Seattle Push For Uber Union Vote Slowed; Automation Is Coming, In Time

Seattle Push For Uber Union Vote Slowed; Automation Is Coming, In Time
Driverless vehicles like the one seen here are a priority for the CEO of Uber. Their adoption will take time, but that is likely to ultimately render moot labor organizing initiatives like one currently being advanced by the City of Seattle. The city is aiming to lay the groundwork for possible unionization of "transportation network company" drivers. Photo: GManViz

The City of Seattle is attempting to engineer unionization votes by drivers at Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft. The effort continues to drag on without implementation, as the City Council and Mayor Ed Murray struggle to agree on rulemaking terms and definitions.

In the meantime, car companies around the world are developing driverless cars and top Uber officials are hailing that future. The company also has its eye on a statewide regulatory policy in Washington, not the current city-by-city approach.

Troubled Ordinance Approved Last Year

The road to a unionization vote in Seattle has been filled with potholes. In December 2015, Seattle City Council adopted legislation giving TNC drivers the right to unionize. Currently, those drivers are considered independent contractors, not protected by Seattle labor law standards or granted collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

Murray wrote the council in December“This ordinance…includes several flaws, especially related to the relatively unknown costs of administering the collective bargaining process and the burden of significant rule making…placed on City staff.”

The ordinance was slated for a tentative “commencement date” of September 19, but stakeholder feedback workshops held in June and July by the city Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) department yielded a much smaller and less diverse sample size than anticipated. 

The department asked the Council for a six month extension to conduct an online survey to reach more of current TNC driver populations, and then report findings to the Council in December. Main points of uncertainty included which drivers qualified to vote and what organization they wanted representing their interests.

Ripping The Band-Aid Off

The issue arose again at the council’s August 17 Education, Equity and Governance Committee meetingCouncilmember Bruce Harrell, the committee’s chair, moved to trim the extension to November 13 because he didn’t see the purpose of additional time for a survey that wouldn’t immediately define “qualifying drivers.” This amendment for a shorter extension needs approval from the full council. It will be heard at their September 6 meeting.

“It would be nice to have a package brought to the Council where we can move forward because we’re not afraid to rip the Band-Aid off and make some decisions, but we’re hoping to work with the community here,” said Harrell.

U.S. Chamber Suit Not Ripe Yet, But Wait…

If the law does finally pass, it will likely face an as-yet unresolved challenge tied to a lawsuit from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

“Implementation of the ordinance would result in a balkanized set of labor schemes that would negatively impact the sharing economy and jeopardize the flexible work schedules and earnings opportunities that economy provides to millions of people nationwide,” wrote the Chamber.

As Opportunity Washington reported, the Chamber’s lawsuit was put on hold this month because the issue of harm is not yet considered ripe by the court. That could change after a city policy is enacted.

Uber: Let Every Driver Vote

Brooke Steger, General Manager for Uber Pacific Northwest, sent a letter in February to FAS recommending the department ensure fairness by allowing every driver to vote and to be fully informed before voting takes place. She reiterated the concern at the August 17 meeting.

Leonard Smith, Director of Organizing and Strategic Campaigns for Teamsters 117, told Lens the right to vote on unionization should be granted only to those drivers who lease or buy a car specifically to drive for TNC companies, not the part-time drivers.

Meanwhile, Driverless Ride-Sharing In Development

Seattle discussions on TNC driver unionization are likely to be overtaken by changes in the marketplace, in the long haul. Uber and many others anticipate the advent of driverless ride-sharing.

Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick is bullish. He told the Wall Street Journal, “The technology is going to happen because the promise is so real…It’s existential. We have to have all the best minds working on this.”

Ford announced this month intentions to produce fully autonomous vehicles for ridesharing in 2021, without steering wheels or gas pedals. This month, Uber announced it will start using self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh.

Starting operations in Singapore are self-driving taxis made by nuTonomy, an MIT spin-off. About 100 such taxis will be in use there by 2018.

“Self-driving cars have the potential to drastically reduce deaths in cars and make transportation even more affordable. But for a variety of technical, regulatory and adoption reasons, it will take some time for that transition to happen at scale,” Steger told Lens.

Broader Regulatory Approach Of City A Concern For Uber

Along with its gradual global push to automate vehicle operations, and the current collective bargaining debate in Seattle, another concern for Uber in Washington and other U.S. states is the need for consistency in the broader regulatory approach.

The city of Seattle requires TNC drivers to abide by several business regulations in order to operate within the city. They must consent to background checks, carry a so-called “for-hire driver’s license,” allow the City to inspect their vehicle upon request and hold a valid City of Seattle business license, among other requirements. 

“The model adopted by the City of Seattle attempts to fit TNCs into a taxi-like licensing structure and this has proven ineffective and inefficient,” Steger told Lens.

The company has been concerned about the slow pace of driver and vehicle checks, and differing local standards between cities in the same state, which can reduce business volume for drivers if they are cleared to operate in one locale but not another.

Statewide Policy Eyed

Uber at some point is expected to aim in Washington, as it has elsewhere in the U.S., for a statewide oversight policy. One piece would be to assign primary responsibility to the company for doing due diligence on drivers and their vehicles, with periodic “audits” or checks by by municipal governments.

This has the advantage of regulatory uniformity and speeding the process, according to Uber. Research indicates compliance outcomes are as good or better than under the slower municipally-driven process, the company has said.



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