Seattle is about to go outside the law to unionize Uber drivers

All it really took to attract my interest in this Washington Post article was the title: Seattle might try something crazy to let Uber drivers unionize. Let’s be honest… you could shorten that title by five words and it would probably apply to 90% of the stories that come out of Washington state. But this one also has the added benefit of involving the Teamsters, so you know you’re in for some off the wall, crazy goodness. So what are they up to now?

Seattle may try a novel legal approach to helping Uber drivers to unionize — and potentially other independent contractors too, if the idea holds up in court.

Today, a Seattle City Councilmember is expected to announce legislation that would grant all for-hire drivers in the city the right to collectively bargain with the companies they contract with to provide services, which they currently can’t do under federal law, setting up an entirely new system.

Over the past few years, taxi drivers have affiliated with unions in cities across the country. But since they’re usually independent contractors, they’re not covered by the law that allows them to negotiate directly with taxi companies, like other private-sector employees can. Their only power is to try to influence how cabs are regulated, which determines their pay and working conditions.

The way this is being pushed forward is to get drivers to agree to “a non-profit organization” who would represent their interests in negotiations with the company making use of their services. (You can make a guess for yourself as to what a “non-profit organization” is in this context, but if it’s being pushed by the Teamsters I don’t think a lot of imagination is required.) Unfortunately, it still boils down to collective bargaining which is intended to represent (and organize) the independent drivers. That’s a problem because when the National Labor Relations Act was passed it specifically excluded independent contractors, since they represent a very different relationship between a worker and an employer.

Trying to whitewash this by establishing a “non-profit” group to do the negotiating is really no different than sending in a union… it’s just putting another name on it. In theory, the unions are “non-profit” also, but that’s a theory that’s been pretty much beaten to death already. If you don’t like the law you can always try to change it, but the city shouldn’t just be allowed to ignore it.

The major difference between cabs and peer to peer sharing networks like Uber is that the established cab companies are actual employers and the drivers are employees. That relationship entails a variety of responsibilities on the part of the cab companies and the drivers are able to unionize freely if they wish. (And they do so pretty much everywhere.) Back in the day there also used to be a number of private cab owners in the big cities and they would be excluded from such arrangements. Unfortunately, the unions have been so successful in bending primarily Democrat administrations to their will that they have regulated the private cabbies almost entirely out of existence though the use of medallion systems, restricted access to airports and train terminals and a variety of inspections and fees. That’s what left the door open to the rise of companies like Uber and Lyft.

What Seattle is doing here is just a transparent effort to force the competition into the same union controlled mold that the cab companies conform to. If they succeed it’s going to be a crippling blow to the peer to peer business model.