On January 27, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and Uber made a surprise announcement. The largest private sector union in the country and the ride-hailing app had struck a deal granting over 100,000 workers access to representation while preserving “the flexibility of their work.”
Close inspection of the agreement reveals that the deal is not the victory for workers that it initially appeared to be. It is a victory for Uber and other platform apps. Under the agreement, Uber drivers will not actually become UFCW members; they will simply be able to access some representation in the case of disputes about pay and deactivation. Uber drivers will have no say in electing their representation. This violates the commitment to democracy fundamental to all trade unionism.
Uber Canada and UFCW also agreed to “press provincial governments to enact reforms that provide new benefits and preserve worker choice on when, where, and if to work.” Choice here is, of course, a euphemism for the special brand of casualization that Uber has excelled at marketing as freedom. Most recently, the company has created the term Flexible Work+ for its new regime of precarious employment.
It seems likely that this agreement is, in fact, simply a Trojan horse by which the company will seek to smuggle its gig work model into provincial legislatures. If this is the case, then we should strongly oppose the deal. Uber’s deceptively named labor plan grants flexibility only to bosses — weakening the bargaining position of workers in the process.
A Raw Deal
After Uber’s success in helping to pass Proposition 22 in California, a law that allowed app-based companies to classify their employees as independent contractors, it was only a matter of time before similar initiatives migrated north of the border. What Uber has called Flexible Work+ is a scam that seeks to permanently create a new classification for gig workers. If implemented, it would undermine real union organizing.
In 2020, Ontario’s labor relations board declared Foodora couriers to be dependent contractors. This classification meant that the so-called gig-workers employed by companies like Uber are entitled to the same rights as employees. Flexible Work+, however, would keep gig workers outside the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). Theoretically, Uber could replace CPP access with funds that workers would have the option of directing to private savings plans that would replace supplementary insurance for treatment not covered by Canadian Medicare, allowing the funds to be used for things like dental care.
Unsurprisingly, Flexible Work+ is very popular with Canada’s Conservative Party. Ontario premier Doug Ford’s handpicked Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee suggested changes to labor law that have many similarities with Uber’s proposals. During the last federal election, ex–Conservative leader Erin O’Toole hired a former Uber lobbyist to be his director of policy. His platform included a proposal for gig workers that was “carbon copied” from Uber’s proposals.
Back in March 2021, UFCW Canada president Paul Meinema described Flexible Work+ as a “cynical ploy” by Uber to “avoid any meaningful conversation in regards to their employees’ rights to collective bargaining.” Until the full details of the agreement are released, it remains to be seen just how far UFCW has reversed its position on this matter.
Of Benefit to Bosses
Thus far, the details of the agreement are unclear. However, labor law professor David Doorey has observed that if Uber is paying the union for representation of drivers, then the deal would violate laws against companies providing funding to organized labor.
Of equally dubious legal standing is the fact that, should an actual organizing drive occur, the agreement seems to give preferential treatment to UFCW. Companies, however, are legally prohibited from clearly favoring a certain union over another. Again, the full agreement will have to be made public before observers will be able to ascertain its legality.
Similar agreements reached in the United States have not have delivered appreciable benefits to gig workers. For example, in New York City, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) collaborated with Uber to create the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG).
Labor law professor Veena Dubal has pointed out that workers do not elect the leadership of organizations like the IDG. By happy happenstance for employers, these kinds of company-created labor organizations often emerge during upsurges of independent organizing by gig workers. The result is that agreements of this kind act as a curb on real organizing.
Since its founding, the IDG has faced questions from activists about its autonomy. The guild’s attempts to attain a minimum wage for workers took two years, and, in the end, Uber still found ways to skirt the wage change. The guild has similarly been unable to gain any leverage in the fight against unfair deactivations. Finally, the IDG has thrown its support behind proposed New York legislation — the Right to Bargain Act — that will not extend full employee status and protections to gig workers.
The UFCW agreement is already triggering divisions in the labor movement. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), the country’s most radical union, was already in the process of trying to organize Uber drivers and other precarious workers through its Gig Workers United initiative. CUPW has released a statement that is critical of the agreement and has vowed to continue their organizing efforts.
Canada Needs Militant Private Sector Unionism
The UFCW agreement illustrates the weakness of Canada’s private sector labor movement. While the North American nation’s union density of almost 30 percent is often favorably compared to that of the United States, the reality is that this figure is skewed by the public sector’s robust 75 percent unionization rate. While Canada’s private sector union density, at about 15 percent, is not as dire as it is in the United States (where it hovers at about 6 percent), it has still been on a slow but steady decline since the turn of the century.
This decline has led some unions to adopt questionable strategies. In 2007, when it was still known as the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), Unifor, which represents assembly line workers, entered into an agreement that looks a lot like the UFCW and Uber deal. That agreement, known as the “Framework for Fairness,” caused infighting within the CAW and the broader labor movement. Workers covered by the deal had little democratic input in negotiations and lost the right to strike. The CAW, which in the 1980s and ’90s received attention for its social justice unionism and no-concessions bargaining principles, retreated into neoliberal corporatism.
These types of agreements are just a symptom of what really ails private sector unionism in Canada. The main issue is a lack of militancy, evinced in the growing trend of Canadian unions relying on the courts to settle labor disputes. In the early 1980s, during the drafting of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, unions opposed including labor rights because they did not trust that judicial interpretation would work in their favor.
As subsequent neoliberal provincial and federal governments passed anti-union laws, organized labor has increasingly turned to the courts to save them. This is partially because the Supreme Court of Canada became increasingly progressive in the 2000s. In 2015, it even recognized the right to strike. But even a progressive Supreme Court has not halted the decline in private sector union density.
The UFCW and Uber agreement should be met with scorn by the labor movement. To win victories in the workplace again, Canadian unions have to reject deals with employers that do not lead to actual unionization. We must build fighting memberships that have the power to make employers and legislators comes to the bargaining table. That will require education, outreach, and deep organizing — not quick fixes.