Last updated: 10:50 PM ET, Sun December 13 2015

Will Seattle Start an Uber Unionization Domino Effect?

Car Rental & Rail | Michael Isenbek | December 13, 2015

Will Seattle Start an Uber Unionization Domino Effect?

Seattle’s city council will vote Monday whether to grant drivers who work for app-based, on-demand; ride hailing services such as Uber and Lyft the right to collectively bargain over pay and working conditions — a situation those companies are not happy about, and may in fact be illegal, the Associated Press reported.

Seattle is no stranger to pioneering workers’ rights legislation, the AP noted. It is one of the first cities to pass laws that will gradual raise minimum wage to $15 and require employers to give paid sick leave.

But as Councilmember Mike O'Brien explained to the AP, the ride-hailing service drivers are independent contractors, so the National Labor Relations Act, which allows for collective bargaining, doesn’t cover them. O’Brien also told the AP that many Seattle drivers are immigrants who need the full-time work, but some make less than minimum wage, and lack basic worker rights.

"This feels like the right thing to do," O'Brien said to the AP, who expects a legal battle if the measure passes. "We don't take legal challenges lightly, but we recognize that businesses sue when they disagree with our policies."

"The ordinance is puzzling because I think it's generally believed to be flatly illegal what they're trying to do," said Uber chief adviser David Plouffe, who ran President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, during a recent talk in Seattle, according to the AP.

Plouffe is referring to federal labor laws that prevent cities from regulating collective bargaining for independent contractors, the AP said, and also the fact that such an ordinance would violate federal antitrust laws put in place to block independent transportation providers from artificially driving up transportation costs.

Samuel Estreicher, a law professor at New York University, said to the AP that if the drivers aren't employees per federal labor law, that pre-empts any contradicting city ordinance.

He pointed out to the AP that the bigger issue is whether or not independent businesses uniting to collectively bargain is an antitrust violation.

"If the Seattle ordinance survives challenge, we'll see it in a lot of cities," Estreicher declared.

"We believe the proposed ordinance threatens the privacy of drivers, imposes substantial costs on passengers and the city, and conflicts with longstanding federal law," Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson said in a statement, per the AP.

Under the proposed ordinance, the AP explained, “the city will give certified nonprofits organizations a list of eligible drivers at each company, and the groups must show that a majority of drivers of each company want representation. Those organizations would then bargain on behalf of those drivers.”

Michael Palmer, 55, an Uber driver for a year and a half who drives around 50 hours a week, indicated to the AP that he's divided. "Unions always have been a good thing in any business. It helps with having a voice," adding, "But I don't know if a union would work for something like Uber."

"Are we employees or partners? We don't get treated as partners," said Fasil Teka, 40, a part time Uber driver, to the AP. "We have no way to negotiate with Uber … The only way we can achieve what we deserve as a driver is by working together," he said.

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