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Will Uber And Lyft Drivers Get A Union In Seattle?

Uber General Manager Brooke Steger and chief adviser David Plouffe at the company's Seattle offices.
KUOW Photo/Amy Radil
Uber General Manager Brooke Steger and chief adviser David Plouffe at the company's Seattle offices.

Industry players and union leaders are bumping elbows as the campaign over collective bargaining for Seattle’s for-hire drivers intensifies.

“The lobbyist for the flat-rate for-hire owners just got on the elevator,” noted Teamsters Local 117 representative Dawn Gearhart, sitting in the lobby at Seattle City Hall.

The City Council is expected to vote next Monday on a bill that would allow the city’s for-hire drivers to unionize.

Seattle is the first city to propose unions for workers in the “gig-based” economy, specifically drivers who work for ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft. Taxi and for-hire drivers also would be included. 

Gearhart had already met with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. She said he seemed supportive of the union effort but worried about lawsuits.

“He does have concerns about the city being challenged," she said, "but his office has done a tremendous amount of work to make sure this is legally defensible.”

She said the city has registered 14,000 drivers-for-hire, who would choose a nonprofit to represent them in contract negotiations.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Uber driver Don Creery and Teamsters Local 117 representative Dawn Gearhart at Seattle City Hall. ", "fid": "122596", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201512/IMG_1595.JPG", "attribution": "Credit Amy Radil"}]]Gearhart was joined at City Hall by driver Don Creery. He said that in 2013 he was glad to give up rigid 12-hour shifts as a taxi driver to work for Lyft and Uber. Drivers raved that the new work was flexible and well-paid.

There was “a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of support,” Creery said. “I mean, people really enjoyed these jobs.” He bought a new car and dedicated himself to working for the two companies.

But Creery said that last year Uber cut its rates drastically, so drivers lost income. And he said the company offers little help dealing with challenges drivers face, like low customer ratings. Creery said one-star ratings can be baffling, and even damaging, since they can get drivers deactivated. Drivers also bear the cost of maintaining their vehicles.

Now Creery is making less money, working longer shifts, and he’s supporting the Teamsters’ push for unions. 

“I did this job at a time when it was a much better job," he said. "And the reason I’m here, the reason I met up with these guys a year ago is, instead of going and finding another job, I would like to make this one the good one that it was."

Uber and Lyft oppose the city’s union proposal. Uber’s drivers are considered independent contractors and are therefore not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, although some drivers have filed class-action lawsuits seeking employee status.

Uber chief adviser and board member David Plouffe – a former campaign manager for President Barack Obama –  has been touring the country to tout the benefits of flexible work and fewer cars on the road. He said most cities are facilitating these services now and the demand is so huge, there’s plenty of business for Uber and its competitors including taxis.

“I think the founders of our company would be the first to tell you they had no idea the market would be this big,” Plouffe said.

In an interview at Uber’s downtown Seattle offices, Plouffe said Uber has 10,000 drivers in the Seattle area and has put $150 million back into the local economy. And he said the company is already acting on drivers’ concerns. It recently unveiled a rewards program to give drivers discounts on vehicle maintenance, for example.

Plouffe said he doesn’t hear Seattle drivers clamoring for unions and he doesn’t believe the city’s effort will hold up in court.

“I’m a little puzzled by it,” he said. “Presumably the city’s had to spend a lot of money on this and presumably might have to spend a lot more to defend what is almost assuredly something that’s going to be ruled to be illegal.”

He said Uber’s recent rate cuts were intended to bring in more riders and keep drivers from ever having empty cars.  

“That’s the goal here,” he said, “to bring the price down so as many people – including lower-income people – can benefit from the service, but that the drivers are making more money because they’re doing more trips.”

Seattle University law professor Charlotte Garden said the union proposal isn’t surprising considering the city’s other workplace rules.  

“Seattle has been on the forefront for the last several years, things like paid sick and safe time, raising the minimum wage, now this,” Garden said.

“History suggests that it’s not enough to rely on the private sector on its own to do the right thing with respect to its workforce,” she said. “At the same time it’s hard for government to have the resources it would need to enforce employment protections.”

Garden said supporters like City Councilmember Mike O’Brien want the union to fill that gap.  

“That’s one reason why the city might have wanted to empower workers to advocate on their own behalf through a collective bargaining representative,” she said.

Union officials say they have been successful in organizing home care workers and farm workers, who are also not traditional employees covered by federal law. 

Editor's note: Uber is currently underwriting on KUOW.

Year started with KUOW: 2005