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Councilmember Mike O'Brien speaks at last Monday's City Council meeting.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien speaks at a City Council meeting last year.

Mike O’Brien is taking action to give Uber and Lyft drivers more rights.

Next week, the Seattle councilmember will introduce legislation that offers Uber, Lyft, taxi and other “for-hire” drivers the right to unionize.

Since these drivers are independent contractors and not employees, they are not protected by traditional labor standards — including Seattle’s new $15 per hour minimum wage law — and do not have collective bargaining rights covered by the National Labor Relations Act. Taxi drivers have instead traditionally used groups like Teamsters to lobby the lawmakers that set regulations.

O’Brien’s unique plan is to let drivers that have a minimum threshold of trips join a “Driver Representative” organization that would then allow them to negotiate pay rates and employment conditions. The councilmember outlined parts of the plan today, noting that “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,” O’Brien noted in a press release. “We know that when workers come together to use their collective voice, they can make meaningful changes in their pay and working conditions.”

O’Brien laid out more details of the process here. 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.

Uber and Lyft have dealt with lawsuits and pressure from workers rights advocates over the past year, who contend that drivers should be classified as employees, not contractors. But the companies, which have both dropped ride rates for passengers in past few years, maintain that their business model gives drivers flexibility to work when they want — in exchange, they lack benefits often provided to employees of traditional private companies.

Takele Gobena, an uberX driver in Seattle with the App-Based Drivers Association, said in the city’s press release that he was surprised to find out he made $2.75 an hour after accounting for expenses.

“Drivers just want the same rights as other workers in Seattle,” he said in a statement.

It’s unclear how Uber and Lyft would respond if O’Brien’s legislation makes it through City Council, but The Washington Post quotes one lawyer who said “I do not see this going anywhere” due to the way Congress excluded independent contractors from National Labor Relations Act.

This isn’t the first time O’Brien has taken up issue with Uber and Lyft. He was the lone councilmember who voted against legislation that legalized companies like Uber and Lyft one year ago in Seattle, citing issues with minimum insurance requirements.

O’Brien’s new legislation will be introduced at the City Council meeting on Sept. 8 and be discussed further at the Finance & Culture Committee meeting on Sept. 9.

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