Uber, Lyft Seek to Pump Brakes on Seattle Driver Organizing

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By Jon Steingart

Uber and Lyft are stepping up their campaign to discourage drivers from organizing after a federal judge last week dismissed the second of two lawsuits challenging a Seattle ordinance that makes it easier for the drivers to join a union.

The companies are contacting drivers with information about who would be eligible or ineligible to vote for union representation. All drivers would be required to abide by a collective bargaining agreement between the company and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 117, including drivers who voted against union representation or were ineligible to vote. The union qualified under the city law for an opportunity to organize the drivers.

It gives the companies a leg up in the PR battle that they have contact information for the drivers but the Teamsters local doesn’t, Lance Compa, who teaches labor law at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 31. “The imbalance in communication power really gives the companies an advantage,” he said. “The company has all that information and has immediate access to them,” Compa said.

Communications With Drivers

“We believe the Teamsters aim to reduce driver flexibility and fundamentally change the way ridesharing works,” Lyft Inc. says on a website message. The company told its drivers about the website in a text message. It asserts that only drivers who completed a certain number of trips in any three-month period between January 2016 and January 2017 will be eligible to vote on whether the Teamsters should be their representative. That would disenfranchise as many as 70 percent of Lyft drivers, but the election and any collective bargaining agreement that follows would cover all drivers, even those who were ineligible to vote, the company says.

“Drivers wouldn’t have been disenfranchised had the companies not sued,” Dawn Gearheart, business representative for Local 117, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 1. “We asked for the lists in February, but because the companies kept suing and suing, the lists got older and older.”

Local 117 planned to ask the city to update the period for which drivers would be qualified to vote for a union because nobody benefits from outdated driver lists, Gearheart said. “We were going to make that request and then we got notice that the companies appealed to the Ninth Circuit.”

Preparing for a Union Vote

Organizing within the ride-hail industry may be new, but organizing workers isn’t.

“There’s all this talk in the employer community about what do I do to prepare” when faced with the possibility of a union election, Jonathan Spitz, a principal in the Atlanta office of Jackson Lewis P.C. and a co-leader of the law firm’s labor and preventive practices group, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 1. “The No. 1 thing is proactive communications.”

“You would address the issues of discontent. You would address the need for third-party interference,” he said. “I think half the battle is treating people right and being pretty shameless in reminding them that you’re treating them right.”

Drivers Want to Be Heard

Drive Forward Seattle, a driver organization created by Uber Technologies Inc. and Eastside for Hire Inc., a smaller ride-hailing company also challenging the Seattle ordinance, sent a letter Aug. 30 to the city agency overseeing the organizing drive asking it to adjust the rules so more drivers would qualify to vote in a union election. “It’s clear that the Teamsters are pressuring the City to do what’s in the best interest of the Teamsters, not what’s best for drivers,” the letter said. “If they claim to want to represent all drivers, why wouldn’t they want all drivers to have a vote on representation?”

“We don’t want Teamsters representation,” Charles Jenkins, an Uber driver and Drive Forward board member, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 1. When asked whether that means drivers would vote against Teamsters representation, he said the vote wouldn’t reflect drivers’ will “if they use voter suppression to get what they want.”

“If it was just about drivers voting, why don’t they let every driver vote?” Jenkins said.

After Judge Robert Lasnik of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington Aug. 1 issued his first dismissal of one of the two lawsuits against the Seattle ordinance, Teamsters 117 said “for-hire drivers have a basic right to self-determination and to stand together with the representative of their choosing to improve their pay and working conditions. We will continue to help drivers fight for that right.” It repeated the pledge after Lasnik issued the second and final dismissal Aug. 24.

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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