Photo credit: Getty Images via Bloomberg
by Sarah Kessler
By the time the Teamsters starts organizing Uber drivers in Seattle next month, the ride-sharing company will have already spent a year fighting the effort.
The company has run advertisements against unionization in its app and on television, hosted meetings, and sent emails and phone calls to drivers. Its podcast for Seattle drivers, in which it hashes out arguments against joining a union, is already on its 18th episode.
“As I’m sure you know,” says Brooke Steger, the general manager for Uber in the Pacific Northwest, in episode 18 of Uber’s podcasts, “We at Uber do not believe the Teamsters can serve as a fair and effective representative for drivers.”
“Brooke, I agree,” responds a driver who is identified only as “Frederick” and uses the flat, steady tone of someone who is reading a script. “As a small business owner…I don’t want to hand over my flexibility and freedom to anybody, especially an organization that has fought so hard to keep Uber driver partners off the streets of Seattle.”
Steger has throughout the podcast’s run called the prospect of a union “very, very scary,” “super scary,” and “really, really scary.”
Anti-trust laws generally prohibit unions from organizing independent contractors, but Seattle passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance in late 2015 allowing collective bargaining of Uber and Lyft drivers. Teamsters local 117 got final approval March 3 to organize independent drivers who work for apps or taxi companies. Uber will now be required to hand over contact information for its drivers to the organizers, who have 120 days to gather support from those who joined the platform before Oct. 20, 2016, and have taken at least 52 rides within a three-month period.
“Companies are using the same old tricks,” says Dawn Gearhart, who works as a coordinator with the Seattle Teamsters chapter, but with Uber, privately valued at $68 billion, it’s “to a $70 billion extent.” Uber’s spending to fight the Teamsters, while unknown, appears large. The company even ran a television commercial during a Seattle Seahawks game warning against unionization. “I’ve never seen an anti-union podcast before. I’ve never seen anything about the Teamsters during a national football game,” Gearhart says.
Uber’s effort vastly outguns that of the union. “We have three staff people max, including myself, who are working on this,” says Gearhart.
Uber spokesperson Caleb Weaver says that the unusually high-profile campaign is necessary because drivers are independent contractors. “We, as Uber, don’t tell drivers when, where, and how they are going to drive,” he says, “Much less tell them that they need to show up and be in a room so we can provide them with information.”
The business model for Uber and Lyft depends on treating drivers as independent contractors, which allows the companies to pay exactly the number of drivers needed to handle passengers at any given moment without paying those waiting around for rides. Independent contractors are not protected by most labor laws, such as the minimum wage.
During Steger’s two-and-a-half hours of podcasts, she argues that unionizing would take away drivers’ right to represent themselves to Uber, that the union will collect dues from drivers regardless of whether they support union, and that the union just wants drivers’ money. It warns drivers that union officials may stalk them or deceive them into giving their signatures in support of the organization effort.
The ordinance requires that companies discuss certain topics in negotiations with unions, including minimum hours of work. This, argues Steger during the podcast, means that drivers’ “flexibility” is in jeopardy, which surveys suggest is one of the aspects of the “gig economy” that workers like most. She says drivers wouldn’t be able to vote on such provisions in a union contract. Uber’s Weaver maintains that if Uber and the Teamsters don’t reach agreement within 90 days, negotiations go to arbitration and drivers wouldn’t have the option to vote on a contract.
Though the ordinance rules do not mandate that drivers vote on a contract reached with Uber or another platform, Gearhart says that such a voting process is written into the constitution of the Teamsters. “Drivers get to vote on the agreement before it goes into effect,” she says. “If they look at it and determine that it violates flexibility, they would vote no.” In more than 200 contracts the Teamsters has negotiated with companies, she says, workers have voted on the contracts.
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