Uber has been calling its drivers in Seattle to tell them that unionizing — under an ordinance the City Council passed last year — doesn’t make sense.
Uber has been calling its drivers in Seattle to say that unionizing — under an ordinance the City Council passed late last year — wouldn’t be good for them, because many drive for Uber on the side, not as a full-time career.
The ordinance, which gives independent contractors for taxi companies, for-hire companies and app-based ride-dispatch companies like Uber the opportunity to negotiate working conditions such as hours, pay and benefits, is the first of its kind in the nation.
“They’re trying to brainwash the drivers,” said Fasil Teka, a 40-year-old Uber driver from Seattle who supports unionization, adding, “It’s not the right thing to do.”
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More than two months have passed since the council approved the ordinance, but city officials are still developing the rules that will govern the process.
The analyst in the Department of Finance and Administration Services (FAS) who’s leading that work, Matt Eng, said the city may draw up rules on communication between companies and their drivers. The ordinance includes no specifics, he said.
“We’re planning to engage stakeholders about our rule-making in a variety of areas and (Uber’s calls to its drivers) could help inform that engagement,” Eng said.
The company has the ultimate power to kick drivers off its app, he noted.
“I’m disappointed to hear this,” O’Brien said of the phone calls. “These are typical anti-worker tactics. I continue to hold out hope that Uber will be pro-worker, but this isn’t consistent with that.”
A script for the calls, provided to The Seattle Times by Uber, begins with a number of questions about the driver’s experience with the company in Seattle. Then the driver is asked, “Are you familiar with a new law passed recently by the Seattle City Council that would allow ride-sharing and taxi drivers to form unions and collectively bargain?”
The Uber representative offers to “share some thoughts on the ordinance,” saying in part, “Collective bargaining and unionization do not fit the characteristics of how most partners use the Uber platform. Collective bargaining usually takes place in situations with a workforce of individuals who work scheduled hours, usually full-time, and intend to make that job a career. That’s not how most Uber drivers use the platform.”
Dawn Gearhart, business representative for Local 117, said the calls violate the spirit of Seattle’s ordinance, which prohibits retaliation by companies for drivers organizing.
Gearhart said Uber may be making the calls to gauge where individual drivers stand on unionization. Uber recently deactivated a Seattle driver who had spoken out in favor of unionization and only reinstated him after Local 117 protested his treatment, she said.
But Michael Riebs, a 51-year-old driver from Auburn, said he received one of the calls and appreciated the heads-up about the ordinance. He agrees with the company.
“I don’t understand what benefit there would be in unionization,” said Riebs, who worries he would have to pay union dues. “I don’t want anybody to set my hours. … This is going to end up with something like an employee relationship and I don’t want that.”
O’Brien described Uber’s script as misleading. The point of the ordinance is to help drivers win working conditions that make sense for them, he said.
“If a majority of drivers are part time and they value flexibility, they won’t negotiate a rigid schedule,” he said. “This is a democratic process where the workers will decide.”
Uber declined to comment on whether the calls constitute an anti-unionization campaign. Uber and app-based company Lyft have said the ordinance violates federal law, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has threatened to sue the city.
“Drivers use Uber because they like to be their own boss. It’s independent, flexible work they can fit around their lives: 50 percent drive fewer than 10 hours a week; 70 percent do other full-time or part-time work; and 65 percent vary the hours they drive each week. It’s not clear a traditional union can serve such a large and varied group of people,” Uber said in a statement.
“It’s why many drivers in Seattle worry any union will focus on the needs of people driving most of the week rather than the majority who drive for just a few hours.”
Before the ordinance passed, a version said only drivers with at least 150 completed trips over the previous 30 days would have a say in whether to unionize or not. That condition was removed before the council voted, however. The approved ordinance says the rule-making process will determine which drivers will have a say.
Mayor Ed Murray declined to sign the ordinance, which became law anyway.
Besides calling drivers, Uber has been lobbying city officials. In a letter to FAS director Fred Podesta last week, first reported by GeekWire, Uber pitched principles it believes should guide the rule-making process, such as, “Every affected driver should have the right to vote” on unionization, including drivers who work very infrequently.
There are fair questions about which drivers should have a say in unionization, O’Brien said. But he said Uber’s claims about how much its drivers work “should be taken with a grain of salt” because the company doesn’t make its data public.
“They control the data, so they can tell whatever story they want,” O’Brien said.