Earlier this week, SEIU 775 President David Rolf signed this open letter along with venture capitalist Nick Hanauer and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. The letter calls for portable benefits for Uber drivers. Portable benefits, a still nascent idea in labor and tech circles, would offer gig economy workers a way to access things like workers comp and retirement even when they don't technically have an employer.
A bill currently making its way through the Washington State House of Representatives would require businesses to pay toward worker benefits for independent contractors. "Uber believes workers should have access to a social safety net," Uber lobbyist Caleb Weaver said in a hearing Thursday. "We want to be part of the solution."
But Uber is not exactly known as a champion of workers' rights, especially here in Seattle. So, not everyone was excited about the idea of a local union leader co-signing an effort with the head of the company.
But critics worry that any Uber-designed legislation will make it easier for companies to get away with treating workers like independent contractors — and that workers shouldn’t have to give up their chance to win the much broader range of protections that come with employee status.
That’s why the letter was met with immediate pushback on the left, including from some of Rolf’s colleagues.
“This is just a facelift by Uber to be able to look like they actually care about the people who they hire for the services they provide,” said Hector Figueroa, who is president of SEIU’s East Coast property services affiliate and serves with Rolf on the international union’s executive board. “I just cannot comprehend how today, as a labor leader, I would be encouraging the spread of ‘independent’ work.”
New York Taxi Workers Alliance Director Bhairavi Desai told Bloomberg: “Selling out to the bosses is not innovative—it’s as old as capitalism."
Rolf and others who support portable benefits say worker advocates must recognize the reality of the modern economy. Portable benefits "would recognize that work and employment are changing, and that we can no longer wait to act as the old system unravels," Rolf and Hanauer wrote last year.
Rolf has made no secret of his belief that old-school union models have outlived their usefulness.
Working Washington, an organization Rolf helped found that is funded in part by SEIU 775, has mostly worked on worker benefits that aren't unionizing (like the $15 minimum wage and new scheduling regulations for hourly workers). While Working Washington helped advocate for Seattle's unprecedented law allowing Uber drivers to unionize, members of the local Teamsters union are the ones actually trying to organize workers on the ground.
Back in 2007, Rolf's union, which represents healthcare workers, struck a deal with nursing home operators promising 10 years without strikes in exchange for help lobbying in Olympia, among other things. Supporters said it would help win worker pay raises and other benefits; skeptics said it was ceding too much ground to the bosses. At the time, Rolf told the Seattle Times, "Wouldn’t it be something if people thought unions weren’t about creating problems but they were actually about working with management to solve problems? Where is it written that the thing we need to do most is have fights?"
With this week's news about portable benefits, Teamster Local 117 Business Representative Dawn Gearhart says her union hasn't taken a formal position on the idea.
“We talked to drivers about [the letter] and they told us they’re glad Uber realized they need benefits, but the thing that would make a difference at work would be higher pay,” Gearhart told The Stranger. “They’re just trying to survive.”