Ride-hailing app Uber and UK trade union GMB have signed a collective bargaining agreement, marking the first time Uber has recognised a union of its drivers anywhere in the world.
The agreement, signed on 26 May, allows GMB to represent tens of thousands of UK Uber drivers in negotiations with the company on issues such as pensions and workplace safety. “You may think that Uber and the GMB don’t seem like obvious allies, but we’ve always agreed that drivers must come first,” said Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional general manager for northern and eastern Europe. “We are breaking new ground.”
Mick Rix, a national officer at the GMB, added that the deal “will give Uber confidence, and it will give the global labour movement confidence, to sit down and replicate what we’re doing, and try and better it.”
The agreement follows Uber’s defeat in the UK Supreme Court in late February 2021, which ordered the firm to re-classify its UK drivers as workers, entitling them to better workplace conditions and protections for the first time, including the right to be paid the national minimum wage.
The Supreme Court’s decision was the culmination of multiple attempts by Uber to have the ruling of an October 2016 employment tribunal, which determined that drivers should be treated as workers rather than self-employed individuals, overturned.
Commenting on the firm’s agreement with GMB, TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said it is a “huge breakthrough and will give Uber drivers a real voice at work”, and that it is just the beginning.
“Unions won’t rest until platform companies across the gig economy agree to work with their staff on improving pay and conditions,” she said. “And we need the government to stop dithering and deliver on its promise to strengthen workers’ rights. The failure to bring forward an Employment Bill in the Queen’s speech was a big missed opportunity.”
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According to GMB, it first approached Uber several years ago to discuss a collective bargaining agreement, with the dialogue gaining significant momentum since the ruling.
However, Uber will not engage in collective bargaining over drivers’ earnings, including the firm’s implementation of the minimum wage.
Computer Weekly understands GMB will still be able to “consult” on pay, which legally differs from bargaining in the sense that it is simply an exchange of opinions between parties, rather than a formal negotiation.
Uber was contacted about why the agreement does not allow for bargaining over earnings, but declined to comment.
In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, Uber announced on 17 March that it would pay its UK drivers the minimum wage, but only for the time they are assigned to trips rather than, as the Supreme Court explicitly ruled, from when they log in to the app.
In response to the lack of bargaining on earnings, the United Private Hire Drivers Branch (UPHD) of the International Workers’ of Great Britain (IWGB) tweeted that it is looking increasingly like a “dud deal”.
“Recognition without industrial muscle often looks like sitting with the boss for coffee and sandwiches and listening to them say no to your demands. In this case, the union won’t even get to put half the demands on the table,” it said.
UPHD chair Nader Awaad added in a separate statement that the agreement was a “PR exercise for Uber” that signs away workers’ rights to negotiate over pay.
“Unions should not sign deals which tie their hands behind their backs. 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,” he said.
“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.”
The App Drivers and Courier’s Union (ADCU), another grassroots worker-led union, said that while closer trade union engagement with Uber’s management is a welcome development, there is still good reason for workers and their unions to be cautious.
“At this time ADCU is not prepared to enter into a recognition agreement with Uber. This is because Uber continues to violate basic employment law such as the right to minimum wage for all working time and holiday pay despite the recent UK Supreme Court ruling in our favour,” it said in a statement.
“We are disturbed by Uber’s divisive and anti-union behaviour in the United States, most recently in California and New York State, where Uber has used the appearance of blunt collective bargaining agreements to actually weaken the power of workers rather than the opposite. Naturally, we have concerns about Uber’s motivations on this side of the Atlantic not only in the UK but throughout Europe also.
“Overall, this is a step in the right direction, but there are significant obstacles in the way of ADCU reaching a similar agreement. For us compliance with legal minimums should be the point of departure any union agreement with Uber.”