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Seattle City Councilman Introduces Novel Legislation to Give Uber Drivers Bargaining Rights

O'Brien aims to bring a smile to independent contractors' faces

O’Brien aims to bring a smile to independent contractors’ faces

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Seattle city councilman Mike O’Brien has announced legislation which would allow independent contractors such as Uber drivers to collectively bargain for better working conditions. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does not currently allow them to do so. 

In the past year Seattle has raised the minimum wage to $15, criminalized wage theft, and mandated paid sick leave.  Uber drivers and other “gig economy” workers are not covered by these ordinances given their status as independent contractors.  

O’Brien outlined his proposal via press release:

“Seattle has made great gains in recent years in promoting fair labor practices and the opportunity to earn a decent living, this is the next step in that work.  Too many drivers this industry are unable to earn a living wage, or even the minimum wage.  So we are embarking on an innovative new approach to raising standards for drivers in an industry that prides itself on innovation.  We know that when workers come together to use their collective voice, they can make meaningful changes in their pay and working conditions.”

Charlotte Garden, a Seattle University professor specializing in labor law, told the Seattle Times: “This could be a game-changer.  You could see cities like Seattle and states run with this model in all sectors of the economy. The legal fight over this would be intense.”

GeekWire analyzed how the ordinance would work:

Drivers would join a non-profit “Driver Representative Organization,” which would receive a list of eligible drivers from the City and have 120 days to demonstrate that “a majority of drivers for a specific company choose to be represented.” From there, the organizations will be able to participate in collective bargaining conversations on behalf of their drivers.

“A business model that controls all aspects of these drivers work but relies on the drivers being classified as independent contractors undermines Seattle’s efforts to address income inequality and create opportunities for all workers in this city to earn a living wage,” the city notes.

Every legal and legislative hurdle facing the “on-demand economy” has the potential to rattle industries.  While the NLRA gives the power to regulate collective bargaining rights and union organizing to the federal government, it does not pertain to independent contractors.  Companies like Uber and Lyft are expected to fight the legal basis of this ordinance in court.

“The proposed legislation raises a wide range of questions, including concerns over the privacy rights of Seattle residents,” a Lyft spokesperson told Business Insider. “Requiring the city to turn over an individual’s private information to special interests without their consent is a dangerous precedent. Applying this proposal narrowly to one industry is also a serious concern.”

Liz Ford, a law professor at Seattle University, said the proposal “is novel and the logic is strong.” She argued that there is a legal basis for the city to win:

Proponents would argue the NLRA can’t hold sway because it doesn’t cover independent contractors, Ford said.

Opponents would contend Congress excluded independent contractors from the NLRA purposefully so contractors would be unable to collectively bargain.

That reasoning could run into trouble because states have been allowed to grant bargaining rights to others excluded from the NLRA, such as state workers and farmworkers, Ford said.

Uber spokeswoman, Kate Downen, declined to comment on the legislation since the official text has yet to be released. 

One 26-year-old Ethiopian college student, Takele Gobena, went on the record in favor of the ordinance. 

“I know Uber will probably deactivate me tomorrow,” he said, “but I’m ready because this is worth fighting for.”


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