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City Council votes to give Seattle for-hire drivers union rights — UPDATE

A night in the life of a Capitol Hill driver: James Jackson has been driving Uber and Lyft for about 8 months, he tells CHS. “The best time for any driver is weekends, Friday-Sunday, or at night. Anytime after 6 is a good time to drive. Myself, I get off at 3, I go pick up my kids and drop them with my wife, and I start driving after 6. After 6 the roads are more clear, it’s easier to pick up riders without the hassle of traffic jams. I usually go to 11pm, 12pm five days a week.”

A night in the life of a Capitol Hill driver: James Jackson has been driving Uber and Lyft for about 8 months, he tells CHS. “The best time for any driver is weekends, Friday-Sunday, or at night. Anytime after 6 is a good time to drive. Myself, I get off at 3, I go pick up my kids and drop them with my wife, and I start driving after 6. After 6 the roads are more clear, it’s easier to pick up riders without the hassle of traffic jams. I usually go to 11pm, 12 five days a week.”

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 Mike O'Brien was the bill's primary sponsor.

Council member Mike O’Brien was the bill’s primary sponsor.

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.”

“You get a lot of people blabbing, just talking when they’re really drunk. There’s a lot of Amazon that try to recruit you to work there. I’ve learned that everyone at Amazon has a card. They pass me their Amazon card, get to talking, ask me about schooling. I’ve got one story that does stick out. I had just started driving for Uber. I’m working weekends and so this passenger pings in, I pick them up, and we go downtown. I get him there, and he’s like ‘oh, that’s my friend right there.’ I said, ‘right there, with the police officer? Butt-naked in the gutter?, ok, I’m gonna let you off right here and be about my business.’“

“You get a lot of people blabbing, just talking when they’re really drunk. There’s a lot of Amazon that try to recruit you to work there. I’ve learned that everyone at Amazon has a card. They pass me their Amazon card, get to talking, ask me about schooling. I’ve got one story that does stick out. I had just started driving for Uber. I’m working weekends and so this passenger pings in, I pick them up, and we go downtown. I get him there, and he’s like ‘oh, that’s my friend right there.’ I said, ‘right there, with the police officer? Butt-naked in the gutter?, ok, I’m gonna let you off right here and be about my business.’“

What’s the worst part of driving? “It’s really petty that I’m gonna complain about this, but the paychecks. I just wish that in life, I got paid everyday. I haven’t had any bad experiences, so I’m perfectly fine with this job. They also don’t pay our taxes, which is the other thing.”

What’s the worst part of driving?
“It’s really petty that I’m gonna complain about this, but the paychecks. I just wish that in life, I got paid every day. I haven’t had any bad experiences, so I’m perfectly fine with this job. They also don’t pay our taxes, which is the other thing.”

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

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21 thoughts on “City Council votes to give Seattle for-hire drivers union rights — UPDATE

  1. If Uber and Lyft end up pulling out of the market, it will be interesting to see who still supports this.

    Everyone loves a good social justice cause…as long as they don’t have to do anything beyond getting a hashtag trending.

  2. First, isn’t this against federal law around unions? These aren’t employees, and even if you believe they need some classification other than 1099 (contractor) status, under the law today they can’t form a union.

    Second, if the drivers today are willing to accept the pay they get from Uber and Lyft, why is the city council getting involved here? Why not just open up the number of licensed taxis so these drivers have another option to make money this way?

    Oh, I forgot…it’s because the taxi medallion owners in the city paid for the election of the City Council members, so they’re getting paid back via attacks on Uber.

    • “Oh, I forgot…it’s because the taxi medallion owners in the city paid for the election of the City Council members”

      They also paid big $$ to the city for the medallions. What do Uber and Lyft drivers pay? Why should taxis pay it, but rideshare drivers not?

      • My point was that if the city offered more medallions there would be non-Uber opportunities for these drivers. But this would reduce the value of the existing medallions so they won’t do that. Instead they strike out at Uber with these silly grandstanding federally-illegal moves.

      • I’m not sure what they cost, but taxi medallions are very, very expensive…and it’s probable that very few Uber/Lyft drivers could afford them……even if there were more available.

