In this labor-friendly city, no organization can pack a City Hall meeting like a union. But, yesterday, the room was jammed for Uber, a multibillion dollar corporation. They were there for a hearing proposing rules on rideshare drivers unionizing.
The catch? Uber’s crowd of drivers to say they don't want or need collective bargaining rights.
Over the course of three hours, those drivers, many wearing green "I drive, I vote" t-shirts and holding signs that said "#EveryDriverCounts," nearly drowned out pro-union messages.
"We’re already a union," one driver said. "We don’t need a union. We already have a voice."
The hearing was the latest action in an ongoing fight between Uber and the Teamsters union, with city officials caught in the middle. Although the Seattle City Council passed the law allowing drivers to unionize last year, they left important decisions, including who should be allowed to vote on joining a union, up to the city's Finance and Administrative Services Department. Uber has called for allowing all drivers to vote, no matter if they work one day a month or every day for eight hours a day. The Teamsters union, which hopes to represent drivers if they organize, says all drivers should be allowed to vote, but the votes of those who drive full-time should be more heavily weighted. After yesterday’s hearing, city staff may tweak their draft rules about who can vote. The rules must be in place by January 17.
The law grew out of complaints from the app’s drivers, who complained of low wages (less than $5 an hour in some cases), and intermittent and confusing deactivations, leaving them without work.
But Tuesday, anti-union drivers described making $15, $20, or $25 an hour.
“Every ad I’ve ever seen from Lyft and Uber," one part-time driver told the crowd, "says, 'Make money in your spare time' not 'Do this full time.'"
But many of the drivers who've advocated for a union in recent years say they do depend on apps like Uber and Lyft for their full income.
“I’m not a driver because I’m bored at home," a pro-union driver said yesterday. "I drive because this is my livelihood. This is what I do to care for my family."
Drivers opposing unionization also expressed fears about union representatives harassing them to join.
"I don't want some union representative knowing where I live," said Karen Whittle, who said she is a veteran who has been driving for Uber for about a year.
Throughout the hearing, the talking points from drivers who oppose unionizing also mirrored Uber's ongoing anti-union ad campaign: They fear losing flexibility and worry a union might mandate when and where they can drive. Representatives for Uber say they fear the Teamsters union will try to negotiate a contract for drivers that requires a minimum wage, which would require the company to limit the number of drivers working at any one moment in order to ensure drivers' wages. But in interviews, drivers who support unionizing and a representative for the Teamsters say their focus is on getting Uber to increase its rates.
While much of the hearing was dominated by drivers who oppose unionizing, about an hour into the meeting, pro-union drivers spoke. When the Teamsters' Dawn Gearhart took the mic, she told the room: "Uber gamed the system because they have the money and the resources to do so."
Gearhart, showed up nearly three hours early for the hearing, says she saw Uber staff in line sign up for public comment, gather the numbers that secured them a place in line to speak, and then hand those numbers to other staff and drivers who showed up later. Gearhart also claimed Uber hired private security to monitor the line of people waiting to speak.
The company has not yet responded to a request for comment about these claims. (See below.)
"For me it doesn't matter because I don't work for Uber," Gearhart said, "but for the drivers who had to give up their hours [working] and their time to stand in the line... they gave that up to stand in line and have a chance to speak."
UPDATE: In a statement Thursday, Uber spokesperson Nathan Hambley said: "This is a transparent attempt to misdirect the conversation. The Teamsters were frustrated they couldn't control who got to speak or what was being said. They can't hide from the fact that the hearing clearly showed most drivers believe ALL drivers deserve an equal voice and vote."