Seattle made headlines last year when it became the first city to approve a $15 hourly minimum wage. This year, the city is poised to make headlines again as a group of local officials hope to secure collective bargaining rights for taxi and app-based drivers working for companies like Uber and Lyft under a proposed ordinance that could soon go before the Seattle City Council.
Other cities are watching the measure, as the very nature of work is undergoing a seismic change in America. Fewer U.S. workers can rely on core labor standards, such as the right to a minimum wage, workers’ compensation, and protections from discrimination and — most importantly — the right to come together and negotiate contracts with employers. The growth of subcontracting, franchising, and simply calling workers independent contractors rather than employees is leading to a deterioration of labor standards and heightened inequality in our country.
For workers in the on-demand economy — where nearly all workers are considered independent contractors supposedly in business for themselves — this has had particularly disastrous effects. As The New York Times reported, one Seattle driver drives 55 hours a week for both Uber and Lyft, and makes less than $3 per hour after all the expenses of purchasing and operating a car are counted. Another Uber driver reportedly earns between $120 to $180 for a 10- or 12-hour day — before accounting for gas, insurance, and fees.
But workers considered independent contractors, have no federally-protected right to bargain with Uber or Lyft. While the National Labor Relations Act establishes rules for how workers and companies negotiate agreements about wages and working conditions, independent contractors are excluded.
There is an opportunity, however, for the law to cover more workers, including independent contractors. Back in the 1930s, certain types of workers, including public employees, domestic workers, farm workers and symphony musicians, were excluded from the federal law. That has changed in some states, including in Washington, where government employees, family home providers and family child care provider and symphony musicians have the right to organize and bargain collectively.
It’s time to build on that history and make it relevant to the way work is organized today. That doesn’t mean tossing out existing models that are indispensable to ensuring fair treatment on the job, as some in the business community argue. It means learning from those models and building on them.
Under Seattle’s proposed ordinance, workers would be able to negotiate over wages and benefits. A contract would also allow them to reach an agreement over changing conditions at work and address concerns, such as communications, expenses and training. The city would still be part of the process in that it would oversee any agreements that resulted from bargaining, safeguarding the City’s interest both creating good jobs and enhancing the security, safety and reliability of its transportation systems.
Rebecca Smith is deputy director of the National Employment Law Project.