    • Whether or not it’s against federal law depends on how you interpret what constitutes, essentially, ‘boss privileges’ and whether or not all the restrictions placed on drivers mean they are not really, legally, independent contractors. IIRC, the discipline that TNCs exercise and the rating system (performance reviews essentially) are major components of why TNC drivers might legally be considered employees, not contractors.

      If they count as employees, they can bargain collectively.

  3. OMG. The city council is despicable. Our son’s friend has a full time job and just became an Uber driver in his spare time and was thrilled to have made $300. Paying union dues to a thuggish union in Seattle will cut into his earnings. Why can’t the insane social justice warriors ever leave great ideas alone? They really are mentally ill. If Uber pulls out of Seattle, hello more drunk driving kids. Hopefully the drivers will vote a big fat NO.

    • Your son is totally f’d. After they give him his cement shoes, they are coming for you, and you better have their dues if you want to keep those kneecaps!

      Or, more realistically, when you son gets a bad review and can’t pay his rent because some a-hole left a bad review and uber stopped letting him work, he can get help from the union appealing the decision. Same for when uber decides they are going to only pay him $150 for the same amount of work. Terrifying isn’t it!?? But don’t listen to me, I’m a “mentally ill” social justice warrior; I’ve been diagnosed with this horrible condition called “empathy”. Don’t worry, libertarians are completely immune.

      • This is a hard one.

        Last time I checked, the reason we have violent and unprofessional police officers is because our union doesn’t allow us to fire them when the cause is clearly established.

        http://www.thestranger.com/news/feature/2015/07/01/22478845/time-to-get-rid-of-the-seattle-police-departments-bad-cops

        I want my Uber drivers to be secure and immune from being fired because a customer is having a bad day.

        But selfishly, I’m not sure that I want that as much as my being protected from reckless and unprofessional drivers who put public safety at risk, and badly need to be fired for cause.

      • “I’ve been diagnosed with this horrible condition called “empathy” ”

        I hope this reply doesn’t take time away from you patting yourself on the back. However, I have to wonder if you have empathy for drivers like me, who are perfectly content with the current ride-sharing model and are afraid that bargaining will limit the freedom and flexibility provided by this industry.
        I’ve been a driver with Lyft for 16 months and clocked around 1200 rides in that time. With that being said, I can confidently say that it is virtually impossible to be kicked off the platform unless you’re just a shitty driver. You need to fall below a 4.6 average rating to be removed. I have never gone below a 4.75 and lately I hover around a 4.9. I get this score because I’m prompt, efficient, friendly, engaging, go out of my way to please, and I know the city. One bad review DOES NOT mean squat in regards to your overall score, despite the convenience that exaggerated hypothetical adds to your argument. Averages are based on the last 100 rides, so bad reviews drop off. And since the majority of my riders provide ratings, that bad review can drop off within a few weeks. If you’re averaging below a 4.6, then you are providing MULTIPLE bad experiences to your passengers on a regular basis and should seriously reconsider other methods of work. This may be hard to believe, but you do not have a right to a guaranteed professional association with a company if you can’t do your fucking job right and make the company look bad. Weird I know.
        Also, as far as Kshama and her comments about sharecropping and having the privilege of sharing with ones bosses are concerned, she can go suck it. As usual, she has no idea what she’s talking about and goes after simple solutions to non-issues, because voters like you are gullible enough to fall for it. Lyft splits the ride costs 80/20. That’s 80% for the driver and 20% for Lyft. That’s more than any other service provider I can imagine. Talk to any hairstylist or massage therapist if you disagree. They also give the drivers 100% of their tips. In addition, they give us the opportunity to earn that 20% back if we drive more. It’s called an incentive. Have you heard of incentives Jay? They usually mention it somewhere in the first session of ANY economics class.
        In fact, I was recently incentivized to drive more because they implemented a new payout system where you can get paid instantly for your day’s work if you make over $50, instead of waiting till the following week to get paid. Crazy, Right?
        Let me be frank, Uber and Lyft drivers ARE NOT employees. Not even close. I’ve worked for many, many employers over the years, and this is nothing like it. I get to dictate my own schedule, drive where I want, and accept who I want into my vehicle. No employer on earth would allow you that kind of freedom. We are contractors; Lyft and Uber simply provide the platform and a fairly loose set of guidelines. The rest is up to us. I shouldn’t have to give that up because you and Kshama want to feel good about yourselves until the next Social cause du jour comes up.
        And yes, I am a Libertarian (gay and proud!), which basically means I can see down the road long enough to anticipate the unintended consequences of knee-jerk political reactionaries who go after low hanging fruit in order to appear useful.
        Despite this, I am too empathetic. For instance i empathize with your mentally ill SJW condition, and wish you the best in your recovery.

