Support Union Rights in the “New Economy”

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On December 14, 2015, the Seattle City Council passed a groundbreaking proposal to provide Uber, Lyft, and other app-based drivers the collective bargaining rights that have been denied them due to their “contract worker” status. ALL workers deserve collective bargaining, and this is a great first step toward helping workers in Seattle and all over the country in the “sharing economy.” Read below a rough transcript of my speech, which will be updated as soon as video has been posted.

Sisters and Brothers,

Thank you all for being here in what will be a historic step for collective bargaining rights for precarious workers. I want to echo what Marsha Botzer said earlier, “Uber does not share, and does not care.” That is absolutely correct.

The sharing economy is nothing new. It is not innovative. Ever since sharecropping, the sharing economy has meant sharing in one direction – that is, workers have the privilege of sharing what they produce with their bosses. And just like in the past, these workers have to take out loans to buy a car to use for work, and then are trapped by debt into “the sharing economy.”

As other speakers have said, workers can be can be deactivated – which is a fancy word for fired – for no reason, with no legal protection. Last week, Uber drivers in Seattle were asked to sign a new contract agreeing that they are private contractors and not workers, and not eligible for worker rights. And just like for so many other precarious workers, such as adjunct professors, I used to be one of them, the free market has given big business total dictatorial power to set the rates and conditions in the workplace.

The important point here is that, this is really a reflection the decimation of the union movement over the past couple decades. Union density in the private sector has fallen to 6.6% in 2014 from a high of 35.4% in 1945. And as workers have lost that organized union movement to fight for our rights, income inequality has skyrocketed, median income has not kept up with inflation, and more and more workers have become precariously employed. Now a full 1/3 of US workers identify as freelance. Most of those have precarious employment, with no rights in the workplace.

But this is all the outcome of the decline of the workers movement and unionization rates. Conversely, by rebuilding the union movement, we can rebuild workers’ pay, benefits, and conditions. This bill if passed, will be one step forward in this process.

One argument I have heard, “Isn’t it easier to just legislate working conditions?” No, legally it is complicated. Heaven forbid the workers themselves have a say in their conditions, why do you know better than them. The same councilmembers who are saying that workers rights can be legislated are the same councilmembers who voted against the worker right of paid parental leave a couple weeks ago.  At that time you said, the union needs to negotiate this. One way or another this is just an excuse to deny workers their rights.

What council is doing today is the easy part. Any councilmember who votes no on this, will be clearly saying they care more about the profits of a multi-billion dollar company, than the rights of Seattle’s workers.

But the next step for drivers is far more difficult:

  • You will have to put in the long hours to actually build a union;
  • You will be finding and talking to your coworkers;
  • You will be answering the lies big business uses to disrupt your efforts; but
  • You will be risking deactivation, and other intimidation tactics;
  • When you win, you will win a decent life for yourselves and your families, and will be doing a huge service for yourself and other workers.

Thank you to Councilmember O’Brien for this legislation. Thank you to the Teamsters for doggedly fighting for workers’ rights. And I have the deepest respect for all the workers who have joined this fight, particularly the 200 Uber drivers who organized your own strike last year, despite being denied any legal protections. You have shown all workers the courage you need to fight for a better world, and especially I wanted to thank you for putting forward the idea of driver unity. Drivers need to unite, and as a union member myself, I am proud to support this effort.