Uber’s popular ride-hailing service may leave Seattle if a first-of-its-kind law allowing drivers to collectively bargain is implemented as planned.
So said Brooke Steger, Uber’s Pacific Northwest general manager, at a Public Relations Society of America event in Seattle that focused on communications lessons from the company.
“We’re unsure of the future of Uber in Seattle,” she said. “We don’t know if we will be able to continue to operate here and so it’s very important to us, obviously. It also is important to us nationally because I think us leaving a big city like Seattle, one of our first cities, has some pretty serious effects and there’s some deep concerns for the drivers here as well.”
Uber has been fighting a tense legal and public relations battle over the first-of-its-kind law, which would allow drivers (who currently operate as contractors) to form a union and negotiate rates and labor conditions like employees.
On the other side of that fight is Teamsters Local 117 — a union recently certified to represent Uber drivers. Uber claims the union is using drivers to push its own political agenda, while Teamsters argues that it is merely representing the interests of the drivers who approached the organization for help.
Drivers have gotten involved in the issue as well. Uber co-founded a group called Drive Forward which opposes the ordinance, and in January protested outside City Hall.
“I honestly feel bad that drivers are caught up in the middle of this and that they’re being used as a pawn in this game of unions and Yellow Cab trying to get Uber out of the city,” Steger said. “To me, they’re the most important part of our business and they’re the most important people in this city.”
Teamsters argues that Uber is trying to push its own agenda by circulating a variety of materials, including a pro-Uber podcast related to the Seattle law, among drivers.
“It’s really the drivers using their union, that they’re members of, to push their own political agenda, which is really the point of unions — that workers can use their collective power through their organization to make improvements at work,” Teamsters 117 business representative Dawn Gearhart told GeekWire. “Normally, it’s with an employer and you can sit down with them and negotiate to make those improvements … before drivers ever came to us, they had tried to sit down with the company. Many drivers continue to do so to try to make proposals or advocate on behalf of themselves, or a small group of other drivers, to work directly with the company to make changes. So far they’ve been unsuccessful.”
Uber has also been unsuccessful in its legal attempts to block the law, which is novel because it’s the first time independent contractors like Uber and Lyft drivers would be able to unionize.
The most controversial aspect of the law concerns which drivers get to vote to unionize. Under rules published late last year, only drivers who have been working for a ride-hailing company for more than 90 days and those who have made at least 52 trips in Seattle, during any three-month period in the last year, are eligible to vote. Uber and Lyft vehemently advocate for all drivers to get a vote.
On April 3, ride-hailing companies will be required to turn over contact info for their drivers to Teamsters Local 117. That starts a 120-day period during which the union must get a majority of drivers to support collective bargaining.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has filed a lawsuit and a motion for a temporary restraining order seeking to block the city from implementing the union law by April 3. It’s one of several legal challenges to the law.
“[Uber] is telling drivers a series of alternative facts to make them feel really upset so that they’ll come and say that they don’t want a union … Their assertion that we’re using drivers to move our political agenda has already been covered, but the fact that they are lying to people to get them to move a political agenda against their own interest, I think, is a more interesting story,” Gearhart said.
Update: Uber Communications Handler Nathan Hambley provided the following statement in response to Gearhart’s comments:
“The Teamsters seem to be threatened by drivers having access to accurate information about the impact this Ordinance might have — even going so far as to lead their supporters out of the City’s meeting this week to prevent them from hearing three hours of driver testimony opposed to the approach being taken. While the Teamsters have been vocal about our sharing information with drivers, they remain strangely silent on the substance of the issues being raised.”
Uber is dealing with a series of other problems on the national level, including accusations of sexual harassment, a New York Time exposé on the company’s law enforcement-evading software, footage of its CEO mistreating a driver, legal fights, and executive departures, among others.