Originally published on the American Prospect’s Tapped blog, on October 6th 2015
Last Friday, the Seattle City Council finance committee voted unanimously to advance a bill that would allow drivers for companies like Lyft and Uber to form a union. The final vote has yet to be scheduled, but if the proposed legislation were to become law, it would be the first of its kind in the country.
Some taxi drivers—like those in Washington, D.C.—have affiliated with unions, but given their independent contractor status, they lack the power to negotiate directly with taxi companies. Their approach has mainly been to push for more favorable regulations around rates and working conditions. According to The Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis, this has worked out fairly well for the most part, but given that Uber and Lyft are not regulated very much, such a strategy is limited for them.
Hence the proposed bill, spearheaded by Seattle City Councilman, Mike O’Brien. If the National Labor Relations Act doesn’t cover independent contractors, could local governments still pass laws that would? It’s not without precedent: Some states have allowed farmworkers to join unions and O’Brien has been working with Teamsters Local 117 to find a concrete strategy for Seattle. While his bill focuses specifically on drivers, it may also set a precedent for workers’ rights for other industries that rely on independent contract labor.
If the bill were to pass, it would no doubt face fierce legal challenge. Opponents would likely argue that the statute violates federal law. But according to the Seattle Times, Mike O’Brien feels confident that his bill would be upheld in court.
“I’m always concerned (about the city losing a lawsuit),” he said. “That’s something we balance when we’re passing legislation that hasn’t been done before. There’s a trade-off between that risk and the benefit we would get for workers. I believe the upside on this is worth more than the downside.”
At the same time, Uber currently faces a big class-action lawsuit from as many as 160,000 current and former California drivers who argue they have been misclassified as independent contractors. And this past summer, FedEx settled a class-action lawsuit with more than 2,000 drivers found to be misclassified as independent contractors. The Department of Labor also recently published a new guidance on employee misclassification, which suggests it will be paying more attention to the issue going forward.
As Harold Meyerson has documented extensively for The American Prospect,Seattle has earned a national reputation for passing innovative worker protection laws. It raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, mandated paid sick leave, and criminalized wage theft. If Seattle also becomes the first city to allow Uber drivers to unionize, that would be another major feather in its cap.