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For-hire drivers gather at a Seattle City Council meeting in December in support of a new law that paves the way for drivers to unionize. (GeekWire File Photo)
For-hire drivers gather at a Seattle City Council meeting in December in support of a new law that paves the way for drivers to unionize. (GeekWire File Photo)

Seattle’s controversial Uber unionization law is the first of its kind in the nation, and the city wants more time to get it right.

During a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s Education, Equity and Governance Committee on Wednesday, representatives of the city’s Department of Facilities and Administrative Services (FAS) said they want more time to talk to drivers and other stakeholders about important rules and details — specifically, who should be allowed to vote to collectively bargain when Uber and other ride-share companies are allowed to organize under the new law.

The ordinance had been set to go into effect Sept. 19. Under the new timeline requested today, the department would bring back a new ordinance, extending the onset date of the law by six months, for the next meeting of the committee in two weeks.

Councilmembers asked FAS to also develop a detailed plan for outreach to drivers during that period.

“We understood when we gave this to FAS that this was indeed a very difficult task,” said Seattle Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the committee. “What we owe to the drivers, whether they are part time or full time, and to the public who are the consumers, what we owe to them is some level of specificity and commitment to getting this done.”

The law, passed last year, gives drivers the ability to collectively bargain for pay rates and employment conditions. Drivers have been considered independent contractors not protected by traditional labor standards — including Seattle’s $15 per hour minimum wage law. They also did not have collective bargaining rights covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

The law allows drivers to join a qualified organization that would then let them negotiate pay rates and other employment conditions. These organizations would have 120 days to demonstrate that “a majority of drivers for a specific company choose to be represented.” From there, those groups would be able to participate in collective bargaining conversations on behalf of their drivers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit in March against the City of Seattle, arguing that the legislation violates several federal laws and would “burden innovation, increase prices, and reduce quality and services for consumers.” Court documents show the Chamber is representing Uber and taxi company Eastside for Hire. The two sides met in court last month for the first of what could be many showdowns over the law. The judge in that case has yet to decide on a motion from the city to throw out the chamber’s challenge on the grounds that the law has not been implemented yet.

Lyft issued a statement following Wednesday’s meeting.

“We share the concerns raised at today’s hearing that the ordinance threatens the privacy of drivers and undermines the flexibility that makes Lyft so attractive to drivers and passengers alike,” Lyft spokesman Adrian Durbin said in the statement. “The serious concerns raised by FAS early in this process are still unresolved.”

Uber shutterstock image
(Via Shutterstock)

The city recently held several workshops to get feedback from drivers on the law. The biggest remaining issue is who should get to vote to be represented. Some support a one-ride, one-vote concept, allowing all drivers to have a vote, regardless of how many hours they’ve worked or trips they’ve made. Others favor only giving votes to drivers who hit a minimum threshold of trips.

FAS representatives said about 180 drivers turned out for the workshops, but that is just a drop in the bucket of the more than 10,000 people the city estimates drive for ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft.

“Overall we were expecting more people to attend, and we were expecting a greater diversity of voices,” said Matthew Eng, strategic advisors for FAS.

The city may try, as part of this next phase of outreach, to do a direct survey of drivers, since ride-share companies have so far been reluctant to hand over information about who their drivers are.

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