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Seattle Becomes First City to Allow Uber Drivers to Unionize

Seattle became the first US city to allow drivers for smartphone-based ride companies like Uber and Lyft to unionize, a decision met with controversy.

Uber and Lyft are facing a new and significant challenge to their business models in Seattle after a first-of-its-kind ordinance allowing drivers to unionize passed the City Council unanimously on Monday (Dec. 14). While the Seattle vote is aimed at giving drivers more of a say in their job conditions, it’s not clear how this will work in practice with Uber, Lyft and any other car-booking company.

It will be up to the union to make enough of a case for drivers – they would need to get the support of a majority of a company’s drivers – to be designated by the city as their bargaining representative. 1099 refers to the tax form independent contractors receive from businesses and the bill, like Seattle’s, would allow workers to collectively bargain.

When classified as an independent contractor “employees may not receive important workplace protections such as the minimum wage, overtime compensation, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation”, a memo from the US Labor Department states.

It isn’t even clear how many Uber drivers there are in Seattle.

Wilma Liebman, former chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board, told The Huffington Post that she doesn’t see a conflict with federal labor law unless the labor board deems Uber drivers to be employees, which could bring them under the board’s jurisdiction.

Uber objects to the new legislation, The Seattle Times adds. It also applies to traditional taxi drivers and to other drivers-for-hire.

A man drives a sedan with an Uber sticker on it. Also in California, a major class-action lawsuit against Uber on precisely this question heads to trial in June 2016. Through collective bargaining, supporters hope that drivers can then hammer out an agreement that covers issues such as pay and fuel reimbursements.

Under the proposal, ride-hailing apps will be required to give lists of their drivers to driver representative organizations.

Uber is widely expected to sue, although Lyft said it did not have plans to sue.

The Seattle law does not rule on whether drivers are employees or contractors but extends to drivers rights usually reserved for employees. The company says the ordinance threatens drivers’ privacy, imposes costs to passengers and the city, and contradicts federal law.

The law could have implications far beyond the on-demand economy – raising the prospect of collective bargaining rights for contract workers in other fields.

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