Judge sides with city of Seattle in legal dispute with Uber over historic driver unionization law

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(Shutterstock Photo)

A King County judge today rejected a request from Uber subsidiary Rasier to block several key provisions of Seattle’s first-of-its-kind law that lets drivers for ride-hailing companies decide if they want to bargain collectively, a win for the city, which is defending the law on several legal fronts.


Uber filed its petition in King County Superior Court in January to block several rules published last year from Seattle’s department of Finance and Administrative Services. Those rules cover issues like which drivers get a say in whether they want to unionize, working conditions subject to bargaining and how an organization gets certified to represent drivers exclusively.


The main issue in this case, which has also been the most contentious piece of the law, concerns which drivers get to vote on unionization. According to the city’s rules, new drivers who had been with their respective ride-hailing companies for less than 90 days prior to the Jan. 17 kick-off of the law will not get a vote. Drivers also need to have made 52 trips starting or ending in Seattle during any three-month period in the last year to be eligible.


Ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft favor giving every driver a vote, without the type of restrictions in Seattle’s rules.


Uber argued that the city’s process was flawed and will disenfranchise thousands of drivers. Uber hoped to get major pieces of the law suspended to effectively block the ordinance and force the city to go back to the drawing board to tweak the rules so that they better reflect the conditions of the industry.


Based on the scope of the court, for Uber to come out victorious, King County Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus would have had to find that the city crafted major pieces of the law arbitrarily, without taking evidence and data under consideration. Uber’s legal representatives conceded during the hearing that convincing the court otherwise was a high bar to clear, and Andrus ultimately ruled that Uber hadn’t been able to prove that.


Uber’s general manager for the Pacific Northwest Brooke Steger released the following statement in reaction to the ruling:


The city’s collective bargaining ordinance rules deny thousands of Seattle drivers a voice and a vote on their future. We were forced to pursue a novel legal approach because the City provided no other way to challenge this deeply flawed process. We appreciate Judge Andrus’s consideration of the suit. Seattle should be working to give drivers a voice rather than denying them one. We will continue to look for ways to raise these very serious concerns.


(Uber Photo)

The landmark law, passed in 2015, gives drivers the ability to band together to negotiate pay rates and employment conditions, among other conditions. The law lets organizations that want to represent drivers get contact information from the ride-hailing companies to reach out to drivers and try and drum up support for collective bargaining.


Currently, these drivers are considered independent contractors and are not protected by traditional labor standards — including Seattle’s $15 per hour minimum wage law. They also do not have collective bargaining rights covered by the National Labor Relations Act.


Also present at the hearing were legal representatives of Teamsters Local 117, which was recently certified to represent drivers by the city. Teamsters 117 is seeking to represent drivers from Uber, Lyft and Eastside for Hire. Those companies have an April 3 deadline to hand over driver lists with contact information. That starts a 120-day clock for organizers to gather support from a majority of drivers for collective bargaining.


Friday’s positive outcome in court doesn’t mean the battle is over the law is finished. Uber officials indicated they weren’t giving up their legal fight, and the city is facing several other legal disputes related to the law.


Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce re-filed a lawsuit against the city of Seattle in U.S. District Court of Western Washington, arguing that the driver unionization ordinance violates federal labor laws related to independent contractors. In addition, the chamber pointed to a scenario where other cities will follow Seattle’s lead, creating a maze inconsistent of regulations for companies like Uber and Lyft to follow.


The next day, a group of 11 drivers announced to file its own lawsuit in federal court seeking to block the ordinance. The suit claims that Seattle’s law violates federal labor law as well as drivers’ First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of association by forcing them to unionize and pay dues.


Developing story, more to come.


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