Seattle Law Allowing Uber Drivers to Organize Survives Challenge

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By Jon Steingart

A Seattle law that lets ride-hail drivers for services like Uber and Lyft unionize survived a challenge filed by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation ( Clark v. City of Seattle , 2017 BL 298107, W.D. Wash., No. 2:17-cv-00382, 8/24/17 ).

The Aug. 24 ruling by Judge Robert Lasnik of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington clears the way for the city to carry out the law enabling drivers to form or join a labor union.

International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 117, which qualified under the law for an opportunity to organize drivers, asked Uber Technologies Inc., Lyft Inc., and a third company called East Side for Hire Co. to turn over lists with their drivers’ names and contact information. Local 117 didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Aug. 25.

“The court’s ruling is not surprising,” Brooke Steger, Uber general manager for the Pacific northwest, said in a statement emailed to Bloomberg BNA Aug. 25. “Unfortunately, if allowed to stand, thousands of drivers will be negatively impacted. The original ordinance passed by the City Council was never about benefiting drivers, but about helping Teamsters and taxi companies.”

The Seattle ordinance, enacted in 2015, is the first of its kind in the country to extend organizing rights to drivers classified as independent contractors. Federal labor law excludes independent contractors from coverage.

“Part of the reason that this is important is because a lot of companies have attempted to get around not only the National Labor Relations Act, but also all sorts of requirements for how you treat an employee, by turning those workers into independent contractors,” Ilene DeVault, a professor of labor relations, law, and history at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 25. “My understanding is the city of Seattle said ‘this is a ridiculous conversation; we’re going to pass an ordinance saying they can unionize.’”

The ordinance had been on hold since Lasnik enjoined it in in April following a separate challenge by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on behalf of Uber, Lyft, and East Side for Hire. He dismissed the Chamber’s challenge earlier this month but left the injunction in place pending resolution of the National Right to Work challenge.

Appeals Could Be Consolidated

The Chamber appealed Lasnik’s ruling. Lasnik rejected its request to block implementation of the law while the decision is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit said Aug. 24 it’s considering the Chamber’s appeal for oral argument in December.

“This decision is not the end of the road, even for the injunction,” Charlotte Garden, a labor law professor at Seattle University School of Law, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 25. “There will be a flurry of motions possibly in both the district court and the Ninth Circuit.”

“I think what would happen is the two cases would be tied together and a motions panel in the Ninth Circuit might take a closer look at a motion for injunction filed there,” Garden said.

Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes welcomed the ruling, saying in a statement emailed to Bloomberg BNA that “the court recognized the public importance of maintaining and promoting the safety and reliability of the for-hire transportation industry in the City of Seattle, goals which this law advances.”

The National Right to Work Foundation said it’s disappointed by the ruling and will appeal. “The decision will be appealed and we still feel strongly that this scheme to force independent drivers into union ranks not only violates federal labor law, but also these drivers’ First Amendment Constitutional rights,” Patrick Semmens, the organization’s vice president, said in a statement emailed to Bloomberg BNA Aug. 25. “We’re prepared to take this case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary to defend these drivers’ rights.”

David Dewhirst and James Abernath, attorneys with the Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Wash.; and William Messenger and Amanda Freeman, attorneys with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation Inc. in Springfield, Va., represented the drivers.

Assistant city attorneys Michael Ryan, Gregory Narver, Sara O’Connor-Kriss, and Josh Johnson; and Stephen Berzon, Stacey Leyton, and Casey Pitts with Altshuler Berzon LLP in San Francisco represented the city of Seattle.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Steingart in Washington at jsteingart@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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