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Hundreds of Toronto Uber Drivers Have Announced Plans to Unionize

The announcement tees up a fight between the United Food and Commercial Workers and rideshare giants like Uber and Lyft.
Uber drivers march to Uber's offices in London on October 9th, 2018, with placards and banners from the various trade unions.

Uber drivers march to Uber's offices in London on October 9th, 2018, with placards and banners from the various trade unions.

Amid a growing wave of discontent among rideshare drivers and gig economy workers, hundreds of Toronto Uber drivers announced plans to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada on Monday.

During a news conference at the Sheraton Centre Hotel in downtown Toronto on Tuesday, Ejaz Butt, an Uber driver who has become one of the most prominent faces of the union effort, said that the drivers are fighting for the ride-hailing giant to address three main grievances: the implementation of an across-the-board minimum wage of $15 an hour, the allowance of basic worker benefits (including sick days, vacation days, and mid-shift breaks), and an end to the app's user-based ratings system, which he said is used "to penalize drivers without recourse."

"Uber calls us partners, but we have absolutely no say about our working conditions, or even being able to take a bathroom break," Butt told reporters. "We know we make a lot of money for Uber, but in return we get treated like we don't matter."

Research has shown that workers' concerns aren't unfounded: According to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Economic Policy Institute, Uber drivers effectively make less than $10 an hour on average once commissions, vehicle expenses, and self-employment taxes are factored in—well below the average minimum wage in most large cities.

UFCW Canada's national president, Paul Meinema, said during the Tuesday conference that Uber drivers are part of a new digital economy where workers "need strong union protections to shape the future of the gig economy employment."

"Companies like Uber cannot be allowed to move back the dial on employment practices under the guise of innovation," Meinema said.

Drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft have long sought collective bargaining agreements to combat the dangerous working conditions and low wages that they say are part of the job. Those efforts have been largely stymied in the United States by a business-friendly National Labor Relations Board, which in January issued a ruling that more clearly delineates the difference between independent contractors and employees, setting up significant impediments to the former group's ability to form a union. Then, in a separate memo issued in May, the NLRB ruled that rideshare drivers are independent contractors and not employees, owing to the fact that they operate their own vehicles and set their own hours. While not an official ruling, the memo was a gift to companies like Uber and Lyft, which, if forced to treat drivers as employees, would have likely been forced to increase their labor costs by an estimated 20 to 30 percent, just one year after both companies reported sizable revenue losses in 2018 to the tune of billions.

In Canada, as in the U.S., independent contractors do not have the right to unionize. But during Tuesday's news conference, Pablo Godoy—the national coordinator for gig and platform-employer initiatives at UFCW Canada—said that many of the recently organized drivers would argue that they are, in fact, employees. Part of the UFCW's role as a union, he said, will now be to challenge the existing labor legislation in Canada that has allowed tech companies like Uber to "skirt due process."

"Legislation that exists today would make it complicated to ask for certification, yes, but that's one of the issues that we'll be fighting for as a union to change on behalf of our new members," he said.

According to Godoy, the number of Uber drivers who have signed union cards is already "in the high hundreds, and growing rapidly." He added that the UFCW—a trade union that operates in the U.S. and Canada with over 1.2 million members—plans to use every tactic in its arsenal in order to ensure that "the voices and concerns of Uber drivers across the city are listened to ... through urging the levels of government to change legislation and through urging Uber to come to the table and recognize workers."

According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, there were about 90,435 rideshare drivers operating in Toronto in June, split predominantly between Uber, Lyft, and a handful of other players. The push to unionize comes as Toronto's city council is mulling a regulatory overhaul of the by-laws that private transportation companies, including ride-hailing services, must adhere to.

In December of 2018, New York's City's Taxi and Limousine Commission successfully approved plans to enact a $26.51 per hour gross pay floor for rideshare drivers working for companies like Uber and Lyft. While both companies went to lengths to show their dissatisfaction with the rule change, halting the onboarding of new drivers and threatening imminent fare hikes as a result, the Independent Drivers Guild—which represents roughly 70,000 NYC ride-share drivers—told Gizmodo at the time that collective action had been a necessary mechanism to use to protect drivers.

"We knew that, far from being harmed by these new rules, app companies were still making record profits," the group said. "We showed up, we made our voices heard, and we made sure that the city sided with workers over app companies like Lyft that continue to make massive profits on our backs."