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Pro- and Anti-Union Uber Drivers Face Off at Raucous City Hall Meeting

Drivers disagree over union representation rules and Democrats may go with all-white picks to fill legislative vacancies.

By Josh Feit December 7, 2016

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1. At first it appeared that Uber had outplayed the Teamsters’ union at its own game—organizing. But that's because the drivers sitting in the back half of the room hadn't gotten their turn at the microphone yet.

At a packed city hall meeting yesterday that took place in the large Bertha Knight Landes room on the first floor to accommodate the large crowd that was expected to turn out (and it did) rather than in the smaller city council chambers, hundreds of drivers showed up to testify about the city’s Finance and Administrative Services recommendations for outlining union guidelines.

Last year, city council member Mike O’Brien passed some experimental progressive legislation 8-0 that allows for-hire drivers, such as Uber drivers, Lyft drivers, and taxi cab drivers to unionize; the National Labor Relations Board doesn’t specifically give contract workers that right.

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O’Brien’s legislation got bogged down over which drivers—full time? part-time? part-part-time?—would be eligible to vote in a union effort. And that debate took center stage at yesterday’s public meeting where many drivers, organized by Uber, were wearing green T-shirts that said “#EveryDriverCounts.” Uber has been pushing  it’s “one driver/one vote” message in TV ads  and in emails to drivers

The FAS recommendations say a driver can vote if they’ve provided at least 52 trips over three months during the year preceding a potential union vote; that’d be .6 trips a day, though the standard, FAS explains, is measured over the 90-day period, not over a single day.

Uber says the standard would leave out thousands of drivers. And a lot of those drivers packed the room yesterday to testify not only against the proposal, but against union representation itself. Co-opting union language—referring to each other as “brothers and sisters”—the anti-union drivers said Uber was their union. “We’re already a union. We don’t need a union. We already have a voice, all under the Uber flag,” one driver testified. Saying it would be “undemocratic” not to allow every driver to vote, they characterized unions as a third-party meddler that would take away driver “flexibility” (that was the main talking point) for drivers who were working part time and needed to tend to sick partners or kids or seasonal second jobs. They said the unions were simply in it to make money as fellow drivers cheered and held up “#EveryDriverCounts” placards to go with the T-shirts.

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An official Uber spokeswoman took the microphone to raucous cheers when she repeated the one driver one vote rap. (Uber has an interest in a broader vote because competing priorities of full timers and part timers will likely undermine union organizing—as yesterday’s meeting made obvious.)

The union bashing got a little union-goony ironically, as one anti-union driver stood at the front of the room glaring at people who were chatting. It also got a little silly—one anti-union driver said a door-to-door union effort would allow union guys to harass his daughters at home. "I don't want some union guy showing up to talk to my daughter," he said. “It’s not going to be pretty.”

But about 50 speakers in (more than 200 people testified), a seemingly dissident Uber driver took the microphone. He denounced Uber’s low wages, its “Uber Pool” app, which allows group pickups and lower pay (for the drivers), and its lacking insurance coverage, and the back of the room, predominantly East African immigrants, suddenly erupted in applause making it clear that the room was evenly divided with anti and pro-union voices. "Uber likes to call us partners,” a driver named Lemi Dosa testified, “but we are silent partners." He said the union would give them a voice.

Teamsters rep Dawn Gearhart took the mic and said the union wasn’t against the notion of one driver one vote, but suggested that the votes be weighted proportionally, giving drivers who drive more hours more weight. The union also says the “flexibility” charge doesn’t make sense. Drivers who meet the 52 trips over three-months rule also like the flexibility, they point out. Why would they approve any contract that undermines flexibility?

Council member O’Brien was not at the hearing, which was overseen by a FAS and a representative from the mayor’s office. Council president Bruce Harrell was on hand as well, sitting quietly off the side taking notes.

The message he got: Drivers are hotly divided over the issue.

2. The 37th Legislative District PCOs voted on Monday to send three names to the King County Council as recommended replacements to fill state senator Pramila Jayapal’s vacancy; Jayapal won her recent election for U.S. congress.

The top pick is Rory O’Sullivan, a lefty lawyer and former U.S. representative Jim McDermott aide; O’Sullivan briefly had his hat in the ring for the seat in 2014, but dropped out before the primary, a six-person race that Jayapal won with 54 percent of the vote.  If the county council goes with Sullivan over the second-place vote getter, Puget Sound Sage Executive Director Rebecca Saldaña, the majority minority district, the most diverse in Seattle, will be represented by a white man. The King County Council overruled an LD vote back in 2013, appointing second place finisher Mia Gregerson, who is Asian American, to the 33rd Legislative District over the top vote getter, a white woman.

While it’s not a majority-minority district, a similar standoff may emerge for the council in the 48th Legislative District where a white man, Matt Isenhower may get the PCO nod over Bellevue City Council member Vandana Slatter, who is an Indian-American. The PCOs vote in the 48th tomorrow night.

In short: there's a possibility that in the wake of Donald Trump's election, the Democrats may appoint two white men over two women of color to the state legislature.

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