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Seattle to Allow Uber, Lyft Drivers to Form Unions

A Lyft vehicle sporting the company's distinctive pink moustache. (Photo: Raido/Flickr Creative Commons)

A Lyft vehicle sporting the company’s distinctive pink moustache. (Photo: Raido/Flickr Creative Commons)

The Seattle City Council voted unanimously on Monday to allow Uber, Lyft, other ride-hailing app, transportation network companies (TNCs) and taxi drivers to form unions.

Cheers and applause erupted in the council chamber after the unionization measure, a result of a combined effort by the App-Based Drivers Association (ABDA) and Teamsters Local 117 union, passed by a vote of 8-0. Some in the chamber held up placards reading “Driver Unity.” They chanted: “When we fight, we win!”

“I’m so excited. I’m so happy,” 26-year-old Uber driver Takele Gobena told the Seattle Times. Gobena, one of the leaders of the unionization effort, claimed he was suspended from the app in August after he appeared at a press conference with Councilman Mike O’Brien, the union bill’s sponsor. “This is a big change for us,” added Gobena.

The New York Times reports Seattle is the first in the nation to grant rideshare drivers the right to organize and collectively bargain but such drivers still won’t enjoy federal protections because they are classified as independent contractors rather than employees.

While affirming his belief in the right of workers to unionize, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray released a statement stressing he remained “concerned that this ordinance, as passed by the Council, includes several flaws.” The mayor, who praised TNCs as “valuable new tools for city residents,” added that “since my concerns were not adequately addressed in this legislation, I will not sign this bill. [However], under the City Charter, the ordinance will become law without my signature.”

Leading rideshare companies Uber and Lyft expressed disappointment at the bill’s passage and said the measure may violate federal labor and antitrust laws. A lawsuit is a distinct possibility. Uber reiterated its stance that its driver partners’ independent contractor status offers a level of freedom not enjoyed by employees.

“Uber is creating new opportunities for many people to earn a better living on their own time and their own terms,” the San Francisco-based company asserted in a statement.

However, rideshare drivers have recently grown increasingly vocal about the need for change in the relatively new and loosely-regulated industry. Some drivers said they had grown disillusioned and that they did not feel as if they were being treated as true partners.

“Since I started driving for Uber, Uber has cut our pay without notice, terminated drivers without giving a reason, and blocked our efforts to improve our working conditions,” said Peter Kuel, a member of ABDA’s leadership council. “We’re looking for fairness and the ability to earn a living wage.”

In June, the California Labor Commission made headlines when it ruled that San Francisco Uber driver Barbara Ann Berwick was an employee, not an independent contractor. Uber claimed the ruling was non-binding and only applied to Berwick but some labor law experts said the case could mark the beginning of a shift in the relationship between rideshare companies and their drivers.

In October, Uber drivers planned a nationwide strike for higher minimum fares and a tipping option similar to what competitor Lyft offers, but allegations of poor planning and organization plagued the effort, which was widely viewed as a flop.

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