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Uber fights to win over its enemies, one at a time

by editor

After years of racking up enemies in Europe, Uber now prefers to play nice.

The ride-hailing app boasts a variety of longtime foes: workers’ unions, taxi drivers and politicians. It’s the legacy of Uber being loose with the rules when it landed on the Continent, around 2013 — an era that haunted the company up until last year, when a trove of leaked documents, known as the Uber Files, showed the dark side of the company’s holy grail of growth at all costs.

It now wants to wipe the slate clean, spending the last few years ramping up efforts to win over its adversaries. Uber has struck deals with unions, integrated taxis into its app, and pitched itself as a partner in electrifying traffic and boosting cities’ sustainability.

One move, on which POLITICO can report exclusively, shows that its charm offensive is only just getting started: The company has tapped Emma O’Dwyer to oversee all “labor relations” in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. O’Dwyer has held a similar role with Uber in the United Kingdom for the past two years. 

In particular, O’Dwyer’s track record in the U.K. — she called herself a “lifelong Labour supporter” in an interview with POLITICO — shows that Uber is serious about getting to the negotiating table with unions.

Union recognition

O’Dwyer was one of the architects of Uber’s 2021 deal with the British GMB union, which had fought the company over drivers’ job status. The dispute ended up in the U.K.’s Supreme Court, which sided with the GMB and the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU), ruling that drivers were workers entitled to minimum wage and holiday pay.

Under the deal, Uber recognized the GMB as a union that could represent British drivers in negotiations or when drivers wanted to appeal certain decisions made by the company. The deal now covers about 90,000 U.K.-based drivers, O’Dwyer said, allowing Uber and the union to discuss a range of issues.  

“We’ve covered everything from safety [issues], deactivations [of drivers’ accounts] and training of drivers,” O’Dwyer said. Calling the arrangement “exciting and successful,” she said that “nearly 1,000 drivers” have now had the union represent them in cases. 

The GMB blueprint is one Uber seeks to replicate elsewhere. 

Early last year it signed a landmark deal with the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), which represents 700 affiliated trade unions globally. One notable condition: side-stepping the delicate issue of whether Uber drivers are employees or independent contractors; that contentious issue stays off the table in negotiations with ITF-affiliated unions.  

That approach has drawn mixed feedback.

Some unions criticize Uber for falling short in its dealings with unions in one critical area: collective bargaining | Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

“I was very suspicious to what extent Uber wanted to play this game seriously,” Frank Moreels, president of the Belgian transport workers union BTB, told POLITICO. “I was rather under the impression that they only wanted to put up a façade.” The BTB opened its own negotiations with Uber Belgium in August last year.

Moreels said though that he now thought otherwise, noting “a respectful relationship of social dialogue” between the union and Uber, which addresses issues like drivers having their accounts deactivated or racking up fines imposed, for example, for operating in off-limits areas.

Other unions remain aloof and hesitant to engage, criticizing Uber for falling short in its dealings with unions in one critical area: collective bargaining. 

“Of the agreements that we’ve seen so far, we don’t see true collective bargaining. What we’re seeing, is [union] recognition agreements,” said James Farrar, general secretary of the U.K.-based ADCU. Uber disputes those claims, sharing numbers with POLITICO indicating that these agreements had affected 160,000 drivers in Europe.

Cozy up

While Uber came to disrupt the taxi industry, now it’s cozying up to it. 

The company wants to “partner” with every taxi by 2025. Last year, Uber struck deals with taxi operators in Italy and Belgium, allowing taxis to use the app, rounding out earlier agreements in Spain, Austria, Germany and Greece. Not everyone has welcomed the deals: Brussels Taxi Federation President Abdessamad Sabbani, with a backward glance at Uber’s rule-breaking era, called the cooperation “problematic.” 

Another pillar of Uber’s charm offensive: electric vehicles. The company will hold a big sustainability event in London on June 8, focusing on how the company can cut down on emissions.

The choice of London is no surprise. Uber has considered the British capital as the main hub for its electrification pitch, and wants every vehicle in London to be electric by 2025; its targets for other European capitals are less ambitious. It’s a major turnaround for the narrative around Uber in the city — only a few years ago it was struggling to keep its license.

Elsewhere, the company also has tried to highlight its green credentials. Uber’s new top lobbyist in Brussels, Leah Charpentier, joined the company in May after years as a lobbyist at a solar panel manufacturer.

Uber’s efforts to get into the good graces of its onetime opponents also betray a blunter truth: In the midst of existential risks, the company could use some friends.

Uber’s bottom line could take a hit if EU legislators successfully shepherd a landmark proposal that could reclassify up to 4 million gig workers as in-house employees, entitling them to more benefits. Uber denies that the two are linked, but has navigated this thorny debate with a willingness to increase drivers’ benefits through union negotiations — without touching the issue of drivers’ job status. 

For now, it’s a successful strategy since the proposal is currently stuck in the EU’s legal machinery.

The coronavirus pandemic also showed Uber’s vulnerability to supply-and-demand shocks. After a pandemic-era dip in ride requests, the company had to lure drivers back to the platform when rider demand picked up again, to avoid shortages and increased waiting times. Uber’s partnership with taxis was one way to ensure the app’s supply held up when post-pandemic demand spiked — showing that playing nice indeed has its perks.

As Uber fights for its life by wooing its old adversaries, some have signaled they won’t budge.

Leïla Cheibi, a French far-left lawmaker fighting hard in Parliament for an EU platform work bill that grants rights to as many workers as possible, was unimpressed when the news of Charpentier’s appointment broke in early April.

“Uber is overhauling its lobby in Brussels,” she tweeted, to “defeat” the bill. “Dear Mrs. Charpentier, you will find me in your way.”

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