Seattle council allows Uber and Lyft drivers to form unions

Taxi drivers Getachew Mersha (left) and Dawit Tesfaye lead a group of drivers and community members on their way to deliver a petition to Mayor Ed Murray's Office requesting rideshare drivers be allowed to unionize. (Photo by Jovelle Tamayo)
Taxi drivers Getachew Mersha (left) and Dawit Tesfaye lead a group of drivers and community members on their way to deliver a petition to Mayor Ed Murray’s Office requesting rideshare drivers be allowed to unionize. (Photo by Jovelle Tamayo)

The story of Uber driver Tekele Gobena gave me a number of reasons to rethink my once-frequent use of app-based ride-hailing services. Gobena told me two months ago that in addition to only earning less than $3 per hour after Uber slashed its prices multiple times, he claimed his driver’s account on the app was deactivated without notice after he spoke out in the press against the company.

Thankfully, horror stories like Gobena’s soon could become a thing of the past. On Monday, Seattle City Council members unanimously passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance in the nation to allow drivers for app-based services such as Uber and Lyft to negotiate their working conditions and pay. The law also applies to all other drivers for taxi and for-hire companies who hold for-hire vehicle licenses.

Gobena on Monday called the legislation a victory.

“When you get a part to negotiate, when you get a part to talk about issues … it helps my family and it helps my fellow drivers. Most of drivers in this city are immigrants, so we came to this country to work hard and to get paid what we deserve,” Gobena said.

Mayor Ed Murray, who said he supports the right of workers to organize, nevertheless cited concerns with administration costs. Murray said he will not sign the bill but his office says it will become law without his signature.

“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,” he said in a prepared statement.

Under the new law, drivers providing a minimum threshold of trips have the option to join a “Driver Representative Organization,” through which they can negotiate wages and working conditions with their the ride-share companies. Drivers of the companies would have to vote to be represented by the organization.

City Councilmember Kshama Sawant said that the ordinance “would be a historic step for offering collective bargaining rights for otherwise precarious workers.”

For Gobena and hundreds of other drivers working for “transportation network companies” — the official city term for the app-based ride share services — the protections granted under the new ordinance could not have come sooner.

“Our treatment went from worse to worst,” said Gobena, who works for both Uber and Lyft. “We’ve been waiting patiently for the last year and a half, so today is a big victory not only for drivers, but for riders and also our city. I have riders every single day who see how much I get paid and they felt so bad.”

In the last year, Seattle’s Uber services came under fire for cutting its per-mile rates and slashing down fare prices, both of which critics said came at the cost of the drivers. The second price cut was later reversed. Additionally, the company, which advertises its drivers making $25 to $30 an hour, has lured many drivers away from traditional cab companies.

According to City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who sponsored the legislation, support from riders are a big part of why he was so confident it would pass. O’Brien had been expecting a backlash from Uber users, but he never heard from large numbers of riders who were against the proposal, he said before Monday’s meeting.

I think the reason it hasn’t happened is because in Seattle, the reality is … people that use Uber actually support that their drivers get paid fairly. They see that ‘Yeah, I love using it, but every time I use it, I feel guilty,’” O’Brien said.

Uber defended its role in helping people earn a living while setting their own hours, and pointed out that the majority of the drivers work part-time for the company to augment the pay they get from other jobs, according to a prepared statement provided to tech blog GeekWire.

While drivers and activists flooded out of City Council chambers to offer congratulations on Monday afternoon, many said that the battle was not yet over.

According to Dawn Gearhart, business representative for the Teamsters Local 117 Union, a court battle over the new policy is expected. “But workers aren’t going to be stopped,” she said.