David Plouffe, a former adviser to President Obama now working for Uber, is in Seattle to promote the app-based ride-dispatch company whose drivers a Seattle City Council member wants to help unionize.
The political tactician who ran Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign is in Seattle this week on a very different mission: to promote Uber, the app-based ride-dispatch company whose drivers a Seattle City council member wants to help unionize.
David Plouffe went on to advise Obama in the White House after the 2008 campaign but is now a paid strategist for Uber. He’ll deliver a talk Friday hosted by the Downtown Seattle Association and Seattle CityClub titled “Uber and the Future of Work.” He said he also is meeting with Seattle officials.
Some workers, labor activists and politicians across the country, including Councilmember Mike O’Brien in Seattle, have raised concerns about apps like Uber making it easier for companies to use independent contractors rather than employees, and avoid paying minimum wages, dealing with unions and providing benefits. The National Labor Relations Act gives employees the right to bargain as a union.
In an interview Thursday, Plouffe sought to counter that view, saying companies like Uber help workers by giving them new moneymaking options in an era of wage stagnation.
“How people are using the Uber platform now is to augment existing income, to provide a bridge when they may lose their job or get their hours cut,” he said.
“That’s important, because we’ve lived through a period where, even as the economy recovers, most people say they don’t have enough money. They’d like to see more wage increase than they’re getting,” Plouffe said. “So I don’t think you’re necessarily going to see the world or America turn into a nation of freelancers. But I do think you’re going to see more and more people using platforms like Uber.”
Plouffe’s visit comes at a critical time for Uber in Seattle. O’Brien has proposed an ordinance that would give drivers collective-bargaining protections despite their status as independent contractors. He’s hoping the council will vote on the bill Dec. 14.
The ordinance would be the first of its kind in the country and would require taxi companies, for-hire vehicle companies and app-based companies like Uber and Lyft to negotiate agreements with drivers on issues such as payment and working conditions.
“We’re trying to balance the playing field,” O’Brien said recently. “We have this multibillion-dollar company trying to monopolize the taxi industry around the world, and then we have drivers making less than minimum wage.”
Separately, a former Uber driver has sued the company in Seattle and is seeking class-action status, claiming Uber harms drivers by misclassifying them as independent contractors when they should be categorized as employees.
Joshua Fisher’s lawsuit, filed in October and moved last month from King County Superior Court to U.S. District Court, would involve more than 15,000 drivers and more than $40 million in alleged damages if a judge certifies it as a class action, according to Uber lawyers.
A similar case in California was recently granted class-action status.
Marie Napoli, a lawyer for Fisher, said Thursday he wouldn’t give an interview. She said her firm is representing drivers suing Uber in six states: Washington, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, Arizona and Maryland.
“The plaintiffs are finding us,” she said, adding. “They’re miscategorized, so they’re not getting the benefits you’re supposed to get as an employee. These men and women are working hard for every dollar and they’re really being mistreated.”
Plouffe’s presence isn’t the only evidence Uber is paying close attention to Seattle. The company chose the city for the worldwide launch Thursday of a new feature: It installed devices on some vehicle windshields that light up in a certain color to help drivers connect with riders waiting to be picked up.
Furthermore, Uber is advertising with the public-radio station KUOW and running a new, Seattle-specific television commercial in which drivers praise Uber’s flexibility, saying they choose when and how long to work.
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“This is an important market for us,” Plouffe said.
Flexibility for drivers is one of Plouffe’s main talking points. Nationwide, more than 50 percent of Uber drivers use the platform fewer than 10 hours per week, he said. For instance, he said, “We have a lot of drivers just driving for the holidays.”
He wouldn’t explain exactly how he thinks collective-bargaining rights for Seattle drivers might hurt them. “I don’t want to engage in hypotheticals,” he said.
But Plouffe said Uber objects to O’Brien’s proposal partly because “federal law is pretty clear that independent contractors are not able to engage in collective bargaining.”
The measure’s backers have said federal law doesn’t prevent the city from regulating bargaining for independent contractors precisely because the National Labor Relations Act doesn’t cover them.
Legal or not, O’Brien’s ordinance is unnecessary, Plouffe said. Though some drivers supporting the proposal have said they earn just a few dollars an hour after expenses, “the vast majority of Uber drivers … are extraordinarily satisfied,” he claimed.
“We believe the drivers have ultimate control, in that they decide when and whether to drive on the platform,” he said. “Some of the discussion up here is no doubt more political than based in reality.”
Whether drivers are in control is a main question in the court cases over employment status. Fisher’s lawsuit says Uber is an employer because it compensates drivers weekly, requires drivers to watch a training video, unilaterally sets prices and sometimes boots drivers off the platform based on their rider-satisfaction rating.
Plouffe said politicians should see Uber as a solution, not a problem, partly because it offers an alternative to drunken driving and helps people in neighborhoods with poor transportation options get around. He cited West Seattle as an example.