Councilmember Mike O’Brien held a press conference announcing a bill to extend collective bargaining rights to for-hire drivers in Seattle. The bill proposes a system in which drivers would be represented by a nonprofit in negotiations with rideshare services like Uber and Lyft, providing them with the bargaining power to secure better rates, worker protections and increased job security.
Many drivers complain that — despite Uber and Lyft’s promises of up to $25 per hour — they are making much less than that and often less than minimum wage. Takele Gobena, a driver who spoke at the press conference, said that when he filed his taxes last year he was shocked to
discover he’d made less than $2.75 per hour after expenses. Many drivers also complain of Uber and Lyft’s capricious rate changes, in which drivers have no say, despite the consequences to driver earnings.
Additionally, drivers live in fear of account deactivation, which is seen by many as arbitrary, punitive and based on factors beyond their control. Gobena said that his account was deactivated the night after the press conference as retaliation for his participation. The company cited a “lapse of insurance” that he claims never occurred.
Though O’Brien was confident that the city has the legal authority to require these unions, the law is entering legally uncharted territory. Federal labor law specifically prohibits independent contractors from unionizing, and exceptions to that prohibition are rare. Currently, all drivers for app-based services are classified as independent contractors and are thus exempt from labor protections and the right to unionize that apply to hired employees. Uber has aggressively resisted previous attempts at regulation, and the bill could face serious legal challenges if it passes.
“Will there be legal challenges? There may be,” O’Brien said. “We saw legal challenges from fast food companies who didn’t think that we had the right to regulate them on minimum wage. We saw legal challenges from the airport, saying that we didn’t have the right to regulate the wages they pay at the airport. And we’ve seen the courts decide in favor of workers in both those cases.”
Sejal Parikh, executive director of Working Washington, was similarly optimistic. She acknowledged Uber’s success in silencing its critics in other cities, but was unfazed, saying, “This is our city, Seattle isn’t like other cities. Workers and passengers in this city will prevail.”