an afternoon work stoppage at Lyft. In the email, Ryan Price, the guild’s executive director, instructed members to order rides on Lyft so they could urge its drivers to join a stoppage. If the driver was “a scab” and refused, the email said, the member should cancel the ride.
Mr. Price, who previously did advocacy and organizing work for a nonprofit group and a union, acknowledged in the email that the tactic violated Lyft’s terms of service, but said the company’s refusal to negotiate with workers justified the action. Besides, he added, “nothing has ever been won without taking a risk.”
The effort recalled tactics Uber itself deployed against rivals in 2014 when some of its employees would order and then cancel rides from another ride-hailing service, frustrating drivers and creating shortages for passengers. (Uber admitted using the tactic in one case, but stopped short of an admission when it came to Lyft, which said it had documented thousands of instances in which this occurred.)
The Machinists said they had been in contact with Uber drivers for years before creating the guild by virtue of their work on behalf of the city’s for-hire drivers, some of whom began driving for Uber shortly after the service arrived in New York in 2011.
“Thousands of drivers were coming to us, and we were building a mailing list we still have today,” Mr. Conigliaro said. The union approached Uber in the fall of 2015 to explore an arrangement.
As part of the deal, the guild secured regular meetings between some of its members and Uber officials in New York City — the only dialogue in the country between Uber and a driver group associated with a union — and due process for drivers whom Uber has barred from the platform. Uber pays an undisclosed sum to the guild and also agreed to hand over contact information for all of its New York City drivers.
Supporters of the guild in the labor movement say such concessions from Uber may be crucial to winning a toehold in a sector where rich, powerful companies, a dispersed worker population, and high turnover make organizing extremely difficult.
The guild raised the issue of tipping at its first meeting with Uber last June and, when the company balked, the group decided to wage a vocal campaign aimed at city regulators.
“We couldn’t go back to drivers and say, ‘The company said they’re not going to do it,’” Mr. Conigliaro recalled. “So we took that one issue and moved it throughout the year.”
The group also urged Uber to raise its minimum fare in New York by $1, to $8, which the company agreed to do, and played a role in discouraging the company from cutting fares in 2017.
Mr. Conigliaro said the guild had moved on to other goals, like pressing the Taxi and Limousine Commission to regulate Uber’s fares so that they ensure a living wage. “We call on the commission to implement fair pay regulation,” the guild wrote in an April 6 letter. “We envision a regulated mile and minute pay.”
Aside from the tipping fight, however, other groups have played a more visible role on wages to date. The commission itself has made exploring the issue of wages a priority since early 2016 and has been soliciting data and suggestions from drivers in an effort to devise protections.
From the start, the guild has appeared to sidestep or play down some issues that might cause the greatest friction with Uber. The tipping crusade grew out of a June 2016 survey in which the guild allowed drivers to vote on their priorities, but which did not include Uber’s fare cuts of recent years, one issue that drivers almost universally complain about.
“I think fares should have been an issue from the beginning,” said Ronnie Paulino, a driver for Uber and Lyft, who said he was surprised that the survey did not give drivers a chance to highlight their concern about the cuts. Mr. Paulino was active in the guild’s tipping campaign and said the organization had gradually won him over.
(Mr. Price, the guild’s executive director, said many drivers believed that Uber would never agree to reverse fare cuts and that it would take regulation to do so.)
The guild also regularly takes credit for changes that it appears to have had little to do with, or that the company began making before the guild existed.
For example, the guild has claimed as a success the effort to pressure Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, to quit President Trump’s economic advisory council after the president’s executive order suspending entry into the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
But Mr. Kalanick had come under pressure from numerous activists for nearly a week leading up to his resignation from the council on Feb. 2. They had organized protests and a “delete Uber” campaign that prompted upward of 200,000 people to delete the company’s app. The New York Times reported that Uber employees had questioned Mr. Kalanick about his involvement with the council in the days before his resignation.
By contrast, while the guild began to survey its members about the issue on Jan. 30, it did not publicly call on Mr. Kalanick to step down until the day he announced his decision. Mr. Price said in an interview that the campaign was “a collective effort.”
Even tipping, the guild’s biggest achievement to date, was something many Uber officials already supported. The company’s response to the commission proposal was distinctly low-key alongside its volcanic reactions to other regulatory proposals.
Skeptics like Rome Aloise, a Teamsters international vice president who has been working to organize Uber drivers in California, question the Machinists’ approach of brokering a deal with Uber without first building a more formal organization of drivers. The alternative approach could have allowed drivers to dictate terms through elected leaders, rather than leave it to a small number of union officials to settle on terms with the company.
The Machinists agreed to refrain from challenging Uber’s position that drivers are contractors rather than employees, a top priority for organized labor, for the duration of their five-year agreement, though drivers are free to challenge their status on their own.
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a group representing professional drivers that held discussions with the Machinists on how to help Uber drivers, has filed an unfair-labor-practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board accusing Uber of helping to create a company union.
Federal labor law proscribes unions that companies fund or effectively control, though the law applies to groups representing employees, not contractors. An administrative law judge recently ruled a T-Mobile organization illegal on these grounds, a decision the company vowed to appeal.
Josh Gold, an Uber spokesman in New York, said that the guild was created to be independent of the company and that “we often don’t agree with the positions they take — that’s the point.”