The Canadian Union of Postal Workers has accused Uber Canada Inc. of violating Ontario’s labour laws in a controversial deal it struck earlier this year with another union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW Canada), in which the parties concluded an exclusive agreement with each other about the rights of Uber workers.
On Thursday, CUPW filed an unfair labour practice complaint at the Ontario Labour Relations Board against the ride hailing giant, arguing its agreement with UFCW was “done in secret and without worker input,” hence violating labour laws that prohibit an employer from favouring one union over another.
“We are supposed to have free and fair democratic choice. Uber influencing or foreclosing on that choice is wrong, and in Ontario it’s illegal,” said Jan Simpson, CUPW’s national president, in a statement.
In an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, Uber spokesperson Keerthana Rang said the company did not contravene Ontario’s Labour Relations Act, and it was CUPW that chose to not support all the terms of the UFCW-Uber deal when it was being crafted earlier this year.
In January, Uber and UFCW struck an agreement that gave the union the right to represent Uber’s 100,000-odd Canadian drivers and delivery couriers in job-related disputes, such as appeals of deactivations of their Uber accounts.
While Uber and UFCW have long argued the deal protects gig workers’ ability to work on their own schedules, unions such as Gig Workers United (a community-based union that has a labour partnership with CUPW) say the deal does not fundamentally pave the way for better labour standards because it does nothing to change Uber workers’ employment classification.
In Ontario and in the rest of Canada, gig workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers are independent contractors, meaning they are not entitled to benefits that come with being employees, such as a minimum wage for all hours worked, paid sick days and unemployment insurance.
In CUPW’s complaint, obtained by The Globe, the union claims Uber provided UFCW with a list of e-mail addresses and contact information of drivers and couriers on the Uber and Uber Eats platform so UFCW could communicate directly with workers.
On Aug. 19 this year, CUPW said it wrote Uber, asking for the same treatment and access to information about Uber’s workforce that was provided to UFCW as part of the deal. In that letter, CUPW warned Uber it was violating the Labour Relations Act by providing preferential treatment to UFCW.
According to the complaint, Uber responded to the letter on Sept. 13, but did not comply with CUPW’s request for that information.
Ms. Rang told The Globe that Uber did not provide lists of names or contact information for drivers and couriers to UFCW. The union, she said, does send out quarterly updates to Uber workers through Uber’s own communication channels about its progress in representing workers in disputes.
The complaint also states that on a number of occasions, Uber workers approached members of CUPW in apparent confusion about which union represents them and what effect the deal with UFCW had on CUPW’s ability to represent them as well.
When the deal was announced in January, Uber and UFCW both hailed it as a “historic step towards achieving common ground” on the issue of the employment status of gig workers. Indeed, hundreds of pages of e-mails and reports obtained by The Globe through freedom-of-information requests earlier this year showed UFCW had a strong alliance with Uber, even jointly pressing the Ontario government to exclude gig workers from being covered by the province’s Employment Standards Act.
“Employment rights aren’t à la carte, and neither is union membership,” said Jennifer Scott, president of Gig Workers United and an Uber Eats courier herself. “Workers should define and decide what their union looks like and democratically elect their leaders – not the bosses.”
David Doorey, a professor of labour law at York University told The Globe that, “on its face, it looked like Uber gave UFCW special access rights to drivers that it did not also offer to other unions.”
Prof. Doorey says determining whether the deal violates the Labour Relations Act will ultimately rest on the facts, but the law clearly states that an employer cannot give preferential treatment to one union over others when multiple unions are active in organizing the employer’s workers.
“Uber drivers would certainly believe that Uber preferred to deal with UFCW given that the deal explicitly assigns representation rights to UFCW,” he added.