Toronto

300 GTA Uber Black drivers unionize as city mulls regulatory overhaul

Some 300 drivers working with Uber's top-tier service will now be represented by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), a private sector union with 250,000 members across a broad spectrum of Canadian industries.

'Uber has to understand that they are the employer and we are the workers,' says one driver

Uber has always maintained that its drivers are independent contractors, not employees of the company. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Hundreds of Uber Black drivers in the Greater Toronto Area have unionized as they push for the ride-hailing giant to address a laundry list of concerns, including unfair labour practices and apathetic management.

Some 300 drivers working with Uber's top-tier service will now be represented by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), a private sector union with 250,000 members across a broad spectrum of Canadian industries.

The move comes as city council prepares to overhaul by-laws for private transportation companies, including ride-hailing services and the taxi industry. 

"Uber has to understand that they are the employer and we are the workers," said Ejaz Butt, an Uber Black driver who has helped organize the union push.

"Without the drivers, Uber is nothing," he told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Wednesday. 

A lack of respect, poor communication, inequity of the app's driver rating system and unsafe working conditions are among the complaints the unionized drivers hope Uber will address.

"We work hard and they never listen, even to one request," Butt continued.  

Drivers feel ignored

Pablo Godoy, national co-ordinator for gig and platform-based initiatives at UFCW, said the union hopes to bring Uber management to the table to "discuss these issues ... given that, individually, many of the drivers that have come to us don't feel like they're being listened to."

Despite unionization drives in other North American cities, Uber has consistently argued that they are a technology company and that drivers are independent contractors, not employees.

As of June 1, there were about 90,435 ride-hailing drivers operating in Toronto alone, according to city staff, though many drivers are on the road only on an occasional basis. That figure is split between Uber and Lyft — the two major players — and a number of smaller entities.

Uber Black drivers have professional training and generally come from the limousine service sector. They make up a relatively small percentage of total Uber drivers.

Meanwhile, the number of drivers who have joined UFCW represents 0.003 per cent of all ride-hailing operators in Toronto.

Godoy said that despite that figure, those members will have the full force of the union behind them. It will work to make sure drivers' concerns are heard.

Without the drivers, Uber is nothing.- Ejaz Butt, Uber Black driver

"We are here to listen to those stories; to make sure we are pushing for legislation that actually starts to regulate these industries where we know there is an absence of legislation and regulations," he told Metro Morning.

"We think that a company like Uber that prides itself on being an ethical company and being socially conscious and aware would at the very least be interested in hearing these concerns and coming to the table to speak with us."

Trouble making ends meet

At a news conference later Wednesday, Godoy said that he's heard accounts of drivers working more than 100 hours per week to survive. Many, he continued, end up earning less than minimum wage on average.

They also don't get paid sick days or extended health coverage, and are required to cover their own fuel and repair costs. 

Further, drivers often feel coerced into unsafe and even illegal manoeuvres on the road — such as U-turns or picking up and dropping off passengers in dangerous traffic zones — out of fear that they will receive a low rating from clients, he added.

Uber also has the right to deactivate a driver's account without any meaningful hearing process or advanced knowledge, Godoy said.

"That's leaving workers without the ability to make ends meet," he continued.

CBC Toronto reached out to Uber for comment but had not heard back at the time of publication.

Rules for ride-share and taxi drivers have recently come under the microscope in Toronto. Public consultations on vehicle-for-hire by-laws began in early March.

On Monday, council's general government and licensing committee voted to have city staff do more research on a number of contentious issues, such as the feasibility of implementing third-party safety training; capping the number of ride-share drivers and examining the industry's impact on traffic congestion. 

Staff are expected to report back directly to city council in mid-July.

With files from Metro Morning

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