Seattle could become the first U.S. city to allow drivers for rideshare services like Uber and Lyft to collectively bargain with the app-based companies. The City Council is scheduled to take its final vote Monday afternoon on a controversial measure to allow independently contracted drivers to unionize in order to negotiate wages and working conditions with “transportation network companies.”
The vote will be closely watched nationwide and beyond as rideshare services have rapidly expanded, taking on hundreds of thousands of drivers worldwide.
UPDATE 3:45 PM: The City Council voted 8-0 Monday to allow Seattle’s for-hire drivers to unionize. The bill’s passage makes Seattle the first city in the nation to attempt to give drivers the right to collectively bargain with app-based ridesharing companies. Council members still have the difficult task of shaping the mechanism by which unions can represent drivers in Seattle, not to mention responding to all-but-certain legal challenges from TNCs and other for-hire driver companies.
Council member Kshama Sawant said the bill was necessary as increasing numbers of workers are employed on a freelance basis. “Ever since sharecropping, the sharing economy has meant sharing in one direction. That is, workers have the privilege of sharing what they produce with their bosses,” she said.
After many committee meetings on the issue and an unusually in-depth analysis from the City’s law and finance departments, the council spent relatively little time discussing the bill. Drivers and representatives from the taxi company Eastside for Hire spoke against the measure during public comment, saying they were not given adequate time to learn about the bill. “There are ways to help drivers that are immediate and within your authority,” said Eastside’s Samatar Guled.
Following the vote, Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement that he would not sign the bill, but would not veto it either, paving the way for it to become law. “I remain concerned that this ordinance, as passed by the Council, includes several flaws, especially related to the relatively unknown costs of administering the collective bargaining process and the burden of significant rulemaking the Council has placed on City staff,” he said.
Most rideshare services work by contracting with individual drivers who operate like their own businesses. Council member Mike O’Brien, who introduced the bill (PDF), says the setup disenfranchises drivers that, for all intents and purposes, work as powerless employees. According to O’Brien, the majority of drivers for hire come from disadvantaged communities and are frequently taken advantage of by employers.
Many of these drivers make below minimum wage and have no rights in their jobs, and when they do raise issues they are quickly silenced or retaliated against with loss of access to the app or dispatcher that enables them to work. A business model that controls all aspects of these drivers work but relies on the drivers being classified as independent contractors undermines Seattle’s efforts to address income inequality and create opportunities for all workers in this city to earn a living wage.
TNCs oppose the measure and have questioned the council’s legal authority to enact such a law, arguing federal labor law prohibits allowing independent contractors from unionizing. In a statement, Lyft said the bill “threatens the privacy of drivers, imposes substantial costs on passengers and the City, and conflicts with longstanding federal law.”
Legal experts have also pointed out that allowing independent businesses to form a union may run afoul of antitrust laws, reported the Associated Press. In a letter to council members, Seattle finance department director Fred Podesta warned of a possible “prolonged and costly litigation.”
O’Brien’s bill would grant collective bargaining eligibility to Seattle’s for hire drivers, including taxi drivers, that have logged a certain number of driving hours. Unions authorized by the City would then receive a list of eligible drivers at each company and need show that a majority of drivers for a specific company want to be represented.
The measure was voted out of the finance committee in October.
Future District 3 representative Council member Kshama Sawant also strongly supports the bill, but had a scheduled absence on Monday (Sawant was present for the meeting). Sole proprietor driving businesses were the top newly created business in District 3 for the past two years, according to permit data analyzed by CHS.
UPDATE 4:05 PM: The Council also approved a new labor bill designed to close loopholes and provide better oversight of the city’s various worker protection and wage laws:
Mayor Ed Murray has sent to the city council a 175-page bill—yes, seriously—that lays out new fines for employers who violate the city’s labor laws, new protections for employees who file complaints, and new authorities for the city office that enforces these laws. The bill includes some compromises with business interests but is, on the whole, good news for workers.
With photographs and interview by Alex Garland