The GMB union’s recognition agreement with Uber is the first of its kind anywhere in the world with the American tech giant. The deal gives GMB access to drivers meeting hubs, the ability to represent drivers if they lose access to the app and entitles GMB to quarterly meetings with Uber to discuss drivers issues and concerns.  

On the face of it, it seems like a massive win for the trade union movement, and GMB in particular, succeeding where so many others have failed. It is certainly the opinion of Mick Rix, national officer for GMB. He describes the effort as “giving members who use the Uber app a voice”. Rix, level-headed and deep voiced, went on to sum up the strength of the deal:

“Both parties can now raise issues with each other in a proper representative way … By having that structure, there is that recognition that the views of our union and the views of our members are important. What this means is if the views are very strong, Uber may have to take those views into account and alter their plans accordingly. That would be a recognition that the relationship is meaningful and that the company is moving away from the premise where it was a few years ago where it was known as a disrupter that didn’t care.”  

Yet how meaningful Uber’s change has been, or if they have changed at all, is a matter of contention in the industry. Uber’s own white paper titled “A better deal” states that “pushing people towards traditional employment models is not the answer.” This is the company’s global modus operandi. It was accused of using “sneaky tactics” during its victory in the Proposition 22 vote which maintained the classification of its drivers as “independent contractors” in California, selectively interpreting the UK Supreme Court judgement that classified its drivers as “workers” and have sought declaratory relief from the high court that their business model is compliant with Transport for London regulations following comments by Lord Leggat as part of the Supreme Court judgement. This does not paint the image of a company that has moved on from it’s “disruptive” ways, more one that is growing ever more creative in maintaining its predatory business model. 

The chief critic of the deal is the trade union Independent Workers of Great Britain, who declined an interview. Nader Awaad, the chair of its United Private Hire Drivers branch gave this comment:

“This recognition deal is a dud that signs away workers’ right to negotiate over pay and is a PR exercise for Uber. 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. UPHD is the biggest union for Uber drivers in the UK and has been doing just this for years, organising strikes and protests with thousands of drivers taking part, and we will continue to do so until Uber sits down and listens to the concerns of their drivers.”

While not as irreconcilable as the IWGB are towards the deal, James Fararr, General Secretary of the App Drivers and Couriers Union(ADCU) has his own criticisms of the agreement. Created following a split in the IWGB union in 2020, the ADCU welcomed GMB’s recognition agreement saying “Overall, this is a step in the right direction, but there are significant obstacles in the way of ADCU reaching a similar agreement.” 

Farrar expands on this, adding that “the ADCU couldn’t sign up to a similar deal because it would mean we accepted negotiating to minimums, not from minimums.” The minimums Farrar mentions are what was ruled on in the Supreme Court victory that classified Uber drivers as “workers”, entitling them to minimum wage, holiday pay and pensions. Uber’s interpretation of how that minimum wage is paid is that drivers are only entitled to it “after accepting a trip request.” This means drivers would only be entitled to a minimum wage while on a fare, rather than when they’re logged into the app. This has become a sharp dividing line between the ADCU and Uber.

To Farrar, continuing to use legal challenges as a tool against Uber that should not be ruled out, he explains: “Winning a unanimous verdict on the Supreme Court case proves that it’s not a problem of employment law struggling to catch up with the speed of change in the jobs market, just Uber selectively interpreting rulings that go against them.”

GMB seem to believe the new relationship they have forged via their recognition agreement represents a more productive avenue for future victories for their members than via the courts. Even despite the fact GMB have previously fought and won big against Uber, as seen in February’s Supreme Court victory. Rix explains “We get there is an issue around the Supreme Court ruling and around [working] time, we’re not in agreement with Uber about that. The agreement is about giving members a voice… It shouldn’t be down to the courts to rule on this, there is an absence of key legislation around these issues.”

Rix is pointed in his criticism of those that would decry the deal as a sweetheart agreement. “If people have made comments in some respects, saying ‘it’s a sweetheart agreement’, I smile at that because we must have tens of thousands of agreements with companies like other trade unions. We must all have ‘sweetheart agreements’, the essence is having a relationship”

The philosophical differences between GMB and the ADCU are clear. Where GMB believe giving members a voice is paramount and the problem chiefly lies in gaps in legislation, the ADCU believe the problem lies solely with Uber. As Farrar explains:

“Uber might think they’ve shot the fox with this deal and if that’s how they are thinking, they’re misguided. This isn’t really about inter union politics and institution building. It’s about solving problems for workers. As long as there are problems to solve there is energy in organising and right now the ADCU is more energetic than ever before. Uber needs to stop spinning this and start addressing the problems workers have or the recognition agreement will be worth little to Uber, the GMB or the workforce.”

Both Rix and Farrar say June was a great month in terms of recruiting new members and both say they are open to the possibility of working together in the future. However, the strength of the GMB deal will eventually be tested. This could come about if Uber prevails in winning declaratory relief from the high court that their business model is in fact compliant with TfL regulations. GMB believes that their deal makes it easier to build on the hard won court victories that have thus far secured drivers “worker” status, entitling drivers to minimum wage, holiday pay and pensions.

In a landscape where private sector trade union membership is in decline, the different approaches of both unions are not necessarily in opposition – and against a much more powerful and shrewd opponent, both unions are attempting to get the best deal for their members. 

Time will tell if GMB’s deal can really work, Uber is still pursuing a global strategy of giving with one hand and taking with the other, as seen with Proposition 22. Giving GMB members a voice within the company will only work if Uber is willing to change and act, not just listen.

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