Guest Opinion

Seattle Uber Ordinance Continues Seattle's Role as Worker Rights Leader

Council shouldn't water down strong call for Uber drivers' right to unionize.

By Danielle Franco-Malone September 13, 2016

In anticipation of a council vote on drivers' union rights, Uber packed yesterday's city council meeting with drivers sporting green "I Drive I Vote" t-shirts. While the council passed legislation late last year allowing drivers the right to unionize, the city has yet to determine the unionization process—namely, which drivers (part-time or full-time?) would be qualified to vote. Uber is pushing to have all drivers vote, which may sound counterintuitive from the corporate management perspective, but it makes sense because part-timers and full-timers have different interests. And having them all vote could conceivably muddle a unionization vote.  

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 After lengthy testimony—mostly from drivers in green shirts demanding that all drivers should get to vote, but also including a skeptical Teamsters rep who criticized the company for not allowing drivers to vote on recent Uber policies such as the driver rate decrease, Uber Pool (which dilutes driver wages), and a greater commission for the company—the council put off the decision until this fall's budget process is complete. In the meantime, the city's Finance and Administrative Services department is going to do outreach to drivers, both part-time and full- time, to try and figure out the best approach. 

On Labor Day, I published a guest opinion piece from the Uber side written by Ronald Meisburg, special counsel to the law firm of Hunton & Williams who previously served as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Today, here's a response from local labor attorney Danielle Franco-Malone.

But first, asked to specifically address Uber's "I Drive, I Vote" (ie, "One Driver, One Vote) slogan, Malone told me:

The “one driver, one vote” slogan Uber has adopted is inconsistent with the NLRA, which has been interpreted to allow only those employees who have a substantial and continuing interest in wages, hours, and working conditions to be included in a bargaining unit; those with only a fleeting or casual interest do not share the same interests so as to warrant inclusion in a group with full-time and regular part-time workers.

Having gotten that out of the way, here's her formal op-ed.

Former Special Counsel to the National Labor Relations Board under President George W. Bush turned corporate mouthpiece Ronald Meisburg recently published an opinion piece on PubliCola attacking Seattle’s new ordinance that gives Uber, taxi, and other for-hire drivers collective bargaining rights.  Virginia-based Meisburg is presumably unfamiliar with the Pacific Northwest’s proud role as a pioneer in the fight for workplace rights. We have led the nation in such historic worker victories as establishing a $15 minimum wage in SeaTac and Seattle, paid sick and safe leave in Seattle, and soon (knock on wood) secure scheduling laws.  In fact, in 1913 Washington became one of the first states in the nation to enact minimum wage laws. Extending collective bargaining rights to for-hire drivers is in keeping with Seattle’s role as an innovator and trailblazer in labor and employment standards.

In the new “gig economy,” many employment relationships don’t look the way they did in 1935 when the National Labor Relations Act was enacted. As a result, increasing swaths of the workforce don’t have access to collective bargaining rights. The harmful results of decreasing rates of union membership have been well-documented and strongly associated with the shrinking middle class and wage depression. 

As purported independent contractors, drivers for Uber and Lyft and most taxi drivers are not covered by the NLRA and do not have the right to form a union under that law. The Seattle ordinance Meisburg attacks (passed by Seattle’s City Council by an 8-0 vote) gives these drivers the right to band together to negotiate their employment terms with those companies upon which their livelihoods depend. 

For-hire drivers are not the only workers here in the Northwest who  fought for the right to form a union in sectors that don’t fit the usual mold for a unionized workplace. Temporary workers at a major Microsoft subcontractor, Lionbridge, just won a collective bargaining agreement—one of the first of its kind in the technology industry. The resident physicians at the University of Washington recently voted by a greater than three-quarters  majority to form a union, over protests by the UW that they were mere students rather than employees.

Similarly, Seattle University’s adjunct faculty just this summer prevailed in a two-year battle to unionize, overcoming the University’s contention that, as a religious institution, its employees were not covered by the NLRA. And although farmworkers are not covered by the NLRA, seasonal berry pickers at Skagit-based Sakuma Brothers have just announced that after a three-year organizing campaign and boycott, the company has finally agreed to a path toward unionization for those workers.

Like each of these newly organized groups of employees, for-hire drivers recognize that by speaking with one voice, they are better able to improve their jobs and lives. These drivers now can more effectively advocate for fair working conditions, job security, and a level playing field that promotes safety for drivers and customers.

Meisburg claims the ordinance denies for-hire drivers full protections by not providing for a secret ballot election and relying instead on “card check recognition,” whereby drivers can vote to form a union by signing cards declaring their intent. The truth is that card check allows workers to express their wishes free from the vicious, coercive anti-union campaigns many employers wage upon learning employees wish to unionize, even going so far as to fly in anti-union consultants or lawyers who specialize in beating back attempts at unionization. Moreover, the Seattle ordinance is hardly unique in using card check recognition—Washington public employees have enjoyed this basic right for over 30 years. 

Similarly, Meisburg attacks the ordinance for allowing the parties to bring in an arbitrator to help settle the terms of a collective bargaining agreement—a feature that many public sector employees in Washington have enjoyed for decades.

Seattle’s for-hire driver ordinance should be celebrated as continuing Washington’s proud tradition on the frontier of workplace rights. We are paving the way for Uber drivers and other disempowered workers across the nation to be able to share in the American dream currently denied to so many - secure employment in a job that guarantees a minimally acceptable middle class lifestyle. 

Danielle Franco-Malone is an attorney at Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt, LLP, a Seattle-based law firm that has been representing unions and other worker advocacy organizations since 1916. Her clients include organizations seeking the worker rights improvements described in this article, including Teamsters Local 117, which is trying to unionize Uber.

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