A King County judge today rejected a request from Uber subsidiary Rasier to block several key provisions of Seattle’s historic law that lets drivers for ride-hailing companies decide if they want to bargain collectively. The decision represents a win for the city, which is defending the law on several legal fronts.
Uber filed its petition in King County Superior Court in January to block several rules published last year from Seattle’s department of Finance and Administrative Services. Those rules cover issues like which drivers get a say in whether they want to unionize, working conditions subject to bargaining and how an organization gets certified to represent drivers exclusively.
The main issue in this case, and also the most contentious aspect of the law, concerns which drivers get to vote on unionization. According to the city’s rules, new drivers who had been with their respective ride-hailing companies for less than 90 days prior to the Jan. 17 kick-off of the law will not get a vote. Drivers also need to have made 52 trips starting or ending in Seattle during any three-month period in the last year to be eligible.
Ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft favor giving every driver a vote, without the type of restrictions in Seattle’s rules.
Uber argued that the city’s process was flawed and will disenfranchise thousands of drivers. Uber hoped to get major pieces of the law suspended to effectively block the ordinance and force the city to go back to the drawing board. Uber wanted the city to tweak the rules so that they better reflect the conditions of the industry.
Uber’s general manager for the Pacific Northwest Brooke Steger released the following statement in reaction to the ruling:
The city’s collective bargaining ordinance rules deny thousands of Seattle drivers a voice and a vote on their future. We were forced to pursue a novel legal approach because the City provided no other way to challenge this deeply flawed process. We appreciate Judge Andrus’s consideration of the suit. Seattle should be working to give drivers a voice rather than denying them one. We will continue to look for ways to raise these very serious concerns.
Based on the scope of the court, for Uber to come out victorious, King County Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus would have had to find that the city crafted major pieces of the law arbitrarily, without taking evidence and data under consideration. Uber’s legal representatives conceded during the hearing that convincing the court otherwise was a high bar to clear, and Andrus ultimately ruled that Uber hadn’t been able to prove that.
After issuing her ruling, Andrus said the issue at hand was not whether the city made the right decision on who can vote on unionization, but whether the city followed a legally acceptable process in making its rules.
“Ultimately the court must apply the arbitrary and capricious standard and not make a determination based on what I would might find to be not the right way to go, it’s not my call,” Andrus said. “I look at ‘what did the city do how, did the city reach its decision?'”
The landmark law, passed in 2015, gives drivers the ability to band together to negotiate pay rates and employment conditions, among other conditions. The law lets organizations that want to represent drivers get contact information from the ride-hailing companies to reach out to drivers and try and drum up support for collective bargaining.
Currently, these drivers are considered independent contractors and are not protected by traditional labor standards — including Seattle’s $15 per hour minimum wage law. They also do not have collective bargaining rights covered by the National Labor Relations Act.
When the City Council passed the law, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declined to sign the bill, citing “several flaws” including the burden of administering it. Department of Finance and Administrative Services, which was in charge of making the key decisions, including which drivers get to vote, struggled at times. The department asked the council for a six-month extension to implement the law, but ultimately got a shorter extension.
Despite these struggles, the city undertook a thorough process to implement the law, including several public hearings and multiple meetings with Uber and other ride-hailing companies, Seattle Assistant City Attorney Michael Ryan argued at the hearing. The process took the better part of a year, and the city incorporated feedback into final versions of its rules, Ryan said.
“This was not a process that was rushed,” Ryan said. “This is a first-of-its-kind law. We want to make sure that we get it right because we know it’s a first-of-its-kind law.
Also present at the hearing were legal representatives of Teamsters Local 117, which was recently certified to represent drivers by the city. Teamsters 117 is seeking to represent drivers from Uber, Lyft and Eastside for Hire. Those companies have an April 3 deadline to hand over driver lists with contact information. That starts a 120-day clock for organizers to gather support from a majority of drivers for collective bargaining.
Friday’s positive outcome in court doesn’t mean the battle over the law is finished. Uber officials indicated they weren’t planning to give up their legal fight, and the city is facing several other legal disputes related to the law.
Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce re-filed a lawsuit against the city of Seattle in U.S. District Court of Western Washington, arguing that the driver unionization ordinance violates federal labor laws related to independent contractors. In addition, the chamber pointed to a scenario where other cities will follow Seattle’s lead, creating a maze inconsistent of regulations for companies like Uber and Lyft to follow.
The next day, a group of 11 drivers announced to file its own lawsuit in federal court seeking to block the ordinance. The suit claims that Seattle’s law violates federal labor law as well as drivers’ First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of association by forcing them to unionize and pay dues.