With just under two weeks until the Seattle City Council's vote on a bill allowing Uber drivers to unionize, the ride-hailing company is advertising on KUOW and running a polished new TV spot in Seattle. (It's below.)
The company's TV ad doesn't explicitly mention the unionization legislation, but it's hard to believe the timing is merely coincidental.
In Seattle, Uber representatives have spoken against the bill in city council chambers and lobbied council members in their offices, but they haven't undertaken the kind of jeering public campaign they used against New York Mayor Bill de Blasio when he supported restricting Uber there. That makes this new advertising presence in Seattle, while not directly targeted at bill sponsor Mike O'Brien, notable.
A company spokesperson dodged my question about whether the new advertising is related to the unionization vote and e-mailed me this statement instead: “Platforms like Uber are boosting the incomes of millions of American families. In Seattle alone there are over 5,000 people who use Uber to help pay the bills, earn extra spending money, or transition between jobs.”
Um, OK? What about the claims Uber is making in its new ad about the jobs it's offering?
This is the TV spot Uber is running, which encourages viewers to sign up to be drivers and seems to be trying to lodge a message in the rest of our minds too. (That message: Driving for Uber is a dream job.)
The first word in the ad is "flexibility," which is repeated twice more.
"Uber's not my boss," says one driver (whom GeekWire identifies as Dori Guy). "Uber is my partner."
While it's true that Uber uses the term "partner," there are several important working conditions that are very much not "flexible" for you if you're a driver for Uber.
Uber sets the rates drivers are paid and can reduce those rates with little notice. It can also suddenly deactivate drivers, taking them off the online system and making them unable to give rides and therefore unable to make money.
In Seattle and elsewhere, drivers for both Uber and its rival Lyft have complained about being deactivated after they've gotten involved with efforts to unionize. (The companies deny those claims.) That uncertainty was one of the reasons Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien said he drafted the unionization bill that's before the council now. Drivers "live in fear of waking up and seeing they have been deactivated," O'Brien said when he unveiled the bill.
As one Uber driver, Yedidya Seifu, told Sydney for her recent story about a possible Uber union:
"We realized we weren't making that much money, and yet they have the ultimate say in our business. When we joined, they told us we would be partners. But if we are partners, then we automatically assume we have a say as well. And that wasn't the case."
The focus on "flexibility" in Uber's new ad is not a coincidence either. That's an argument that comes up frequently as a wedge between the part-time and full-time app-based drivers.
“If I become unhappy I can just do something else,” one part-time Lyft driver who opposes unionizing told the Seattle Times recently. “I’m making good money in a short amount of time.”
But this talk about “flexibility,” especially as an argument against unionization, ignores a number of problems. First, plenty of drivers work full time and depend on these companies for their livelihood. Some have borrowed thousands of dollars to buy the cars they need to drive for a company like Uber. They cannot all simply "do something else."
Second, it assumes that unionizing would only benefit full-time drivers. In fact, as Sydney reported, a union in the new tech economy could look wholly different from the unions of the past. Bargaining for things like greater say in how rates or driver ratings are set (low ratings can lead to deactivation) could help both part- and full-time drivers.
Plus, real "flexibility" may be an illusion in the new tech-based economy. Again, Sydney explains:
[Technology researcher Alex] Rosenblat's research, published with coauthor Luke Stark, also highlighted another power imbalance: While drivers are being managed by these different virtual ropes and pulleys, Uber collects real-time data about drivers' movements to inform their algorithms and better their business. The idea that drivers are wholly free and flexible in their entrepreneurship is inherently flawed. "The automatic production, collection, and aggregation of data from workers who are connected to their workplace, even when they are not being paid, marks the on-demand platform economy's departure from a traditional service economy," Rosenblat and Stark write. "The digital connectivity of platform-based work enables a type of continuous, soft surveillance by employers/platforms."
Despite all of these unprecedented "gig economy" working conditions that are controlled by the ride-hailing companies, Uber and Lyft drivers are not legally considered employees of these companies. That is why they don't currently have the ability to unionize.
It's those conditions—not part-timer drivers' "flexibility"—that makes drivers want to organize.
The council bill will get a vote from the full city council on December 14.