      • So, let’s talk about if you were classified as an employee.

        Specifically, you’d be able to be reimbursed for all mileage while working. However, currently with Lyft, you’re only paid per mile based on having a PAX in the car.

        Let’s assume you’re average ride was similar to mine from 2014 at 6.8 miles.

        Assuming you average 75 trips per month, that’s 510 miles (I’d argue it’s more 1,020 miles since you’re often driving to pick people or returning from a farther location).

        Sticking with 510 miles while only having a person in the car, you’d be reimbursed ~$293 for mileage alone if classified as an employee.

        If we’re looking at all the miles put on during a shift, let’s work with the x2 number of 1020 – then you’d be looking at $586.50 in mileage to be reimbursed.

        Now, let’s look at pay. If you’re like me, you averaged $10.10 per trip.
        At 75 trips a month, you’re earning $757.50 a month, but really taking home $606.

        $606 take home pay vs. $586 guaranteed pay for mileage as an employee (plus a minimum of (eventually) $15 per hour in Seattle which would = be at *least* another $600 for 40 hours of work….)

        What I’m getting at is Lyft is able to make a shit ton of money off you under the guise of “it’s convenient! do it whenever!” while you, me and fellow drivers waste our time and eat all the costs associated with being able to perform the job.

        Stop drinking the Lyft kool-aid.

      • I’m glad it’s worked so well for you. Some people haven’t been as lucky. And a big factor in the success of Uber and Lyft has come from skirting regulations and labor laws. It’s time they play by the rules like the rest.

    • Damnnnnn, not all Unions are “thuggish”. I work for a City department with a strong Union and I’ll happily give $20 a month for the positive bargaining they do for us. It’s worth it for a living wage, COLAs, my pension plan, etc., none of which I’m entirely certain would exist without their extremely hard work.

    • I belong to a union. I pay $7/week in dues and in return I receive fully paid medical, dental, vision, retirement, among many, many other benefits. I even get paid time and a half when I work on Sundays. So, please explain to me why all of that isn’t worth $28/month.

    • Social justice warriors on the prowl. South park demonstrated this all perfectly. There is something unnatural and frightening about this whole social justice movement. It is more fascistic than anything else. I hope people learn to take a step back and moderate their extremist tendencies.

    • The city council has no business sticking its BIG FAT NOSE in labor relations.If Uber and Lyft drivers can form a union fine,but if the company rejects it,it is NONE of the cities business.The federal gov. has something called the National Labor Relations Board.The Socialist city council members have NO say with the NLRB

    • Don’t worry, there will still be a few jobs left for “independent contractors” vacuuming them, gassing them up or charging them, retrieving dead passengers, cleaning up vomit, etc. A few jobs. But that’ll be largely automated too. It’ll pay about $3/hr, but hey– you’ll be able to set your own schedule and work when you want.

  4. I think it’s really foolish for the City Council to pass this legislation. Why? Because they are opening the City up to years of litigation when Uber/Lyft sue over this. Expensive litigation! And it seems the car-sharing companies have federal law on their side.

  5. If we’re going to use laws and policies to support workers’ rights (something I’m in full support of), we also need to hold folks to observing laws and policies, such as, but not limited to, those securing access for people with disabilities.

    In other words, if drivers expect there to be laws to protect them, they also need to observe the laws that protect their passengers. drivers are offering a publicly available service, which, by definition, is available to everyone.

    http://www.ibtimes.com/uber-lyft-riders-disabilities-discrimination-often-comes-included-2052675