Uber and Lyft drivers filled council chambers when the city council gave them the right to unionize last year. Now, theyre back before the council as the city struggles to implement that law.
Uber and Lyft drivers filled council chambers when the city council gave them the right to unionize last year. Now, they're back before the council as the city struggles to implement that law. HG

Today marked another chapter in local politicians' ongoing effort to put off a controversial decision on Seattle's groundbreaking Uber unionization law. Seattle City Council voted to extend the deadline for making rules about how the new law will take effect, including the controversial decision about which drivers will be allowed to vote on whether to form a union.

Last year, the council passed the law allowing drivers for app-based services like Uber and Lyft to unionize, promising drivers more control over their schedules and pay. But the law handed some significant rule-making decisions to the city's Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS), including the question of who should be considered a "qualified driver" allowed to vote on unionization.

Some drivers say anyone who has signed up to drive on the app should be allowed to vote. Others argue that drivers who work full-time should have the primary say over the process. FAS was supposed to make the call by next Monday.

But last month, staff for Mayor Ed Murray told the city council the mayor didn't want them to make that decision. The problem: The city council didn't want to make the call either. Facing a decision that was sure to piss off a large group of people no matter which way it went, the two branches of government stood at an impasse.

Today, the council punted the decision, extending the deadline for FAS to make the rules to January 17 and calling on the department to survey drivers before then. The law directs FAS to consider the total trips drivers take as well as the length and frequency of those trips and "any other factors that indicate that a driver’s work for a [company like Uber or Lyft] is significant enough to affect the safety and reliability of for-hire transportation."

As in several other meetings, drivers flooded council chambers today wearing green T-shirts that say, "I drive, I vote" and demanding that all drivers, no matter how much or how little they drive, be allowed the same vote. They complained that unionizing would threaten the "flexibility" they have working for apps like Uber.

"A union is going to say where we can drive, when we can drive," one driver said during public comment today. "I came to Uber because of the flexibility," said another. "I make Uber work for me."

Uber and Lyft drivers wearing I drive, I vote shirts say every driver should get the same vote on whether to unionize. Others say full-time drivers should have a larger say than part-time drivers.
Uber and Lyft drivers wearing "I drive, I vote" shirts say every driver should get the same vote on whether to unionize. Others say full-time drivers should have a larger say than part-time drivers. Seattle Channel

Other drivers said they wanted the protection of a union to help guard against unpredictable changes from the app companies, like fare reductions or being suddenly kicked off the apps. "I want a union to represent me to deal with [Uber]," one driver said today. "I work with fear, never knowing what will happen to me."

Dawn Gearhart, an organizer with the Teamsters union, which pushed for the legislation, told The Stranger she believes Uber is funding the "I drive, I vote" group in order to "flood the bargaining unit to make it impossible for drivers to ever negotiate. Standard anti-union campaigning." (Uber did not immediately return a request for comment about this. UPDATE: In a statement, Uber said the drivers who testified today "came on their own accord," though the company emailed drivers letting them know the ordinance would be discussed today. The company says it believes drivers should all get one vote on unionization, no matter how much or little they drive.)

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Gearhart said her union believes the city should define "qualified driver" as someone who works about 80 percent of full-time or based on the number of rides a driver gives in a set period of time. The union suggests "one ride, one vote or 5000 rides 5000 votes," Gearhart said.

At today's meeting, Gearhart told concerned drivers, "We don't want your flexibility."

"The way [unionizing] usually works is drivers or members negotiate their own contract," Gearhart said. "If it hurts them, they vote no."