Seattle City Council members voted 7-0 in a committee Friday to move ahead with a bill that would help independent-contractor drivers for companies like Uber to unionize.
The proposed legislation, approved by the council’s finance committee, would require taxi companies, for-hire vehicle companies and app-based dispatch companies such as Uber and Lyft to enter collective bargaining with organizations representing drivers.
The bill, championed by Councilmember Mike O’Brien in partnership with the Teamsters Local 117, is a new approach by labor organizers to unionize workers who lack certain rights because they’re not classified as employees.
The legislation would be the first in the country requiring companies to bargain with independent contractors and might carry implications outside the driving industry.
The move by the Teamsters seems contradictory. In D.C. for instance, the Teamsters are opposed to Uber and have launched a lawsuit against the City over its unfair regulations that benefit digital dispatch companies, such as Uber to the disadvantage of D.C. cab drivers. [MORE] Yet in Seattle the Teamsters are working with Uber drivers.
The nine-member council has yet to schedule a final vote on the bill. The city will almost certainly be sued if the council adopts the legislation and the mayor signs it, because opponents, including Uber and Lyft, argue it conflicts with federal law.
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which grants employees the right to collective bargaining, doesn’t do that for independent contractors, the opponents note. Further, they say, local governments lack the authority to regulate collective bargaining.
Proponents might argue the NLRA shouldn’t matter precisely because it doesn’t cover independent contractors. City Attorney Pete Holmes has kept mum on his advice to the council, while O’Brien has expressed confidence the city can beat a challenge.
“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.”
Under the legislation, drivers for each company would choose by majority vote a nonprofit organization to serve as their representative in collective bargaining.
The organizations would need to be certified by the city and would receive driver lists from the city in order to organize before a vote. Lyft has said the process might compromise the privacy of the company’s drivers.
“We are disappointed with the committee vote to advance a policy that threatens the privacy of drivers, imposes substantial costs on passengers and the city, and conflicts with long-standing federal law,” Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson said Friday.
Breakdowns in the bargaining process required by the legislation would lead to arbitration, and the resulting contracts would be enforced by the courts. The city could fine companies or revoke their licenses to enforce the legislation.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell was among those who voted for the bill in committee Friday and called it “a piece of legislation that heads us in the right direction.”
But Harrell also said he hopes proponents, such as the Teamsters, will sit down with the bill’s opponents to hammer out a compromise before the council’s final vote. That would save the city and companies from having to slug it out in court, he said.
“The elephant in the room is that this is going to result in litigation. That means everybody loses except the lawyers,” Harrell said. “It would be ideal for the parties to work on this, and we as council members should encourage them to do that.”