Eight months after Uber and Lyft drivers won the right to unionize, the city is still struggling to implement the law.
Eight months after Uber and Lyft drivers won the right to unionize, the city is still struggling to implement the law. HG

In December, Seattle passed a never-before-tried law allowing drivers for app-based ride companies like Uber and Lyft to unionize. The legislation came after outcry from drivers who said they suffer from low wages and unexpected deactivations on the platforms. The law, passed unanimously, had the potential to flip power dynamics in the gig economy on their head.

But eight months later, the unionization law is stalled in city bureaucracy and drivers have not yet taken a vote on whether to organize.

In recent weeks, city staff have told the Seattle City Council they're having trouble deciding who should be considered a "qualified driver" and allowed to vote on unionization. Should anyone who signs up to drive for an app be allowed to vote, even if they only give one ride a month? Or should the law only cover drivers who depend on their app to make their living? In that case, what should be the cutoff for hours worked or rides given?

Drivers and advocates have filled council chambers during two meetings this month, some demanding "one ride, one vote" and others arguing for a higher threshold. The Seattle Times reported earlier this month that Teamsters 117, the union that advocated for the law, believes Uber is advocating for "one ride, one vote" to "dilute the voting pool."

Now, with pushback guaranteed either way, no one in city hall wants to make the decision.

Although the city council passed the unionization law, staffers for the city's Finance and Administrative Services Department—who answer to the mayor—were left responsible for creating the rules to implement it. Yesterday, those staffers told the the council that the mayor doesn't want his staff to make the call.

"The mayor feels that since he did not sign this legislation, the council needs to weigh in on this very complicated decision," David Mendoza, a policy adviser to the mayor, told the council during a meeting of the equity and governance committee, which is overseeing the law, yesterday.

But the city council doesn't want to make the decision either. Council members seemed surprised, calling the statement from Mendoza "new information."

"That's your job, not ours," Council President Bruce Harrell told Mendoza. (Harrell said he doesn't believe qualified drivers should include people who only drive once, but doesn't know what the cutoff should be.)

It's not the first time Murray has tried to avoid this law. When the council considered it in December, he refused to take a position. When they passed it, he declined to either sign or veto it.

In order to hash out a potential definition of "qualified driver" to bring to the council, FAS staff said they plan to survey drivers to try to find out their demographics and how much they drive—data Uber and Lyft don't want to hand over themselves. But they admitted the survey was unlikely to make the decision about who should be a "qualified driver" any easier. And the council agreed.

"I think a survey would be incredibly helpful, particularly because we can’t get any of that data from the companies that hold it," Council Member Lorena González said. "I’m just questioning how helpful it will be to me as policy maker."

Now, thanks to this next-level bureaucratic avoidance, the path forward—and how much longer drivers will have to wait to organize—is in limbo. FAS staffers said they will craft a definition in coming weeks to present to the council for a vote. It's unclear whether the council will comply or try to force FAS to make the decision.

Originally, the rules for the unionization law were supposed to be approved by September 19. Harrell's committee next meets on September 7, when the council could extend that deadline.