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Teamsters Local 117 representatives speak after the passage of the historic rideshare unionization ordinance in 2015. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

The deadline has come and gone for organizations to declare their desire to represent drivers for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft and taxi companies like Eastside for Hire under Seattle’s landmark driver collective bargaining ordinance, and only one group has signed up: Teamsters Local 117.

Teamsters 117 helped create the “App-Based Drivers’ Association” in 2015 for drivers who were frustrated with how they were treated by Uber and Lyft. According to its application with the city of Seattle, filed late last week, Teamsters also helped set up Western Washington Taxicab Operators Association, a group to lobby for better working conditions in the taxi industry.

Dawn Gearhart of Teamsters 117 said the organization has helped ride-hailing service drivers fight for better working conditions since Uber came to Seattle in 2013. If certified as a driver representative, Teamsters won’t change much about its approach in working with drivers. The difference comes from the new law, which will compel companies to come to the negotiating table, should the drivers decide they want to organize. Before, there was nothing forcing companies like Uber to negotiate with drivers, Gearhart said.

“They have tried going alone,” Gearhart said of drivers’ previous attempts to negotiate with management. “They have tried doing it through an association, and now we are trying to do it under this new ordinance.”

The day after Teamsters 117 submitted its application, a group founded by Uber and Eastside For Hire called Drive Forward released a letter opposing the Teamsters’ application and delivered a copy to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. The organization, which includes some of the same drivers who protested the ordinance in January at City Hall, charged that Teamsters have opposed ride-hailing companies ever since they came to Seattle. The letter claims that the Teamsters group favors unionized taxi drivers over drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft and could use its position as potentially the only ride-hailing driver representative to bargain for terms that aren’t in the best interests of drivers.

“(Teamsters’) opposition to the interests and welfare of (rideshare) and other union-free drivers has been consistent for many years in courts, before government administrative agencies, in regard to municipal and state legislative initiatives and in multiple public forums,” Daniel Ruttenberg of Ruttenberg Law Office wrote in the letter. “So firm and deeply entrenched is the application’s opposition, it cannot now, with any credibility, attempt to simply ‘reverse field’ by superficially embracing those drivers against whose very interests they have been fighting for so long.”

Drive Forward members protest the Uber unionization law at City Hall in January. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Gearhart said Teamsters 117 has been around since 1936, and in that time it has represented many competitors, drivers for Coca Cola and Pepsi, for example. Drivers for Uber and Lyft compete with each other as well as taxi drivers, but many of them also flip between services throughout weeks or days, depending on what makes the most sense financially.

“Really the companies are competitors, and the workers are human beings,” Gearhart said.

Uber released a statement echoing that of Drive Forward, asking the city to deny Teamsters 117’s application.

“The Teamsters have been fighting against the interests of Uber driver-partners for years, so they are uniquely unqualified to act as a qualified driver representative under Seattle’s for-hire collective bargaining ordinance,” Uber General Manager for the Pacific Northwest Brooke Steger said. “The city should reject their application.”

The unionization law, passed in 2015, gives drivers the ability to decide if they want 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.

The most controversial aspect of the law concerns which drivers get to vote on collective bargaining. New drivers who have been with their respective ride-hailing companies for less than 90 days prior to the kick-off of the law on Jan. 17 will not get a vote, according to rules published late last year. 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. These eligibility conditions have rankled the ride-hailing companies, which favor giving each driver a vote.

Seattle’s Department of Facilities and Administrative Services will now review Teamsters 117’s application to represent drivers. That process is expected to be done in March, according to a timeline from the city.

The full timeline for the ride-hailing collective bargaining ordinance. (City of Seattle Chart)

If the city gives the go-ahead to Teamsters 117, it will then have two weeks to let companies like Uber and Lyft know it intends to organize drivers. The ride-hailing companies will be required to turn over driver contact information to organizers in April. That starts a 120-day clock for organizers to gather support from a majority of drivers for collective bargaining.

The first-of-its-kind law has attracted plenty of controversy. In January, on the day the law was set to go into effect, Uber subsidiary Rasier filed a petition in King County Superior Court aiming to block many of the ordinance’s key provisions. A hearing on that dispute is set for March 17.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit in March 2016 against the city of Seattle, representing Uber and Eastside for Hire, arguing that the legislation violates several federal laws and would “burden innovation, increase prices, and reduce quality and services for consumers.” A federal judge dismissed the suit in August, and at the time observers correctly contended that the legal fight wasn’t over.

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