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Uber and Lyft drivers in Seattle can now form unions

City council unanimously votes to give drivers collective bargaining power over wages, conditions

Technology trends and news by Ronny Kerr
December 14, 2015
Short URL: http://vator.tv/n/4207

Uber can’t be very happy about this.

In a unanimous 8-0 vote, the Seattle City Council just approved a bill that will allow Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize. Seattle is the first city in the nation to greenlight this labor tactic for drivers.



Both Uber and Lyft will be required to give the city a list of drivers, which a nonprofit or union will then use to contact and sign up drivers, ultimately with the goal of functioning as the majority’s bargaining representative. The union would use its power to help drivers collectively bargain over their wages and working conditions.

“All workers, no matter where they work or the nature of their work, deserve the opportunity to have a voice," said John Scearcy, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, which helped lobby for the new ordinance. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights identifies the right of workers to bargain collectively as a fundamental human right. Now these workers have that right.”

It’s well-known that both Uber and Lyft, who classify their drivers as independent contractors, strongly oppose the decision. When I reached out to Lyft, they were upfront about their disappointment:

“Unfortunately, the ordinance passed today threatens the privacy of drivers, imposes substantial costs on passengers and the City, and conflicts with longstanding federal law. We urge the Mayor and full Council to reconsider this legislation and listen to the voices of their constituents who choose to drive with Lyft because of the flexible economic opportunity it offers.”

While Lyft seems to think Seattle’s decision is incongruent with federal law, there is actually precedent for unions of independent workers, including Guild Freelancers and the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers. What exactly the company sees as illegal here will likely play out in the courts, where Uber and Lyft are expected to challenge the new city ordinance.

I also reached out to Uber regarding the news, but they essentially sent back a non-statement rehashing their own self-published survey data from last week. Yes, Uber drivers love driving for Uber. Yes, Uber drivers love the flexibility of driving for Uber. Yes, everything is gravy.

But if that were the case, then it’s puzzling why drivers in California have brought a class-action suit against Uber, arguing that the company should be reclassify drivers as employees and reimburse them for past and future expenses, including fuel, car maintenance, and smartphone bills.

So which is it: should Uber and Lyft drivers be classified as employees or independent contractors? And even if they’re the latter, as both companies vehemently profess, does that necessarily bar them from unionizing?

Seattle doesn’t think so. And surely unions across the country have been watching the city’s initiative closely, so this just might be the beginning of a new nationwide struggle for Uber and Lyft.


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