Union takes Uber to Ontario labour relations board

by Tara Deschamps THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) is taking its criticism of Uber Technologies Inc.’s worker practices to the Ontario Labour Relations Board, where it filed a complaint related to an agreement the ride-hailing giant signed with a rival union.

The unfair labour practices complaint Thursday accuses the company of violating the Labour Relations Act, when it signed an agreement with the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW Canada) in January.

The agreement allows the union to provide representation to about 100,000 Canadian drivers and couriers, if requested by the workers facing account deactivations and other disputes with Uber, but does not unionize them. Uber and UFCW jointly cover the costs of representation with no fees charged to workers.

CUPW claims the agreement was formed without worker input and that Uber used its app and email list to promote the agreement to drivers and couriers.

“Our labour laws prohibit an employer from favouring one union over another while workers are organizing,” Jan Simpson, CUPW’s national president, said in a news release.

“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.”

But Uber spokesperson Keerthana Rang maintained that the company is not in contravention of the Labour Relations Act and does not provide lists of names or contact information for drivers and delivery people to UFCW Canada.

“We came together with UFCW Canada to find common ground and blaze a new trail towards a better future for app-based workers,” she said in an email.

She argued the deal gives drivers and couriers what they want – flexibility, a voice and benefits – and noted that 85 percent of them supported the deal.

UFCW Canada, which represents at least 250,000 workers at companies including Maple Leaf Foods Inc., Loblaw Companies Ltd. and Molson Coors Beverage Co., did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Uber drivers and couriers are considered to be independent contractors because they can choose when, where and how often they work, but in exchange, they have no job security, vacation pay or other benefits.

When the deal was signed, UFCW Canada and Uber agreed to work to encourage provinces to mandate policies providing gig workers with new benefits and other rights.

A video announcing the agreement showed Paul Meinema, UFCW Canada’s national president, outlining that the two entities would jointly advocate for “industry-wide legislative standards like minimum wage guarantees, a benefits fund, a path to organizing, and other rights for workers in the app-based sector.”

Since then, CUPW has not expressed interest in this part of the agreement, Rang said.

Her company has been pitching provinces on a model called Flexible Work+, which would force app-based companies to create a self-directed benefit fund to disperse to workers for prescriptions, dental and vision care, RRSPs or tuition.

Workers said the model won’t offer all the protections they desire and accused Uber of using the pitch to avoid treating drivers and couriers as employees.

Rang said through the agreement with UFCW Canada, it is now focused on pushing for a minimum earnings standard equivalent to at least 120 per cent of minimum wage during engaged time, a benefits fund that scales based on time spent on platforms, notice of account termination, accident coverage and access to workers’ rights.

Among Uber’s biggest critics is Gig Workers United, a group fighting for more rights and benefits, for app-based workers to be classified as employees rather than independent contractors and for them to be able to unionize.

“Employment rights aren’t a la carte, and neither is union membership,” said Jennifer Scott, Gig Workers United’s president, in the same release as Simpson.

“We’ve been on the ground organizing, talking to people _ worker to worker _ and what workers want is to be recognized as employees. We want and deserve full and equal rights and the boss doesn’t get to pick and choose which rights we’re entitled to.”

CUPW’s complaint comes as Uber faces pressure in several countries to recognize couriers and drivers as employees and to, at least, better compensate and give them more rights, especially as the pandemic is quelled.

“There are still a lot of issues that come up on a daily basis between the drivers and between Uber and what seems clear to me… is that they want to, generally speaking, be recognized as employees,” said Samfiru Tumarkin lawyer Samara Belitzky.

She is representing Uber Eats courier David Heller in a class action arguing those working for Uber should be entitled to minimum wage, vacation pay and other protections because they meet the definition of employees under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act.