This afternoon, the Seattle city council unanimously passed a bill that will give drivers the right to collectively bargain. The legislation is historic, not just for ride-hail drivers, but for all contract workers who have been legally barred from organizing.
Ride-hail drivers have fought to self-organize harder in Seattle than in almost any other American city, and lawmakers in Seattle have been struggling to regulate ride-hailing companies for two years, but have so far failed to compel Uber, Lyft and others to share the data the city needs to write reasonable legislation. This new legislation could require transportation network companies, as they're called, to share information about drivers that they have previously fought very hard to keep under wraps.
Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant said in her remarks that the legislation would be a victory for American labor, which has seen a "decimation of the union movement" in recent years. She called the bill "a historic step towards offering collective bargaining rights for otherwise precarious workers."
The law also gives taxi and for-hire drivers throughout the city the right to organize. During public comments at city hall on Monday, multiple for-hire drivers spoke against the bill, saying they had not been given adequate time to read and understand the legislation. Others who opposed the bill argued that city council could more positively impact workers by setting rates and controlling the number of licenses distributed than by forging a path toward collective bargaining. "This is a scam," said taxi lobbyist Chris Van Dyk.
From here, it won't be a straight shot to organization: First, drivers will have to vote on whether they even want to seek representation as a group; if they do, they'll have to select what group they want to be represented by. The city will approve groups that meet the necessary qualifications; they must be registered nonprofits experienced in negotiations between employers and contractors. Uber, Lyft and the other companies will then be required to share lists of people who work near full-time for them as drivers with the third-party group. The "near-full-time" classification will be based on a multi-part formula; to earn a vote, drivers have to work at least 80% of what full-time employment would be.
Following the vote, a spokesperson for Lyft said via email, "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."
And on top of that, the city council's decision will almost certainly be challenged in the courts. Uber is widely expected to respond to today's vote in Seattle as they have responded to attempts at regulation elsewhere — with a lawsuit. Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard Law School professor who has been following regulation of the gig economy closely, said Uber's legal claims "will likely be federal labor preemption" (federal precedents that say contract workers can't organize trumps local government) "and/or antitrust violations." But, Sachs added: "There are very strong defenses to both legal attacks."
But, said council member Tom Rasmussen, a lawsuit is "the cost of innovative policy on working conditions."
The drivers' efforts have been buttressed by the local Teamsters 117. Because drivers are classified as independent contractors and not employees, they can't by law join formal labor unions. But the Teamsters have set up the App-Based Drivers Association (ABDA) in Seattle to lend support and experience to the drivers who want to leverage their numbers to negotiate better contracts with the tech companies. The ABDA is likely to be one of the more popular options should drivers in Seattle vote to organize.
"We have a tested paradigm over the last 100 years to leverage collective action to make improvements," Teamsters 117 spokesperson Dawn Gearhart told BuzzFeed News. "What they get by coming to our organization is, we have experience."
This law aside, Uber, Lyft and their ilk are fighting battles across the country. There is, of course, the much-hyped class action lawsuit the companies will face in California next June. Reuters reported last week, however, that in other states, Uber has successfully lobbied for laws that will cement drivers' status as contractors. But Seattle marks the first time that drivers have had sufficient initiative to fight for their right to bargain directly with these companies themselves, a moment that is as pivotal for ride-hail companies as it is for the future of the American labor movement.
The Seattle Stranger reports that Mayor Ed Murray has announced he will not sign the bill, citing "several flaws, especially related to the relatively unknown costs of administering the collective bargaining process." However, the Stranger reports, "he won't veto it either, so it will still become law."