A Voice for Drivers

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For the past few years, Seattle has been on a mission to make sure that every worker in this city has the opportunity to earn a living wage. We’ve made wage theft a crime, expanded paid sick and safe leave to workers across the city, and instituted a new minimum wage that will see workers many making $15 in another year and a half.

Yet we know that for all of our progress, there are workers in some industries and some communities that are still left behind. More specifically, we know that drivers in the for hire industry are left out from many of these gains, which means that many African and Southeast Asian immigrants are left out too, since they make up the vast majority of drivers in this industry.

So I am proud to announce the next step in Seattle’s fight for economic justice. It is an industry specific approach that will bring incredible new opportunities to our immigrant and refugee communities.

Next week, I will introduce legislation that would give drivers at taxi, for-hire and transportation network companies a voice on the job and the opportunity to negotiate for better pay and working conditions.

We know workers in a company or industry are stronger when they organize together to use their collective voice to make an impact in their working conditions. We’ve seen this throughout the history of this country, from factory workers that came together to fight for safer working conditions and the 8-hour workday over 100 years ago to the fast food workers who are leading the Fight for $15 today.

What we are seeing today in the ride-for-hire industry is a race to the bottom. Last week I met with a driver that works for Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar who told me that after he got done with his 2014 taxes, factoring in both all his taxes and his deductions, he took home an average $2.75/hour.

This young man actually left a job paying minimum wage with the hope and promise that he could make even more money and set his own schedule by driving for Uber, Lyft and Sidecar.

Yet instead of fulfilling that promise, he wakes up every morning and hopes he’ll be able to get access to the apps and rides he needs to make his car payment, pay his rent, afford food and clothes and maybe even have something left over to put in the bank or go to the movies.

He is willing to work hard and he does, often putting in 60 hour weeks just to get by. He’s willing to invest in his own success, as evidenced when he went into debt to his friends and family so he could buy the car he needed to drive professionally.

But despite this willingness to succeed, the companies he works for have set artificially low rates, less than $2/mile. They charge a buck a ride for insurance, even though the drivers must also carry their own personal insurance. They pass along a regulatory fee that is charged to the companies. And after all that, they take 20% commissions out of whatever is left. In this young man’s case, he is also still paying off that car that his company helped finance for him, so they take another $100 out of each paycheck.

And like so many other drivers in his situation, he feels stuck. He knows that on his own he is powerless to change his situation. Together with his fellow drivers, he may just have a chance.

This young man’s situation is illustrative of the broader issue these drivers face. Classified by their employers as independent contractors, these drivers have no right to the basic workplace protections many of us take for granted–such as the minimum wage, overtime, restroom and meal breaks, access to social insurance programs like unemployment insurance, protection from retaliation, the list goes on.

These companies like Uber and Lyft are making billions off these drivers, yet the drivers have no say in their role with the companies. They are taking advantage of an unfair working situation for the drivers, and we must innovate and try a new approach to help these drivers realize Seattle’s dream that everyone can make a living wage.

To further this point about the race to the bottom, I think it is helpful to compare these business practices utilized by Uber and others to an employer widely recognized—at least here in Seattle—as being bad for workers: Walmart.

Even Walmart has to pay their employees minimum wage, give them bathroom breaks, and pay them overtime if they put in more than their 40 hours/week. Uber does not.

When Walmart wants to expand and add a new store in a new city, they have to raise the capital and bear the risk of the expansion. Uber comes into a city and demands that the drivers put up the capital and bear the risk for their company’s expansion.

When Walmart wants to offer a deep discount to help drive more business, those discounts come out of corporate profits, not their employees paychecks. When Uber offers 20% off for the weekend, that discount comes straight out of the drivers’ paychecks, and Uber still gets its 20% commission.

We have got to stop this race to the bottom. It goes against everything we are trying to do here in Seattle to fight income inequality. It goes against everything we are trying to do here in Seattle to create the opportunities for our immigrant and refugee communities to pursue their dreams and to support their families and communities.

So we are innovating. We are trying something new. For the first time, the City will play a key role in helping give these drivers a voice and a chance to organize and come together to negotiate with these companies over the issues they are facing on the job.

Here is how this legislation would work:

  1. All drivers who have a Seattle for-hire vehicle licenses that have performed a minimum threshold of trips will be eligible for collective representation (this includes drivers who meet these criteria that work for Taxi, For-Hire, and/or Transportation Network Companies).
  2. The City of Seattle will certify organizations as eligible Driver Representative Organizations. In order to qualify, these organizations must:
    • Be registered as non-profit organizations in the State of Washington.
    • Have organization bylaws that give drivers the right to be members of the organization and participate in the democratic control of the organization.
    • Have experience in reaching consensus agreements with, or related to, employers and contractors.
  1. Driver Representative Organizations will receive a list of eligible drivers at each company from the City and have 120 days to demonstrate that a majority of drivers for a specific company choose to be represented.
  2. Once verified, the Driver Representative Organization will have the ability to engage in collective bargaining over pay and working conditions on behalf of those represented drivers.
  3. The City of Seattle will review any final collective bargaining agreements to ensure compliance with City code.

This is unlike anything we have tried or seen tried before. But we know we have to try something. We’ve tried regulation before, and we have seen both in Seattle and in cities around the world how averse these companies are to any regulation. So we are taking a new approach—giving power to the workers to negotiate directly with their employers.

This is truly groundbreaking legislation supported by the likes of the App-Based Drivers Association, the National Employment Law Project, Working Washington, One America, Puget Sound Sage, and the Sierra Club. These groups support this because they both value the transportation choice that this industry provides, but also believe that companies in Seattle should pay their workers fairly, and everyone should have the opportunity to earn a living wage.

I hope you will join me in supporting a voice for drivers by supporting this legislation.