Inside Seattle’s Bold Plan to Let Its Uber Drivers Organize
The clash over classifying Uber drivers as independent contractors versus bona fide employees is the signature controversy of the on-demand economy. According to Uber, the independent contractor model offers the promise of a bright and flexible future in which each worker is a micro-entrepreneur—choosing her own hours and acting as her own boss. The problem, according to Uber detractors: these workers don’t receive benefits. And they can’t unionize.
But in Seattle, new legislation the City Council will vote on today could give these drivers a way to collectively bargain regardless of how they’re classified. Some call it the Voice for Drivers legislation, others the Uber unionization bill (not technically correct, since it applies to all of Seattle’s for-hire drivers, including taxis). Either way, the proposed bill appears to be the first of its kind in the nation: a clever workaround to a federal law that has so far prevented Uber and Lyft drivers from organizing and jointly negotiating on pay and working conditions. It’s Seattle’s bold plan to let its drivers form what would essentially be their own union.
“The drivers are now unified in saying, ‘This just doesn’t work for us,’” says Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who introduced the proposal in late August.
Meanwhile, Uber’s top politico, former Obama campaign guru David Plouffe, has called the proposal “flatly illegal.”
The Seattle vote comes at a time when the battle over on-demand worker classification is heating up. Recently, labor complaints filed against on-demand platforms for laundry, groceries, food delivery, and logistics are piling up. In California, two landmark suits against on-demand ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft appear likely to go to jury trial. The lawsuit against Uber, which is further along, has already been granted class-action status, and a federal judge recently expanded its scope so that many more Uber drivers in California would be allowed to join.
A Forced Bargaining
Backers of Seattle’s proposed law claim it addresses low pay and subpar working conditions faced by drivers. If the legislation passes, it would allow drivers to create so-called Driver Representative Organizations, groups that would register as nonprofits in the state of Washington and must prove that a majority of drivers for a specific company have chosen to be represented by the organization. (As drafted, the drivers who get to vote would be those who have completed at least 150 trips in the 30 days before the commencement date set by the bill—which Uber contends is a very unstable population, given the rate of employee churn on its platform.) Yes, groups of drivers have gotten together in the past. They’ve formed “lounges” to get help and advice from other drivers (and commiserate in person), and formed groups such as the Apps-Based Drivers Association. (ABDA works closely with Teamsters Local 117 to ensure that drivers have shared resources.) But these groups can’t compel employers to meet and negotiate with them.
Things would be different with the new proposed law. Within 90 days of the formation of a driver-representative organization, the law would compel the unions and their employers to bargain for a new contract; and the city’s finance and administrative services department could impose a hefty fine on either party if they didn’t stick to the rules of the ordinance.
Essentially, the Voice for Drivers bill seeks to find a way around the National Labor Relations Act, enacted in 1935, which guarantees the rights of most private sector employees to organize into unions. Seattle labor attorney Dmitri Iglitzin says that while the Act doesn’t apply to independent contractors, it doesn’t bar state and local governments from enacting their own legislation that would allow independent contractors to organize. There’s precedent from groups in other sectors excluded from the Act that came together, Iglitzin points out, including the tens of thousands of state workers in Washington who formed a union to regularly negotiate with the government; and a California state law passed in 1975, which allowed agricultural workers to organize.
“The National Labor Relations Act does not preclude independent contractors from organizing,” says Iglitzin. “It simply does not give them any rights. That means another entity, like the City of Seattle, could give drivers those rights.”
According to the National Employment Law Project, a group that advocates for the rights of lower-wage workers, certain groups, including child care providers and home healthcare providers, are already allowed to collectively bargain in the state of Washington. NELP’s research shows that since home care providers obtained this right, the group has bargained for a doubling of pay, from an average of $7 per hour to $14 per hour, as well as paid-time off, workers’ compensation, health insurance, training programs, and their payroll taxes paid by employers.
For its part, Uber says that it’s up to the state, not any individual city, to carve out exceptions to federal labor law. What’s more, the company says any agreement reached by drivers via collective bargaining would not stand up under anti-trust scrutiny, because it would amount to price-fixing.
In an emailed statement to WIRED, Uber underscored the company’s ability to create flexible work for its drivers. “Uber is creating new opportunities for many people to earn a better living on their own time and their own terms,” the company said. According to Uber, half of drivers driver fewer than 10 hours per week, and more than two-thirds have full-time or part-time work outside of Uber. More than two-thirds also vary the hours they drive week-to-week.
Not Seattle’s First Battle
This is not Seattle’s first confrontation with Uber. Early last year, the city tried to limit the number of licensed drivers for ride-hail companies. Uber, employing a familiar tactic, unleashed its loyal user base to get a new ordinance approved that would remove the caps. Three months later, Uber won the skirmish.
But to hear city council member O’Brien tell it, this time is different. O’Brien says there’s been no organized backlash from Uber users on this ordinance—probably because the ordinance just makes sense to citizens. “I haven’t heard a single Uber driver testify, and I haven’t heard a single customer come and testify [against the ordinance],” says O’Brien. “In my anecdotal conversations with people who use these platforms, they say, ‘I love the service. But these drivers can’t be making a [proper] living.’”
O’Brien does say Uber will likely sue if the ordinance passes—which could stop it from being enacted if it gets tied up in the courts. But the political winds in the Pacific Northwest have blown in a worker-friendly direction recently. In 2013, the nearby city of SeaTac became the first in the US to approve a $15 minimum wage; New York and Pittsburgh eventually followed suit. Similarly, O’Brien says, there’s interest from other cities, most notably New York, to follow Seattle’s lead on organizing drivers.
“My sense (of users’ feelings) is ‘I’m OK paying a little more to make sure that it’s fair,” O’Brien says. “That’s why I don’t think there’s been the same backlash.”