During a recent Seahawks game, an Uber television ad aired; it featured a driver who says he struggled to find work and would have likely ended up homeless if it hadn’t been for Uber. The driver, identified only as Maurice, states: “My security is in my flexibility to run my business the way I choose to run it.” Then he warns: “With the Teamsters union, I’d no longer be able to do that.”
In another ad, Toni, an Uber driver and former chemo patient, says, “If the city forces collective bargaining onto Uber drivers, you effectively turn us into taxicabs… When you kill the industry by forcing a union, there’s nothing left to organize. The industry’s gone.”
These spots are part of a campaign by Uber to respond to a new potential for union organizing in Seattle. Last December, this city made national headlines when it passed a first-of-its-kind law allowing drivers for ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft to unionize. The local ordinance, pushed through by a labor-friendly city council up for reelection, flew in the face of federal labor laws and promised to test the bounds of long-standing legal restrictions in the new “gig economy.”
But now, nearly a year later, actual unionization for drivers is nowhere in sight and Uber is doubling down on efforts to discourage Seattle drivers from organizing. The company says its efforts are in the interest of educating drivers about the new law, but the messaging shows a clear attempt to sow fear about what being in a union would mean for drivers.
As the city finalizes the rules for how drivers could form a union, the company is running ads online and on TV, sending text and e-mail messages to drivers, holding meetings, and hosting a podcast (which it advertises to drivers when they sign in to the app to work). Across Uber’s messaging, the theme is the same: Unionizing, the company says, will ruin the “flexibility” drivers value. Drivers may be forced into a union against their will and the new rules could drive Uber out of Seattle entirely.
Uber’s podcast—a faux-casual back and forth between a company manager and a driver—dishes out reasons to fear the ordinance in 10-minute chunks: It was passed without driver input, it’s a scheme to make unions more money, it won’t give drivers the right to vote on a contract with the company, drivers will be “pushed” or “forced” into a union… The company regularly refers to drivers (whose rates they control and whom they can kick off the app at their discretion) as “partners” or “entrepreneurs.”
But drivers who support unionizing—along with Teamsters Local 117, the union that hopes to represent them—say Uber’s tactics are misleading and designed to scare drivers. The company’s repeated raising of questions about “flexibility,” they say, is a distraction from the real reasons they want to organize, including low pay. (Last year, Uber driver Takele Gobena told The Stranger he was making less than $2.75 an hour once he factored in expenses.) Unlike Lyft, Uber does not allow passengers to tip drivers. And drivers also want more transparency in the process of getting kicked off the app. Currently, Uber drivers sometimes do not know why they’ve been deactivated. If it’s because of negative customer reviews, they are not always shown those reviews. (Uber says it now offers drivers an appeals process and in most cases gives warnings before taking the step of deactivation.)
Union supporters say questions of pay and input on policies like deactivations—not killing flexibility—are their priorities.
"The only way they can scare these drivers is by saying, 'You're gonna lose your flexibility [and the union will control] when you can drive,'" says driver Musse Bahta. "It has nothing to do with it."
Uber has been outspoken about the unionization ordinance since Council Member Mike O'Brien first unveiled it last year. The company is also now opposing new city rules about who would be able to vote on whether to form a union. The city's Finance and Administrative Services department has proposed allowing drivers to vote if they've given 52 rides during a three-month period in the last year and have been driving since before October 19, 2016. Uber says this excludes drivers who work less and should be able to vote on unionizing. (The Teamsters, meanwhile, oppose these rules too, saying full-time drivers' votes should be more heavily weighted since they rely on the company for their livelihood.)
"Don't let Seattle government give a minority of drivers the power to make decisions for everyone," the company said in a recent e-mail to drivers. Taking that step, the e-mail went on, would mean "putting local jobs and the reliability of ride-share at risk."
In tone, Uber's Seattle campaign isn't so different from classic business tactics to discourage workers from organizing by saying it could lead to job loss or other consequences. The difference is in the scale.
"We've never seen an anti-Teamsters ad during the Seahawks," says Teamsters business representative Dawn Gearhart. "We've never seen a podcast... You can only do that if you have $68 billion." (That's Uber's worth, according to the research firm CB Insights. The company would not disclose how much it paid to air the ad during the Seahawks game.)
Uber competitor Lyft has also opposed the law, but it has not undertaken the same sort of anti-unionization campaign, according to Gearhart and several drivers who work on both apps.
Throughout its messaging, Uber has frequently used two particularly misleading arguments (drivers say these arguments were repeated at recent in-person meetings across the region):
• A contract with a union would limit when drivers could work. The Teamsters' Gearhart and drivers who support unionizing say this isn't their goal at all. "The one thing all drivers have in common is they like the flexibility," Gearhart says. "If drivers decide to come together and negotiate a deal and that deal threatens their flexibility, they're going to vote no."
• Drivers won't get to vote on the contract the union negotiates with Uber. It's true that the city's law doesn't require drivers to get a vote on a new contract, but Gearhart says the Teamsters' bylaws require a vote. So if the Teamsters end up representing Uber drivers, selected drivers will get to be at the bargaining table with Uber and all drivers will vote on any contract they negotiate, she says.
When I asked an Uber spokesperson whether, considering all this, its messaging was misleading, he said that if drivers unionize, "it is impossible to guarantee there would not be a loss of flexibility in terms of who can drive and when."
Gearhart believes the company's fight is really about defending the power it holds over drivers. "The moment they have to talk to drivers and treat them like human beings is the moment they have to change their business model completely," she says. "That's what they're protecting."
The company is working toward driverless cars, which could someday render drivers obsolete, she says, but "in the meantime, they have a power dynamic to protect."This story has been updated.