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Worker Advocacy Group Will Profit From Uber Deal

The Freelancers Union, a 15-year old non-profit, says it will become a paid consultant to the ride-hailing giant.

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Uber has added a key labor advocacy group to its payroll, part of a broad and expensive push to protect its model of relying on independent contractors to drive the cars in its network.

Freelancers Union, a nonprofit advocacy group that also offers health insurance to its membership of more than 250,000 independent workers, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it will become a paid consultant to Uber.

The deal with Freelancers Union was announced alongside Uber’s agreement to work with the International Association of Machinists to fund a workers association for its drivers in New York, though the initial announcement made no mention of a consulting fee.

Under the New York labor agreement, a new organization called the Independent Drivers Guild but will be open to the roughly 35,000 active Uber drivers in New York, though it is not organized as a traditional union. The Freelancers Union “will advise Uber on how to best bring flexible benefits to independent workers in the on-demand economy,” Uber board member David Plouffe said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Freelancers Union Executive Director Sara Horowitz said the fifteen-year old organization, which has long fought for the rights of independent contractors, will work with Uber on “high level discussions and meetings with its leadership.”

Horowitz declined to give more details on how the relationship will operate or how much Freelancers Union will be paid, but defended the decision to take money from a corporation that recently settled a $100 million class action lawsuit with workers in California and Massachusetts.

“We are starting to see unions all over the country starting to say, ‘we have to build the next era of labor organizations,’” Horowitz told BuzzFeed News. “They’re not going to be perfect. They’re a first step.”

Horowitz has been vocal advocate for the labor rights of the more than 50 million contract workers in America, and their need for the kind of benefits and protections traditionally reserved for full-time workers.

The International Association of Machinists, a member union of the AFL-CIO, also stands to benefit from this new arrangement with Uber — one that multiple New York unions hoped to win. With help from the ride-hailing giant, the union gains access to 35,000 workers, and will share the cost of organizing them with the company they work for.

The first goal of the unified forces of Uber and the Machinists will be to lobby for a tax cut in New York state. Car hire services including Uber — but not yellow taxis — currently pay an 8.9% tax, which the ride-hailing company wants to see reduced. Plouffe said Tuesday that if the tax is cut, it would “free up resources for a new benefits fund administered by the Guild and used to cover benefits such as paid time off or parental leave.”

Uber would not confirm which unions it’s in communication with in other markets, though the Teamsters are making moves to organize drivers in California, where the as-yet-unapproved settlement would require the company to support a drivers association.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday evening, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick wrote that he hopes the new guild in New York will start to answer the question of how the company will “collaborate with workers to help define the future of the labor movement.”

- Cora Lewis contributed to this article

Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Caroline O'Donovan at caroline.odonovan@buzzfeed.com.

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