Uber is using its own customer service reps to dissuade its drivers from unionizing

Smartphone-based taxi service Uber has found a novel use for its customer service representatives: As union-busting scabs for their fellow employees.

According to a report from Quartz Magazine, the app-based cab company is worried about a December vote by the Seattle City Council that granted drivers for app-based services the right to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions. In addition to mounting a legal challenge to the decision, the company is doing everything in its power to convince its Seattle drivers that a union is “not a good fit” for them. And who better to deliver that message than fellow employees of the company, thereby saving money and undermining worker solidarity at the same damn time? Machiavelli himself would be proud.

According to sources within Uber, the company has been having its reps deliver anti-union messages to its drivers under the guise of a driver satisfaction survey. Via Quartz:

A former customer service rep who was assigned to the calls said Uber didn’t offer much explanation for the new assignment, but she and her teammates made their own assumptions.

“We called it union-busting, to be frank,” says the former rep, whose contract with Uber was terminated earlier this month and who agreed to speak with Quartz if her name was withheld. “It was a complete departure from what we usually do.”

Customer service reps were still making the calls as of this week.

Uber drivers in Seattle confirmed they’ve recently received calls from the company framed as driver satisfaction surveys, but which seemed intended to dissuade them from union activities.

And what, exactly, did these scripts say to further this goal?

In the final paragraph—after drivers said they’d like to learn more about the ordinance—Uber advises that “this is simply a case where collective bargaining and unionization do not fit the characteristics of the work.”

Can you smell the bullshit through your computer and/or mobile device screen? Try as it might to represent itself as a tech company that merely connects drivers — the majority of whom it claims are just picking up fares in their spare time for a little extra cash (which would make exploitation acceptable how?) — with customers who want to “share” (i.e. purchase) a ride somewhere, the amount of power it has over its workers’ livelihoods proves it’s an employer-employee relationship. And while there’s an argument to be made that Uber’s independent contractors are neither “small business owners” whose efforts to unionize qualify as illegal price-fixing nor improperly classified employees, Quartz notes it could take years to figure all of that out, and a union or union-like body is a good way to keep them from being horribly exploited in the meantime.

Fortunately, it seems Uber’s treatment of its customer service reps has backfired to the point where many of them are loathe to help them bust up the organizing efforts of the drivers, or at they very least unwilling to keep it a secret:

Last summer, Quartz reported that contracts for US service reps were getting shortened, then not renewed at all as Uber built out its offshore workforce.

When conflicts between Uber and drivers arose, customer service reps tended to sympathize with the drivers, says the former rep who spoke with Quartz. And as Uber terminated more US-based reps’ contracts, that solidarity increased. “It definitely eroded our loyalty to Uber when they started outsourcing, and we started to feel more like drivers in the way we were treated,” the rep says. “We didn’t feel [the script] was appropriate at all.”


[Quartz | Photo: National Legal and Policy Center]