News & Commentary

March 17, 2021

Marina Multhaup

Marina Multhaup is a student at Harvard Law School and a member of the Labor and Employment Lab.

After a major legal defeat in Britain, Uber announced it will reclassify more than 70,000 UK drivers as “workers,” which will entitle the drivers to minimum wage, vacation pay and a pension plan. In February 2021 the British Supreme Court ruled that Uber behaved more like an employer than a “technology company” because it assigned rates, assigned rides, assigned a rating system, and required drivers to follow certain routes and rules. Thus, the Court said, Uber drivers were not simply independent contractors and were entitled to more protections. The decision only directly affected the 25 drivers who brought the case, and activists were unsure how Uber would react to the court case.

Uber’s announcement that it would reclassify all 70,000 UK Uber drivers as workers came as somewhat of a surprise to those used to Uber using every tactic available to avoid extending benefits to their drivers. The answer could be in Britain’s labor laws. In the UK there are three classifications of employment: independent contractor, worker, and employee. Classifying drivers as workers represents a middle path, where drivers would be entitled to minimum wage and vacation benefits but not to the protections that come with employee status like paternity and maternity leave and severance pay. Uber itself said, in relation to the court decision, that the middle-level “worker” designation “provides a clearer path forward as to a model that gives drivers the rights of worker status – while continuing to let them work flexibly…” No such middle-level classification exists in the US, though some have proposed its creation.

However, a new legal battle is already shaping up between Uber UK and drivers. In response to the court-mandated minimum wage that Uber now must pay, Uber decided that it would pay its drivers minimum wage only when they are actually transporting a customer, not when they are waiting for someone to request a ride. The APP Drivers and Couriers Union pushed back against this, saying that Uber does not get to unilaterally decide how to calculate the minimum wage, and said that this arrangement will still lead to drivers getting underpaid and “shortchanged.”

Rachel Cohen for the Intercept broke the story today that the NLRB found that Amazon had retaliated against Chicago warehouse workers following COVID-19 protests. Amazonians United Chicagoland is a group of workers who started organizing themselves in April of 2019. Their first issue was demanding that clean water be made available to them in the warehouse. They then took up issues of air conditioning, health insurance, wage increases, and paid time off—which they won. By choice they are not affiliated with any official union. In April of 2020 AUC started organizing workers to protect themselves against COVID-19 in the face of colossal neglect by Amazon. They launched a series of safety strikes to demand PPE for all workers, which roughly 70 workers participated in. The workers demanded that their warehouse be shut down for two weeks, cleaned, that their medical bills be covered by Amazon, and that Amazon pause process of nonessential items. In response, Amazon started issuing disciplinary write-ups to workers under the guise of social distancing violations. The workers filed a charge with the Chicago NLRB alleging five ULPs. The NLRB told workers in late February that it found merits to the workers’ claims and last week informed workers that Amazon wanted to settle and was working with the NLRB to clarify an agreement. As no final agreement has been reached the NLRB has not commented on the case yet. Shantrece Johnson, one of the workers who filed the charge, said that the decision was a “major victory.”

Lastly a bit of news from Bessemer. Huffington Post labor reporter Dave Jamieson recently spent three days in Bessemer and shared some of his observations about the organizing drive. In addition to general observations from organizers about the ups and downs of the campaign, Jamieson highlighted how the unusually long election period has been affecting things on the ground, including a fascinating observation that some workers have been changing their minds about the union, and then asking to change their vote. The circumstances of the election (seven weeks long with mail-in ballots only) are unusual for NLRB elections. The circumstances are pandemic-related responses and the result of legal battles between Amazon, the NLRB, and the RWDSU. Amazon had pushed hard for in-person elections, which are the usual course of action, but the regional direction of the NLRB office in Atlanta ruled that the mail-in election option was the safest. The NLRB established mail-in voting guidelines last November with six factors related to corona that have to be present to justify a mail-in election.  Jamieson, reporting from Bessemer, heard repeatedly that the unusually long election period was having a surprising effect: workers who submitted their ballots early against the union were having regrets about their decision, especially after the organizing drive started gaining community and national attention and support. Union organizers are telling these workers to request another ballot from the NLRB, anticipating that no matter what, the election results will be delayed due to ballot challenges on both sides, and that the NLRB will have to figure out how to deal with workers who changed their minds mid-way through an election. Jamieson says that if these stories about voter regret are true, it represents good and bad for the union: good that their message is breaking through, bad because with such a long election many people already cast their ballot.  

Daily News & Commentary

Start your day with our roundup of the latest labor developments. See all

Enjoy OnLabor’s fresh takes on the day’s labor news, right in your inbox.