For a Democratic mayor who frets about being “the man”—and getting second billing to Seattle council lefties like Mike O'Brien and Kshama Sawant—mayor Ed Murray certainly stepped in it yesterday afternoon. After the city council made national news by unanimously passing legislation that gives contract drivers for ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft (and taxi cab companies) the right to organize, Murray criticized the workers rights bill and said he wasn’t going to sign it. The legislation still becomes law when the mayor refuses to sign (only a successful veto can block council legislation—and the eight council votes are more than enough to topple a veto), but the lacking signature was a provocative statement from Murray.
The council basked in the moment as they passed the legislation, the first in the country to challenge the status quo; national labor law does not explicitly give contract workers the right to organize.
“The intent of this legislation to create a regulatory environment where innovation can continue but not at the expense of workers,” council member O’Brien, who introduced the bill in September, said. “[The legislation will work] to the benefit of those workers so that companies can be successful, so that customers can have access to the services that they want, but all done in a way so that the drivers have some say in the terms of their employment.”
Council member Kshama Sawant, who took time out of her vacation to be at city hall for the big vote, compared the share economy and rideshare companies like Uber to share-cropping (the practice of a farmer working land belonging to a landowner and giving the majority of their harvest to the landowner). “The ‘sharing economy’ has meant sharing in one direction. That is, workers have the privilege of sharing what they produce with their bosses.”
And brand new, at-large council member (and Murray’s former legal counsel) Lorena Gonzalez, spinning the legal uncertainty of the legislation into a positive, said: “This is good policy for our city. I ask all of us today: Do we want to use this law as a shield or use the law as a sword. I say use it as a sword,” indicating that the legal battle that’s sure to come casts the Seattle as policy activists.
Even the council’s establishment bloc was gaga about the bill. Bruce Harrell said:
“We had concerns from many of my friends in the industry of whether their voice was heard. We have concerns from the executive, valid concerns as to whether we have the resources to enforce this. We have concerns from our law department, valid concerns about whether this will be legally challenged. My attitude about that is, that's the work that we've chosen to do. None of this kind of work is easy. It's hard work. And from this point on we have to keep plowing ahead. I look at this in the bigger scheme of things of what we're trying to do in this country. The work cannot stop here.”
So, while all her colleagues were on board with the workers revolution this time, socialist Sawant’s usual dose of pointed commentary—“Any council member who votes no on this today will be saying that they care more about the profits of a multi billion dollar company… over the rights of workers"—ended up, in retrospect, tarnishing the mayor.
Murray’s surprise statement late in the day said: “I said consistently during this debate that I support the right of workers to organize to create a fair and just workplace. [But] I remain concerned that this ordinance, as passed by the Council, includes several flaws…”
Murray, who’d been mum with the press in the runup to the vote, sent a letter to council yesterday outlining his concern that the bill placed too much rulemaking and oversight responsibility on the city, such as determining nuanced labor definitions. He also flagged the “significant” costs to the city, noting both the regulatory costs and the ultimate costs of heading to court to defend the law.
No representatives from rideshare companies like Uber or Lyft testified at yesterday’s meeting. And in a statement, Uber did not directly address the legislation, saying simply, “Uber is creating new opportunities for many people to earn a better living on their own time and their own terms. Drivers say that with flexible and independent work with Uber, 50 percent of them drive fewer than 10 hours a week, 70 percent have full-time or part-time work outside of Uber and 65 percent choose to vary the hours they drive 25 percent week-to-week.”
The long-time position of rideshare companies has been that since the National Labor Relations Act does not explicitly cover independent contractors like for-hire drivers, Seattle’s new ordinance is illegal under federal law (rideshare company representatives argued just that when they testified before city council committee meetings two months ago). Debate club-style: The ordinance’s proponents say the very lack of a shout out to contractors in federal law is exactly why unionization is permissible. (In fact, the NLRB indicated as much in yesterday's New York Times coverage of the vote.)
However, though the city’s law department has been examining the legislation over the past several months (and has it given it good legal standing, according to O’Brien), the ordinance is still likely to face a legal challenge from the rideshare industry, who, in addition to the NLRA argument are also expected to claim that drivers’ collective bargaining rights violate antitrust laws that prevent price-fixing.
Shortly after O'Brien introduced first introduced his legislation this fall with drivers standing by his side at city hall, one of those drivers complained about retaliation.