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Seattle considers letting Uber and Lyft drivers join union

A Post-Taxi Population Opts For Ride-sharingA Post-Taxi Population Opts For Ride-sharing
A Lyft user.Essdras M Suarez - Boston Globe via Getty Images

While ride-sharing platforms are facing litigation in California that challenges their drivers’ designation as independent contractors, lawmakers in Seattle are considering legislation that could upend Uber and Lyft’s business models in an entirely different way.

On Wednesday, the Seattle City Council will hold a hearing for a bill recently proposed by Councilman Michael O’Brien that would give individuals who drive with taxi and for-hire companies, along with ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, a pathway to unionization. O’Brien formally introduced the measure on Tuesday.

The bill—which is considered first-of-its-kind—acknowledges Uber and Lyft drivers’ status as independent contractors and seeks to allow them to collectively bargain with the companies to which they provide services. The National Labor Relations Act doesn’t protect independent contractors’ right to bargain directly with the companies they’re contracted to; such workers can only try to influence how they are regulated.


If passed, the legislation would provide a kind of workaround. According to the proposed legislation, the City of Seattle would certify a non-profit organization as eligible to represent drivers who have a Seattle for-hire vehicle license and have met the minimum threshold of trips. The selected organization will receive a list of drivers who meet those requirements and have 120 days to show that a majority of drivers for a specific company want to be represented. Once that’s verified, the organization will be able to collectively bargain over pay and working conditions on behalf of those drivers.

In introducing the law, O’Brien said that “many of these drivers make below minimum wage and have no rights in their jobs, and when they do raise issues they are quickly silenced or retaliated against with loss of access to the app or dispatcher that enables them to work.”

Lyft said in a statement that the proposed legislation “raises a range of concerns, including violating Seattle drivers’ privacy rights and circumventing federal laws.” O’Brien’s proposal “could also restrict the flexibility that attracts drivers to the Lyft platform, the vast majority of whom drive less than 15 hours per week,” the statement says. “Given these significant and costly consequences, we encourage Seattle’s leaders to seek the views of all stakeholders and outside experts before considering the proposal.”

Uber declined to comment on the ordinance.

The bill is expected to face legal challenges, since Congress explicitly left independent contractors out of the collective bargaining protections in the National Labor Relations Act.

While the bill caters to for-hire drivers directly, if passed, it’s plausible that it could be applied to other on-demand workers and contract employees who work for Seattle-based corporations like Microsoft and Amazon. And it’s possible that other cities could adopt similar legislation.

Seattle has developed a reputation as a leader in worker rights, mainly for its efforts to raise the minimum wage. In November 2013, SeaTac, the city that’s home to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, passed the nation’s first-ever $15 per hour minimum wage. The city of Seattle passed its own $15 per hour wage in June 2014 before a handful of other cities followed suit. It should be noted that the workers targeted by O’Brien’s bill—those classified as independent contractors—are not included in the city’s $15 minimum wage law.