Global front rising up against Uber through the courts and trade unions

Be it in San Francisco or Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro or Paris, Santiago de Chile or Hong Kong, no matter where Uber has been introduced, taxi drivers have responded with protests and, in some cases, legal action. The problem is that the mobile app connecting customers with private drivers, total amateurs in some cases, competes directly with professional taxis, but circumvents all the rules in terms of pay, social security contributions and training.

The legal or political authorities in several cities and countries have decided to place a total or partial ban on Uber services. At the end of 2016, the Brazilian metropolis Rio de Janeiro, for example, passed a law prohibiting all transport platforms of this kind. In the Belgian capital, Brussels, it was the justice system that banned UberPop, the app connecting private drivers with passengers. In France, the UberPop case went all the way to the Constitutional Court, which confirmed, in September 2015, the decision to prohibit the service that had been introduced into the country a year earlier. In Italy, UberPop was banned in 2015. The Italian justice system also banned all of the firm’s other driver services in April 2017, following a complaint filed by Italian taxi drivers.

“But Uber has appealed the decision, so it can’t be implemented as yet. It’s on hold,” Mac Utara, inland transport secretary at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), tells Equal Times.

The Federation has recorded legal proceedings or bans against Uber in 49 countries across the globe. Legal action does not always, however, lead to a straightforward ban, and it is often a long, drawn-out process.

“Governments, taxi drivers and taxi firms in many countries are taking a stand against Uber. Uber often loses legal battles. And in some instances the court decisions are strictly implemented,” explains Mac Utara. “It’s a good thing. But it’s even better when actual laws are passed to counter Uber.”

This was the case in Denmark and Bulgaria. Denmark adopted a new law on taxis in March 2017, under which all vehicles wishing to offer transport services must be equipped with security cameras and taximeters. “This effectively excludes Uber drivers who use their own vehicles,” underlines Mac Utara.

When this new regulation was adopted, Uber announced the decision to withdraw its service from Denmark. Bulgaria also passed a special law in October 2015 that led Uber to pull out of the country. The legislation stipulates that only registered companies respecting the regulations governing taxis are allowed to operate in the country.

In Germany, a group of taxi firms filed legal action against Uber as soon as it began operating in the country, in 2014. Two years went by before the German justice system finally, on appeal, banned private drivers from using the application. Since then, only professional taxis can use UberPop to connect with their customers.

“In addition to this court ruling, a number of German cities decided to ban Uber on the basis that its services do not comply with the rules applicable to transport firms. Uber has not opposed these bans,” adds Mira Ball, head of the transport section of the German services trade union federation Verdi (Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft).

“But it is important to make a clear distinction between UberPop and other Uber services,” says Herwig Kollar, the lawyer defending German taxis in this legal battle. “UberBlack and UberX services are still operating in Germany, in Berlin and Munich.”

UberBlack is a chauffeur-driven luxury car hire service and UberX a driver service. “And the legal dispute with Uber is still underway. The company contested the ruling, delivered on appeal, banning its service. The procedure has gone all the way to the German federal court, which is awaiting a decision from the Court of Justice of the European Union before issuing its ruling.”

The EU’s highest court has, in fact, been called on by an association of Spanish taxi drivers to decide whether Uber should be classed as a transport service or simply an online platform, as claimed by the California-based company.

On 11 May, the court’s advocate-general published recommendations on the case. They are clear: Uber should be considered as a transport service. And as such, the company can be compelled to respect the licensing and authorisation obligations applicable to transport companies in the various countries of the European Union.

“In 80 per cent of cases, the Court of Justice of the European Union follows the recommendations of the advocate-general,” says Mac Utara.

Uber drivers organise

In addition to the legal battles led by various authorities and taxi drivers, Uber is being fought on another front, by Uber drivers themselves, who are starting to organise to secure better pay and working conditions.

“Since Uber lowered its rates, it has become impossible to make ends meet, even working a 12 or 14 hour day,” says Félix, who has been an Uber driver for two years and is a member of the French VTC (chauffer-driven vehicles) association Actif-VTC.

“After UberPop was banned in France, Uber lowered its rates, arguing that customers had been lost because of the ban and that lower prices were needed to win them back. The other VTC platforms followed suit. Uber also started to take bigger commissions. It was already a tough job two years ago. Now, it’s a disaster.”

In January, the various organisations representing Uber drivers in France initiated negotiations with the company. To no avail. “Uber wasn’t prepared to budge an inch on any of the workers’ demands, be it an increase in rates or a halt to the recruitment of new drivers. Because Uber is now recruiting new drivers every day,” says Félix.

“Uber has never wanted to negotiate. Each time, they would say they couldn’t change the rates because they wouldn’t make any money. In other words, that means they have the right to earn money, but not us.”

“Unfortunately, the Uber platform now sees these negotiating sessions as no more than a semblance of consultations, showing its inability (deliberate or not) to accept any real exchange on the key issue of rates,” adds the CFDT-affiliated transport federation, which took part in the talks. In response to the deadlock, the alliance of trade unions representing Uber drivers in France has finally appealed to the platform’s customers, calling on them to boycott it until the company negotiates.

“There is a general sense of powerlessness against Uber,” says Félix. But his organisation, which has around 200 members, has no intention of giving up. The drivers are in the process of launching their own application and an independent cooperative, so that they can continue to work without having to rely on Uber.

“We have had enough of being dependent on Uber,” concludes the Parisian driver.

This story has been translated from French.