Uber and Lyft boast of being the vanguard of the sharing economy, blazing new trails in digital innovation. The City of Seattle has just tempered that idealistic vision with some much-needed worker protections.
When the rideshare cartel came to town, Seattle drivers mobilized with digital innovation of their own, creating the country’s first law granting collective bargaining rights to rideshare service drivers. The new legislation, passed by an 8–0 vote by the City Council, effectively paves the way for unionizing Uber and Lyft drivers, which could serve as a model for other cities and raises major questions about Uber’s obligations under federal and local labor laws.
The law will likely add to a slew of complex legal battles facing rideshare companies that bridle against local regulations. Lyft argues that such measures would unfairly curtail the “flexible economic opportunity it offers” to supposedly self-employed drivers. Enabling unionization would undercut the expansion strategy of capturing a local for-hire vehicle sector through slick recruitment campaigns, aggressive lobbying to circumvent local law, and ruthlessly out-competing local cabbies on fares and consumer marketing.
For now, however, labor advocates are celebrating this as a vindication of months of grassroots campaigning, spearheaded by the Teamster-affiliated App-Based Drivers Association, which has been advocating for decent wages and fairer working conditions.
Rebecca Smith of National Employment Law Project sees the Seattle rule as a promising model for driver organizing, in part because it is both flexible and complementary to existing legal frameworks. The Seattle ordinance treats drivers as independent contractors, but does not aim to preempt or conflict with federal wage-and-hour laws. So if Uber drivers are found to be employees under federal labor law, they can still enjoy the collective bargaining rights established by Seattle’s government.
“The genius of this ordinance is that it calls the company’s bluff,” Smith says. “Essentially the workers have said, If you want to treat us like independent contractors, then the city can allow us to collectively bargain as independent contractors.”