The effort to unionize Seattle’s Lyft and Uber drivers just cleared another legal hurdle

A new class of unionized drivers could be coming soon to Seattle.
A new class of unionized drivers could be coming soon to Seattle.
Image: AP Photo/Francois Mori
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A US district judge dismissed a lawsuit on Aug. 1 that will keep alive the Teamsters’ effort to unionize Lyft, Uber, and other independent drivers in Seattle—at least for now.

The unionization effort has faced atypical challenges from the beginning. Independent contractors cannot legally unionize under most circumstances, and a local division of the Teamsters lobbied for a special ordinance to make an exception for Seattle’s app-based drivers. After that ordinance passed in 2015, it was immediately challenged by the US Chamber of Commerce, which argued that it violated federal law. That lawsuit was dismissed Aug. 1, by a US district judge in Washington state.

Unionized drivers could impact Uber and Lyft’s business models, which depend on using contracted labor that does not come with costs such as social security contributions and benefits packages, nor with an obligation to minimum wage laws and mandated break times.

Other efforts to unionize Uber drivers have quickly fizzled, and the Teamsters in Seattle still have a long way to go. Uber, which joined as a plaintiff on the US Chamber of Commerce’s lawsuit, has said it will appeal the Aug. 1 decision, and a stay on the ordinance will remain in effect until after a separate case, this one filed by a handful of Uber and Lyft drivers who want to block the ordinance, has been decided.

The unionization effort also faces challenges beyond the legal hurdles, including a local anti-union campaign that is unusual in its size and scope. Uber has, for instance, produced an entire anti-union podcast and run television commercials during a Seattle Seahawks game (Uber spokesperson Caleb Weaver told Quartz in March that this communication effort is necessary because drivers are independent and dispersed rather than employed at a central place). Through these and other channels, it has told drivers that unionization would be “scary.”

In a statement to Quartz, Lyft spokesperson Adrian Durbin called the ordinance “poorly drafted” and argued that it would undermine the company’s ability to offer flexible work to drivers. “We are disappointed in today’s ruling,” he said, “and will continue to fight for our drivers.” (Representatives from Uber and the Teamsters Local 117 did not respond immediately for comment.)

Update: Brooke Steger, Uber general manager for the Pacific Northwest, said in a statement that “this ordinance was never about benefiting drivers or the community but really about helping Teamsters and protecting taxi companies. We intend to appeal this decision to the 9th Circuit.”