One year on from the Uber-GMB deal, Uber has again hit the headlines via the Uber Files, they detail Uber’s law breaking, clandestine government lobbying, and unethical business practices. The recognition agreement between Uber and GMB, signed last year gave GMB access to drivers’ “Greenlight hubs” – where every new Uber driver must go to have their picture taken and activate their account. It also offered GMB the ability to represent drivers if they lose access to the app (and in sickness or disciplinary meetings), and entitles GMB to quarterly meetings with Uber to discuss drivers issues and concerns. 

Mick Rix, National Officer for the GMB union (speaking before the publication of the Uber Files) struck a diplomatic tone on the question of whether or not the company had changed in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling that saw Uber drivers attain “worker” status and subsequent recognition agreement with GMB last year:

I would say they are changing, at the end of the day, they are a company that’s in business to make money. We’re a conscience of the workforce, we’re trying to articulate drivers’ feelings to the company and get them to take into account the issues that drivers are raising – that sometimes they’re making drivers jobs more difficult – like with suspensions and deactivations. Uber has taken people on who look at these complaints and we’ve managed to forward drivers names from the past who were deactivated but have actually got good records and we’ve got them reinstated. Where there’s areas of good collaboration, I think the company is listening more and putting those changes in place. That doesn’t mean to say that we agree on everything because obviously we don’t sometimes – we have different agendas – but it’s how we handle those disagreements, how do we handle those areas where there is agreement, and how do we get those [reforms] implemented as quickly as possible. 

James Farrar, General Secretary of the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU) who went on strike in response to the Uber files, had a different perspective saying:

One year on I would say, well, Uber still has not complied with the court ruling to pay working time, from log on to log off, so we’re still missing a big chunk of our working time. And also, in setting a baseline of costs in order to calculate the minimum wage, Uber took it upon itself to set that at 45p a mile – the HMRC rate – we don’t agree with that. But even if it was agreeable a year ago, well it’s worth 40% less today because of fuel prices – there’s been no adjustment, nothing. 

James Vail, Head of Communications for the IWGB was equally critical, saying:

Uber drivers are particularly vulnerable to inflationary pressures, such as the rising cost of fuel. With the crisis hitting an all time high, the GMB deal has done nothing to improve pay.

How much Uber has changed remains to be seen, Uber defended itself from the charges laid out in the Uber Files saying:

We’ve moved from an era of confrontation to one of collaboration, demonstrating a willingness to come to the table and find common ground with our former opponents…In the UK, Uber is the only platform that treats drivers as ‘workers’, with a guaranteed national living wage, holiday pay, and pension

Omitted from this defence is the fact that these benefits were not simply handed down from above by Uber, but resisted all the way to the Supreme Court, who ruled against Uber in granting them. Uber’s own white paper, titled ‘A Better Deal’ of February last year (and published just before the Supreme Court ruling) stated that “Pushing people towards traditional employment models is not the answer.” When precisely this apparent change in Uber’s outlook actually occurred is unclear, but their claims to have changed on the basis of a Supreme Court ruling that went against them (and which they selectively implemented) is much like listing court-ordered community service on a CV as “volunteering”.

In an era of consistent private sector trade union membership decline, the gig economy has long seemed like an insurmountable frontier without significant intervention via government legislation. Membership density across all unions has remained low, relative to the number of workers in the gig economy, unions like the ADCU, IWGB, and GMB have attempted to buck this trend. The IWGB were adamant that the Uber-GMB deal has not affected their organising efforts in the year since it was struck, with the IWGB’s Vail saying:

The GMB deal was designed by Uber bosses to confuse drivers as to what union to join and stifle our organising. Rather than an agreement that will benefit the workers and give them power in the workplace, it appears to be another PR move by Uber to give the impression they are engaging with workers while they are just as exploitative as ever. Despite this, we haven’t seen any change in our organisation progress; we remain committed to being a worker-led union and organising at the grassroots level and have still seen a steady increase in membership since the deal. New leaders are coming through the ranks to lead campaigns and inspire others.

Farrar said that rather than the GMB deal making organising harder, a boom in the industry has meant substantial growth in membership for the ADCU:

Transport for London have been, in a way, one of our biggest recruitment sergeants, because when a driver is deactivated or dismissed it’s required that that is reported to TfL, and those numbers have skyrocketed in the last few years – in 2018 it was about 390, say there’s 100,000 drivers in London, say about 60,000 are working at any one time – in 2020 that had gone up to 4,500, in 2021 it was 10,600. It just exploded, TfL is doing fitness reviews on these guys, they come to us and we do the casework. And as a result of the way we do it, we’ve won some real changes. For example, we got TfL to stop automatically revoking drivers based on surveillance data bullshit from Uber, and we’ve got TfL drilling into Uber for more data and more investigations than they ever did before. So that servicing works, and the truth of it is you do one of those cases you get 10 members off the back of it.

Rix was keen to trumpet the benefits available to GMB members by the deal, the GMB’s campaigning, and praised the neutrality of Uber towards GMB’s organising efforts:

We’ve represented in excess of 500 drivers that were either suspended or deactivated from the Uber app, because of our representations around 92% of those drivers have been restored to working on the app, and are earning money, whereas before they had no representation at all, so I think from an in-work security angle – in a very precarious sector – we’ve added a lot more in-work security to Uber drivers. We’ve also pushed around areas on pension reform, pensions to be brought in for drivers – that’s a contributory scheme from the employer. Plus, because of our wins, we’ve also seen Uber drivers have received around a 12.04% increase [in pay] because of the holiday pay that’s in place, and of course the protections around the living wage that we’ve put in place have created benefits as well for drivers. We’re raising the issue of excess inflation that’s causing pressures for drivers – we’re meeting with the company on that. We’re also meeting on a zero tolerance campaign – to be jointly entered into… To say that thousands of drivers have joined the union is an understatement, Uber has made it quite clear that they recognise us. Their communications have actually been quite good. Very neutral, basically saying we recognise the GMB…they even point drivers in our direction. And where drivers are having trouble on certain things, the personnel that are in the Greenlight Hubs are saying “Get a hold of your GMB rep, they may be able to do something about this.” There’s a lot of good stuff going on, no animosity, the relationship on the ground seems fairly positive. 

The Uber Files laid bare the illegal and unethical behaviour of Uber, but were not exactly a surprise for anyone with even a remote understanding of the gig economy. What Uber gets out of the GMB deal is clear; having got their feet in the doors of national economies via predatory, nefarious, and often illegal means, sanitising their image is important. 

GMB were recently criticised for running an advertorial in the New Statesman in association with Uber, but GMB’s position has remained consistent since they struck the deal, banking on their more congenial approach yielding more drivers signing up and a greater chance of negotiating benefits on behalf of their members than continuing to pursue Uber in the courts. GMB will not just be judged on their deal with Uber, but their recently signed agreement with Deliveroo (which will be covered in greater detail in the second part of this report). Both represent a concerted strategy on the part of GMB to gain a foothold in the gig economy and buck the trend of declining private sector union membership.

Despite their protestations, Uber is still following the same international strategy of giving with one hand and taking with the other, trumpeting their drivers’ worker status in the UK as proof of their change of ways since 2017, while fighting tooth and nail in the courts to resist such a change being imposed on them in other countries. Uber does not seem like a company that has changed their predatory ways, merely one that’s becoming more and more adept at looking less “f—ing illegal”.

Part two of this report covers GMB’s recently announced recognition agreement with Deliveroo and can be found here.

Ciaran McGurdy’s 2021 report on the GMB-Uber deal can be found here.