Unionizing Uber drivers: harder than it looks

Last December, the City Council passed landmark legislation giving drivers for Uber and Lyft the right to engage in collective representation and bargaining. The ordinance delegated to the Director of the Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) department the rulemaking associated with defining the requirements for a Qualified Driver Representative (QDR) and the process for a QDR to officially be recognized as such and assume responsibilities for its members. The Council instructed FAS to have the rulemaking done no later than 240 days from the date the bill became law, which is  September 19th.

You may recall that the Mayor declined to sign the ordinance, allowing it to become law with neither his assent nor his veto. In a letter to the Council, he explained:

I remain concerned that this ordinance, as passed by the Council, includes several flaws, especially related to the relatively unknown costs of administering the collective bargaining process and the burden of significant rulemaking the Council has placed on City staff….  As this ordinance takes effect, my administration will begin its work to determine what it will take to implement the law. I believe it will be necessary to seek additional clarifying legislation from the Council.

The Mayor’s letter was prescient.

As presented in an update to the Council’s Education, Equity and Governance Committee today, it turns out that the rulemaking process is still stuck in first gear. FAS has hosted a series of workshops to gather input from both the drivers and the for-hire companies that employ them. They heard from 180 drivers and 9 business owners — which disappointed them as they expected to hear from more and a greater diversity of voices. They received many ideas for topics that should be covered by collective bargaining. But there was one big question — and the first one that needs to be answered — which fractured the driver community and set it against itself.

That question: which drivers qualify for representation?

To understand thy this is such a contentious question, it’s important to know the underlying subgroups of the 10,000 total Uber and Lyft drivers in Seattle.  There are those for whom driving for Uber is their full-time job, and they rely on it to pay their bills and support their families. There are also those who drive part-time as a way of supplementing other income: either a job in another field, or their retirement income.  In addition, there are both full-time and part-time taxi drivers who are Uber and Lyft drivers as well. And there are drivers who drive on both Uber and Lyft, part-time on each but collectively the equivalent of a full-time jobs.

What makes this challenging is that they all have different needs. If it’s a full-time job, then the stakes are high: they care about pay, benefits, access to jobs  and customers (and to the application — getting kicked off means they lose their primary income), transparency of the ratings system and management decisions, and appeals processes.  If it’s part-time, then they care more about flexibility and keeping the costs low of being in the system. If a drivers’ union is representing all drivers, then it would need to choose priorities for collective bargaining, favoring one group over the others.

For their parts, if Uber and Lyft have no choice but to negotiate with a drivers’ union, then they want all of the drivers in a single union; the internal divisions and dilution of priorities would sow enough dysfunction to keep the union at a disadvantage in negotiations. But they are just as happy to have the process of creating a union stall out and have provided no useful information to the city in terms of the demographics of Seattle drivers.

This boiled over in the public comment session at this afternoon’s explosive Council hearing (video here), in which three angry camps voiced their views:

  • full-time drivers who want representation for just full-time drivers because their needs are so different;
  • part-time drivers who insist on having a vote and being represented;
  • part-time drivers who don’t want to be represented by a union at all and want to keep things as they are today.

These are the folks that FAS has spent the last seven months with, trying to decide who are the “qualified drivers.” The part-time drivers who want representation have their slogan: “One ride, one vote,” suggesting that even if someone does the most minimal amount of work as an Uber or Lyft driver he or she would qualify for union membership. As councilmember O’Brien pointed out today, that appeals to American democratic values, but it’s still vague since it could mean “one ride every five years” or “one ride a week.” He suggested that it would be helpful to know which group of drivers is performing 75-80% of the total hours being delivered — data that of course Uber and Lyft aren’t willing to provide.

Council member Gonzalez urged FAS to take their cue from traditional labor law, both federal and state. This is actually helpful, since Washington Administrative Code dictates that employees must work at least the equivalent of 1/6 of fulltime hours to qualify for a union. But even that isn’t straightforward, since drivers could work more than 1/6 fulltime in aggregate across multiple services while less than 1/6 for any one of them.

In the end, the message from FAS was:

  • We need to do more outreach; we’re not happy with what we’ve got so far;
  • We need more data. We won’t get it from Uber and Lyft so we need to collect it directly from drivers;
  • We need more investigation into national and state labor laws;
  • In the end we will bring back to the Council an additional ordinance codifying our recommendations (as the Mayor predicted);
  • All of this will take up to six months, so we can’t possibly make the September 19th deadline.

In response, the Council members present (Gonzalez, Juarez, O’Brien and Harrell) were both understanding and impatient. They recognized the complexity of what they had required FAS to do, but felt they owe the drivers an answer as to when it will get done. Since the deadline is codified in an ordinance, extending it also requires an ordinance. Such a bill will be brought to the next Education, Equity and Governance Committee meeting on August 17th and will extend the deadline for an additional six months. Committee chair Harrell was clear, though, that he wanted to see an outline of the outreach and data-collection schedule to provide assurances that FAS can complete the work this time.  O’Brien wasn’t entirely comfortable with a six-month extension, noting that it felt like a long time, and he wanted to know what the schedule would look like if the deadline was pushed out less than six months.

Harrell sympathized with that point, suggesting that there would be no perfect answer and that in the end a “tough call” would need to be made that some would be unhappy with.

“At some point,” Harrell said, “we need to rip the band-aid and move forward on what we’re trying to do.”