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Uber Drivers Can't Unionize, So Some Are Joining "Self-Help" Association "Uber ALLES"

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Veteran union organizers in New York City are launching a so-called "solidarity organization" for NYC Uber drivers this weekend, making the case that a united front will help drivers fight for higher compensation, even though they don't have the legal right to unionize or collectively bargain. The push comes more than two months after Uber, which was recently valued at $62.5 billion, reduced trip fares by 15% city-wide. Full-time drivers on the platform responded by launching a series of brief strikes, demanding a rollback of the fare cut and the option for Uber passengers to tip.

The new association, which organizers say has amassed 1,000 drivers as of this writing, will be called Amalgamated Local Livery Drivers in Solidarity, or ALLES. Organizer Kevin Lynch explains the acronym references a line from the German national anthem—translated into English, "uber alles" means "over all."

"We feel we're the 'all,' and we're going to be over Uber eventually," Lynch said.

Uber drivers in New York City and across the country are classified as independent contractors rather than employees, meaning the startup has no obligation to bargain with them. Speaking with us on Friday, organizer Kevin Lynch explained that his first goal is to rally as many drivers as possible. "It won't be a union, but it could be a self-help organization," he said. "If we band together we can keep them [the drivers] from getting picked on, and get the City and State to regulate them."

How ALLES will go about achieving this goal is less certain. A settlement reached last week between Uber and its drivers in California and Massachusetts denied employee status in those states, but awarded up to $100 million to the plaintiffs. In a statement on the settlement, Uber also agreed to fund "drivers associations" in both states, to meet quarterly with the company and discuss "issues that matter most to drivers."

Lynch, who helped organize New York livery drivers in the 1990s, said that the association aspect of the agreement was encouraging. "There is a strength when you bring thousands of people together," Lynch said. "In the absence of employee status in California, Uber has agreed to negotiate with an association out there."

ALLES is also hoping to build solidarity with Uber riders, who, the organizers argue, are by-and-large young, part-time or freelance workers. "Drivers say that an awful lot of people they pick up are in a similar situation, are part of this gig economy," Lynch said. "So a lot of these passengers have the same sense of being ripped off." He declined to comment on how, specifically, drivers and riders would band together.

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Uber drivers striking in February (Max Rivlin-Nadler / Gothamist)

Bhairavi Desai, founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, countered on Friday that anything short of full employee status and the right to organize as a traditional union would only hurt the drivers in the long run. "Uber saying that it will recognize Uber associations is just good old company unionism, which builds no power for the workers," she said. "We're not looking to legitimize that model when we think a real union can be built."

The Taxi Workers Alliance, which helped organize rallies in NYC after Uber cut fare in February says that it currently represents about 5,000 Uber drivers. Desai said it is planning more actions for the next few months, but could not confirm if the Alliance was in talks with any union locals in New York City.

To date, Seattle is the only city in the US where Uber and Lyft drivers have been awarded bargaining rights, albeit as independent contractors rather than employees. Desai argued that the victory was partial, because these drivers still lack the basic employee protections mandated by the federal government, like the right to a minimum wage. "Employee status gives you the protections of labor laws, which are the floor that you stand on," she said. "Collective bargaining helps you raise the ceiling. When you walk in to negotiate wages without even a minimum wage, the floor is lowered."

A longtime Uber driver who spoke with us on the condition of anonymity said on Friday that the organizing efforts among the driver community have been hectic recently. "It'll make your head spin quick," he said. "Everybody is trying to organize but nobody is really supporting anything. There are so many organizations."

ALLES will officially launch this Sunday at noon, during a press conference at Studio Vendome on Spring Street.

Uber said in a statement that it "allows drivers to control where and when they work, earning money on their own terms," adding that, "of course there's always more we can do—and we are always happy to talk with drivers about what they'd like to see next."

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