Seattle’s first-in-the-nation law allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize is still on hold while business groups challenge it in court. The law cleared a major legal hurdle Tuesday, but it is not out of the woods yet.
A federal judge dismissed one legal challenge to Seattle’s first-in-the-nation law allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize, but another related challenge remains and the law will not begin to go into effect until that lawsuit is settled.
In April, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik temporarily blocked the law, passed in 2015, from going into effect, while he considered the legal challenges.
On Tuesday, Lasnik rejected the first of those challenges, a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on behalf of its members, including Uber and Lyft.
The Chamber had argued that because Uber, Lyft and taxi drivers are contractors, not employees, federal and state laws do not give them the right to unionize.
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Seattle’s law would allow them to decide whether they want to unionize and then to collectively bargain for things like pay, benefits and better working conditions.
Teamsters Local 117 has gotten permission from the city to begin organizing drivers, if and when the law goes into effect. If and when that happens, taxi and ride-hailing companies will have to give Local 117 a list of their drivers, with contact information.
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) explicitly excludes five categories of workers from its coverage and protections: public-sector workers, agriculture workers, domestic workers, supervisors and independent contractors. The first three are allowed to unionize under various state laws.
Seattle city attorneys had argued that independent contractors are more like the other categories of workers than they are supervisors and that the city has the authority to let them unionize even if they aren’t covered by the NLRA.
Lasnik agreed, finding that Congress didn’t really care whether states let independent contractors unionize or not.
“Congress was indifferent to the labor rights of independent contractors,” he wrote, “because their disputes were thought to be of insufficient magnitude to affect commerce.”
He also ruled that state law does not pre-empt Seattle from giving independent contractors the right to unionize.
“The city’s novel approach to improving safety, reliability and stability in transportation services is in no way inconsistent with the Legislature’s purpose,” Lasnik wrote.
But, the law remains on hold. Lasnik is still considering a second lawsuit, from about a dozen Uber and Lyft drivers backed by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the Freedom Foundation, two groups that promote conservative, anti-union legislation.
Seattle filed a motion to dismiss that lawsuit about a week after it filed to dismiss the Chamber’s lawsuit.
Uber promised to appeal its loss to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“The Court’s decision ignores the serious legal challenges raised in this case about an ordinance that will turn back the clock in Seattle,” Brooke Steger, Uber’s general manager for the Pacific Northwest said in a prepared statement. “If this ruling is allowed to stand, those most adversely affected will unfortunately be thousands of drivers.”
Michael Ryan, a city attorney who argued the case, said the city was pleased with Lasnik’s ruling.
“The U.S. Chamber brought some serious claims against the city on federal antitrust, federal labor law, state law, and the judge rejected all those claims today,” Ryan said. “This is the city clearing a nice legal hurdle.”
The City Council unanimously passed the unionization law in 2015. Mayor Ed Murray let the law go into effect without his signature, saying he was supportive but was worried about the costs of defending it in court.