The NLRB could finally give Uber drivers the right to unionize

The National Labor Relations Board is at the very least considering the reclassification of gig workers as full employees.

Car sharing service driver waiting for his passenger.
Petri Oeschger/E+/Getty Images

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has issued an open invitation for pitches explaining why it should reconsider industry standards for independent contractors. More specifically, the NLRB has opened itself to explanations as to why the distinctions between gig workers and “employees” should be re-evaluated moving forward.

While the invitation itself isn’t a guarantee the NLRB will change its worker categorizations, it is a sign the agency is considering the possibility of doing so. There is at least the potential, with these briefs, that the NLRB will declare companies like Uber, DoorDash, and Instacart must unilaterally consider their workers as full employees.

The implications of such a declaration would be far-reaching, potentially providing gig workers with rights currently afforded only to full company employees. That includes the right to unionization — a prospect that’s long struck fear into the hearts of corporate executives. The kind of fear that prompts them to spend tens of millions on campaigns fighting gig worker reform.

Uber’s worst nightmare — Though all gig workers would be impacted by the NLRB’s decision, it’s Uber that stands to lose most in this fight. Uber has built a sprawling ride-sharing empire by offering as little as possible to its workers. The company relies on drivers’ classification as “independent contractors” to deny them the benefits afforded to full-time employees like paid time off and health insurance options.

As one of the largest employers of gig workers in the United States, Uber has long led the movement against gig worker protections. This fight came to a head last year, as a new California law threatened to categorize all Uber drivers as full employees. Uber — alongside companies like Lyft and DoorDash — collectively spent nearly $200 million backing Prop 22, which sought to exempt these companies from the new laws.

That push worked; Prop 22 passed with nearly 60 percent of California voters in favor of it. And thus gig workers across the country have been left to fend for themselves. During a years-long pandemic, no less.

Unionization momentum — These companies would rather take drastic measures — like threatening to pull their business out entirely — than give their workers rights. One of their biggest fears is that, given the chance, their legions of gig workers will unionize.

A wave of pro-union sentiment has swept the U.S. this year, with workers across various industries pushing for better working conditions and compensation. In some instances, workers have taken more drastic measures, like walkouts and strikes, to draw public attention to overwhelming workplace issues.

The NLRB has kept a close eye on these developments, stepping in when necessary to ensure union-busting is kept to a minimum. This call to reclassify gig workers could be just the push needed for the unionization wave to reach entirely new heights. If it determines such reclassification is necessary, that is.