Seattle City Council chambers were full with standing room only today as the Seattle City Council voted on a bill giving app-based drivers a way to unionize.
The Seattle City Council chambers had standing room only today as the council voted on a bill giving app-based drivers a way to unionize. HG

With a unanimous Seattle City Council vote today, Seattle became the first city ever to create a system under which drivers for Uber, Lyft, and other app-based services can collectively bargain with those companies. After the vote, supporters broke out in a chant of "When we fight, we win!"

The historic bill, championed by Council Member Mike O'Brien, creates a system in which the city will hand over the names of app-based drivers to nonprofits and unions interested in organizing. If a majority of drivers on a platform are interested, the company would be required to bargain.

“Do we want to use the law as a shield or do we want to use it as a sword?" asked new council member and civil rights lawyer Lorena González as she expressed support for the bill. "I say use it as a sword.”

Uber and Lyft representatives were not on hand during today's public comment, but have opposed the bill and are now likely to undertake a high-profile legal fight with the city over federal labor and anti-trust laws.

During a limited public comment period, some for-hire drivers from companies like East Side For Hire said they felt left out of the process of crafting this bill and urged either a "no" vote or a delay. But based on signs and applause lines, most of the crowd was supportive of the bill.

Mike O'Brien, who sponsored the legislation, decried the current state the ride-hailing economy as a "race to the bottom." The bill, he said, is a way to create "a system that is fair for everyone in our society."

Council Member Kshama Sawant compared the "so-called sharing economy" to the practice of sharecropping and added: “We do have power because without people to drive, Uber could not make a penny in profits. Any council member who votes no will clearly be saying they care more about the profits of a multi-billion-dollar company than the rights of Seattle workers."

In fact, no council member voted "no" and the bill passed 8-0. (Sally Bagshaw was absent.)

Other council members indicated they were ready for a lawsuit.

"My attitude about [a legal challenge] is that this is the work we’ve chosen to do," Council Member Bruce Harrell said ahead of the vote. "None of this kind of work is easy."

Mayor Ed Murray said in a letter to the council today that he "support[s] the right of workers to organize to create a fair and just workplace," but raised concerns about the demand the bill would place on city staff overseeing the unionization process. He also said he has "grave concern" about the costs of administering the law and defending it in court.

Murray's staff has not yet responded to my requests about whether he plans to veto the bill. That wouldn't make a whole lot of sense since the council clearly has the votes to overturn a veto, but he's been cagey about his position on the bill since O'Brien introduced it in August.

Along with a legal fight, the city will now undertake administrative work to create the process. Local organizers, meanwhile, will have to figure out just what kind of a union the constantly evolving tech world demands.

UPDATE: In a statement, Mayor Ed Murray says he won't sign the council's bill because of the "relatively unknown costs of administering the collective bargaining process and the burden of significant rulemaking the council has placed on city staff." But he won't veto it either, so it will still become law.

Here's the mayor's full statement:

“The tremendous growth of TNCs in Seattle, both in terms of popularity and the number of trips, demonstrates that this new business model is changing how people move around the city. These companies are providing valuable new tools for city residents and innovating at a tremendous pace.

“I said consistently during this debate that I support the right of workers to organize to create a fair and just workplace. 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. My office has shared my concerns with the Council throughout the debate, including a letter I sent to Council today.

“Since my concerns were not adequately addressed in this legislation, I will not sign this bill. Under the City Charter, the ordinance will become law without my signature. 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. I look forward to working with councilmembers in 2016 on their ordinance.”