Teamsters’ Seattle Unionizing Threatens Self-Employed Uber Drivers

Posted by Emily Leayman on Wednesday, March 15th, 2017 at 2:48 pm - Permalink

By Emily Leayman

An effort to unionize Seattle Uber and Lyft drivers seeks to threaten the freedoms these drivers have as independent contractors.

Seattle would be the first jurisdiction to unionize ridesharing drivers if it wins an election. Washington State’s Teamsters 117 received permission from the city to unionize Uber and Lyft drivers on March 3 but the effort has been over a year in the making. In 2015, the Seattle City Council voted to extend collective bargaining rights to the ridesharing employees. The ordinance would require companies to negotiate points such as minimum hours with the union.

The bill had been delayed from going into effect until January 2017 to decide which drivers could unionize. The city determined drivers that made 52 trips during any three months of the last year qualify for union membership. The ordinance also extends collective bargaining rights to independent taxi drivers.

The ordinance allows Teamsters to count membership cards rather than hold a traditional election. It also requires companies to turn over personal contact information for drivers, which the lawsuit claims violates the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.

Uber and Lyft’s successes stem from drivers ability to work any number of hours they choose on any given day. Because drivers are independent contractors, they can decide for themselves whether they work more or less hours without a third party intervening. In Seattle, Uber has approximately 10,000 drivers and Lyft over 1,000.

The ridesharing companies have voiced opposition for this reason. “We, as Uber, don’t tell drivers when, where, and how they are going to drive,” said Uber spokesperson Caleb Weaver. “Much less tell them that they need to show up and be in a room so we can provide them with information.”

Uber filed a challenge in the county court in January and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce refiled a lawsuit when the ordinance took effect. The Uber lawsuit will appear in court on March 17.

In New York, Uber and drivers agreed to everything except official collective bargaining in 2016. The company allowed drivers to form an association called the Independent Drivers Guild, where members could discuss concerns.  

Not just business leadership is opposed to unionization in Seattle. On March 10, about a dozen drivers filed a federal lawsuit for violation of First Amendment Rights from forced union representation and dues. They are also challenging the order for companies to turn over personal information.

The city will hold its next hearing on the policy on March 21.

Washington is not a right-to-work state, meaning a collective bargaining agreement may force employees to pay fees even if they do not join the union.

Expanding union membership to ridesharing drivers is a manipulative scheme to add to a depleting base of dues-paying members. According to its newest data, the union lost more than 26,000 members nationwide from 2014 to 2015. Uber and Lyft deduct a percentage of fares, and Teamsters’ $25-per-month dues would further take away from drivers’ earnings.

A one-size-fits-all collective bargaining agreement, particularly minimum hour standards, hurts a workforce with diverse employment circumstances. While some workers can make driving a full-time job, others see it as a second job or an option during temporary unemployment.

Eligibility for voting in the union election is favored toward drivers working more hours. In a statement, Lyft pointed out that drivers that have not made the 52-trip requirement do not get a say in forming a union. If collective bargaining sets minimum hours, earning extra money occasionally with Uber and Lyft may be less feasible in between another job.

For drivers that choose to work when demand and fares are higher, they might be on the road during slow times if forced to work additional hours. Set hours would blur the line between taxi drivers idling as they wait for riders and earn-as-you-go ridesharing.

Judging from Teamsters’ past cases, it’s possible that drivers could face coercive actions when asked to sign union membership cards. Self-employed drivers shouldn’t be forced into a century-old workplace model where unions have the upper hand in the workplace—all while earning a profit.