Political skirmishes over rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft in Seattle are quiet. But the battle between unions and independent drivers continues.
“I’m a fairly liberal guy, it’s sort of weird for me being on your talk show,” rideshare driver Michael Wolfe told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson. “When you are dealing with an employer/employee relationship, unions may be a good thing. But when we are talking about independent contractors having a contract with a company, a union relationship just doesn’t belong in there. That’s why there is litigation. That’s why if you look at it, it can be construed as price-fixing. And that’s the argument we are making in front of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.”
Seattle unanimously passed a rideshare unionization ordinance in 2015. It is still on hold, however, as it faces legal challenges. Drivers like Wolfe argue the Teamsters are working hand-in-hand with city officials to push rideshare drivers into joining a union, or out of town. That’s not all. Wolfe claims city officials are currently considering how to regulate rideshare rates.
The appeal of services like Uber and Lyft, however, is that drivers are contractors and therefore bypass an employee/employer situation. It’s known as a “Transportation network company” or TNC. Drivers choose when they drive and how often. Many drive in addition to their full-time jobs.
Wolfe is a member of Drive Forward Seattle — an organization opposed to Seattle’s union goals. The organization was created by Uber and Eastside for Hire. Wolfe says he makes about $28-30 an hour each week. Other drivers do the same, depending on mileage and how much they drive, he says. Uber reports that most of its Seattle drivers earn between $19-21 an hour, before expenses.
Rideshare battle in Seattle
Rideshare drivers and union supporters crowded the city council’s March 20 Governance, Equity, and Technology Committee. During public comment, some drivers mentioned they had previously met with Councilmember Bruce Harrell. Teamsters 117 representative Dawn Gearhardt argued that TNC drivers earn mere dollars compared to taxi drivers (around $3.37 an hour) — not the $30 per hour that Wolfe boasts. Harrell said that he allowed public testimony about regulating rideshare prices because it is part of the council’s work plan. Rideshare issues were not on the meeting’s agenda, however.
Wolfe argues that the public testimony was stacked with people in favor of the Teamsters’ goals. No one in opposition was notified of the opportunity to comment. He also says that it’s clear the city is operating in tandem with the union out of public view.
“From my viewpoint, every industry needs a little bit of regulation …” Wolfe said. “But while these rooms are not smoke-filled anymore, there are certainly backroom dealings going on between the city council and the Teamsters. For example, during this whole collective bargaining ordinance issue and litigation, the city hired the same law firm that represents the Teamsters. So we’re still seeing some old ways of doing business out of the city.”
Unions, Seattle, and rideshares
Seattle faced legal challenges to its rideshare union ordinance since it passed. One case was thrown out. Another continues in court. An injunction on that ordinance is still in effect, however. The March 20 meeting featured rideshare drivers who argued that Uber and Lyft are taxi services. But Wolfe counters that, saying there are plenty of rideshare contractors who do not agree with the union’s aims.
The council is now considering regulating fees for rideshare drivers. Wolfe says this will hurt those drivers (private contractors) to the benefit of the taxi driver union.
“There’s a long history of them being in bed, so to speak, with the Teamsters union trying to drive Uber and Lyft out of Seattle,” Wolfe said. “It’s this pattern they established back in 2014. Teamsters went to them and said, ‘Hey, limit the number of drivers on the road at any one time because they are stealing money from our member cabs.’ That didn’t work. So now they tried to pass a collective bargaining ordinance that would mandate drivers be part of a union. We know that Uber and Lyft probably aren’t going to be able to do that. And legally, it’s questionable because we are all independent contractors. So they’ve been dishonest about how they are approaching regulating Uber and Lyft in the city.”