Council approves Unionizing Uber drivers

This afternoon the City Council considered an ordinance to allow Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize.

The public comment session was interesting, with comments all over the map. There were drivers speaking out in favor of it, as well as union representatives and politicians such as Jon Grant and a couple of transit riders. There were also a fair number of people speaking out against it, claiming that they only found out about it last Friday (even though the bill went through committee back in September) and asking for more time to review it. Those speaking out against it included drivers (particularly from the Muslim community), and private organizations who claim to represent drivers.

Council member O’Brien, the sponsor of the bill, began the Council discussion by asserting that the intent of the legislation is “to allow innovation to happen to the benefit of workers, not at the expense of workers.”

After a couple of administrative amendments to update the version of the ballot that passed out of committee in September — one fixed legal wording at the behest of the City Attorney’s office, and the other to clean up other vague language — there was broader discussion.

Departing Council member Godden noted that she was a card-carrying union member and was happy to support it.

Council member Sawant quoted one of her colleagues in the workers’ movement: “Uber does not share and does not care.” She also claimed that last week Uber asked drivers to sign a new agreement agreeing that they are contract workers and not employees; she also noted that Uber has the unilateral right to “deactivate” drivers from their system, which she claims is another term for “firing” them in practice if not in legal equivalence.  Sawant also suggested that today’s Council vote is the easy part: the hard part is the long months of organizing a union. And she noted the solidarity of taxi and transit workers with the Uber drivers.

Council member Rasmussen noted that the ordinance is likely to draw lawsuits, but called that the cost of innovative policies. He said that he is happy to support it.

Council member Gonzalez noted that she is the daughter of low-wage immigrant workers, and is proud to support the ordinance and the workers’ movement. She claimed that this is “good policy for our city.” She also asked “Do we want to use the law as a shield, or as a sword? I believe we want to use it as a sword.”

Council member Harrell also through his support behind it (no surprise — he supported it in committee). He noted “The labor movement is critical to what’s happening in this country,” and pointed out that this is an industry that began with jobs that no one wanted but were taken up by people of color and immigrants — and now has progressed to a point where we’re discussing how to make them fair, high-quality, desirable jobs. He also reiterated that the work is just beginning not ending.

Council member Licata said “It’s taking advantage of the knowledge that technology has changed,” and creating an opportunity for workers to shape the industry that the technology has created.

Both Licata and Harrell raised the issue of cost — whether the City has the resources to successfully implement this. Both asserted that the city was committed to making that happen.

Council member O’Brien closed the discussion by recognizing that there are drivers who disagree — referring to them as “my friends” — and stated that even if they disagree on this issue he will be back to continue discussions with them in the near future. He stated his commitment to making sure that Seattle has a system that “is not a race to the bottom that enriches just a few” but that supports everyone in the community.

The Council voted 8-0 to approve it (Council member Bagshaw was absent). And the crowd went wild.