No Londoner could fail to be aware of the huge row surrounding the private car hire firm, Uber, whose licence to operate in the capital was dramatically withdrawn last week by Transport for London (TfL).
But behind the controversy — and another damning judgment against the private hire firm Addison Lee on Monday — is a 51-year-old Jewish man from Southgate, Steve Garelick.
It was Garelick, acting on behalf of the GMB union, who understood that there was a case to be made against Uber because of its cavalier treatment of its drivers. And, together with the union’s legal advisers, the GMB took on Uber in an industrial tribunal last year, and won. And that victory appears to have led directly to TfL’s decision to withdraw Uber’s licence on appeal, causing uproar among its thousands of users, the majority of whom are young people, attracted by low prices and the simplicity of being able to summon a driver via a smartphone app.
At first glance Garelick is an unlikely knight in shining armour, a bulky individual full of Yiddishisms and jokes. But — with his background in the BBYO youth movement — Garelick, who runs a small private hire coach company specialising in airport runs — proves to have nerves of steel and has no qualms in taking on anyone, from union officials to Uber owners.
He is unequivocally on the side of the drivers, who, he says, get a raw deal from employers. “About six years ago I was invited to a meeting with the GMB as someone who could make the case for drivers. I’ve always advocated for others, particularly people who perhaps couldn’t help themselves. Maybe it’s in my DNA: I’m the youngest of six kids and my father ran a small company, he even employed people who had criminal records. We were always taught that it’s your job to act on inequities and to do right by others. If you’ve got a big enough mouth, speak up”.
Two and a half years ago Garelick came across an appalling case relating to an Uber driver. It was not his first encounter with what he calls “shocking behaviour” by the company, but when he learned the details of this latest case, he felt sure that it would be possible to make an issue of workers’ rights against Uber.
Two women got into an Uber car and assaulted the driver, verbally and physically, attacking him because he was Irish and using the stiletto heels of their shoes to batter him. “The police were not able to get information from Uber as to the details of the assault.” Garelick and his GMB colleagues were convinced that a case could be made against the company.
“It wasn’t just about Uber drivers”, says Garelick. “There are loads of different situations relating to workers’ rights — care workers, people who pack for companies like Amazon or Asos, couriers — all people who are working for companies who tend to strip out the costs and not deal with the overheads. This doesn’t sit well with me. I want our companies to be socially responsible and to treat workers how I would want to be treated.”.
So Garelick — who by this time was representing the branch of professional drivers at the GMB — helped to put together a case against Uber. It wasn’t just the Irish stiletto case — he had endless examples of “difficult” behaviour by the company, from “taking customers’ words over those of the drivers, to not reporting issues to TfL, to deducting money from the drivers”. Other companies behaved just as badly, by, for example, dropping the rates they would pay the drivers without any negotiation and discussion.
At first Uber tried to argue that since the drivers were not employees, but self-employed, they had no obligations to them, but the GMB believed that there was “a third way — that of workers’ rights”. Garelick and his team fought hard to establish a precedent on this issue, though he says that “Uber thought they were on safe ground when the case was first brought to tribunal”.
Alongside the legal case, Garelick was behind guerrilla actions such as a huge demonstration of private car hire drivers in February 2016, which blocked Berkeley Square in Mayfair, with a second demo only weeks later. “Then they knew we meant business”, he grins.
For his work with the GMB, Garelick has been named organiser of the Year by the TUC. But he insists he is not in this for the glory, but for the long haul. From my perspective, there is this Jewish imperative of doing the right thing, and treating people how you would want to be treated. That’s what this about. Just play by the rules’.