Foodster's union certification win is 'symbolic' for other gig workers

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Foodora worker and organizer Ivan Ostos. Image: Tess Siksay

Foodora may have left the country, but its former workers can finally say they successfully formed the first certified union of app-based gig workers in Canada.  

On Friday, June 12, nine months after the union certification vote took place, the Ontario Labour Board unsealed and counted Foodora couriers' ballots. According to a June 16 statement from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) -- which led organizing efforts for the Foodora couriers -- 88 per cent of couriers who voted supported the formal organization of a union. 

Lauren Lesarge, a former Foodora courier who has been active in the Foodsters union drive, said that such a high percentage of support for unionization demonstrates the need couriers have for union representation.  

Ivan Ostos, a former Foodora courier and union organizer, said that while organizers had a lot of confidence in the campaign they put forth, he was still excited to see the results.  

"It totally confirmed that people understand that there's issues with this type of employment and one of the only ways to do anything about it is through unionization," he said. 

Jan Simpson, CUPW national president, said the campaign was always worker driven, and Friday's results are due to the initiative workers took to mobilize. 

"Once they knew their rights they were able to move forward and they were unstoppable, and they beat this multi-million dollar, multi-national company by doing the right thing," she said. 

The results come after a drawn out fight between Foodora and its workers over whether couriers were correctly classified as independent contractors or were in fact employees. Before the certification votes could be counted, the Ontario Labour Board needed to decide on the proper classification. An independent contractor designation means the workers would not have the right to unionize, but a dependent contractor is considered an employee and would have the right to unionize. In February, the OLB ruled in favour of the workers, reclassifying them as employees.  

Foodora workers are now in the unique position of having a union but no longer having their jobs. May 11, 2020, was Foodora's last day of operations in Canada. The company pulled out of the Canadian market entirely as it initiated bankruptcy proceedings, implying its debt was the cause of its departure. Because Foodora's decision to leave Canada came shortly after the labour board's decision reclassifying its workers, CUPW accused the company of union busting. 

Lesarge said when Foodora left Canada, she worried that people might blame the organizing workers for the company's departure. But, the union certification vote results reaffirmed her participation in the union drive. 

"It was confirmation that we really did do the right thing by trying to create a union. It also demonstrates that in this industry, couriers have [historically] been undermined," she said. 

Foodsters United representative Ivan Ostos said the workers have not heard from the company since the union was certified.   

A union for workers without an employer is a unique situation. CUPW now holds the bargaining certificate for the Foodsters, and Aaron Spires, CUPW's external organizer, said that if Foodora were ever to re-enter the market, the union would automatically be recognized and would hold bargaining power. 

Without the presence of an employer, the win is largely "symbolic to show that workers can do this," Spires said. 

"We set a huge precedent and set a roadmap for how to do this kind of organization," said Ostos. The Foodsters campaign intends to support any other union drives from app-based gig workers, he said. 

For now, Ostos said the workers are taking some time to take stock of how far they've come and reflect on what they've learned before making decisions on what the next steps will be. 

"With the company pulling out, it leaves a lot of questions," he said. One of those questions is whether the union will fight for severance pay for the workers who should have been designated as employees while Foodora was still operating in Canada. 

Spires said there are legal avenues available to the workers, but for now, there is no specific plan of action. 

"We're making sure we're still supporting couriers by giving them opportunities to get together and have conversations about what they want to do next," said Spires. 

Whatever next steps the Foodsters decide to take, "Foodsters are a part of our union and we will continue to fight for them no matter what," said Simpson. 

Simpson said now there has to be a broader conversation about workers' rights for those gig workers working for app-based companies. She said she sees one of the next steps in CUPW's fight to support such workers is to call for government legislation to address how these workers are classified. 

"We won the victory at the Ontario Labour Relations Board, but across the country and in the provinces, you have similar problems [with misclassification," Simpson said.

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Tess Siksay​

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