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Seattle becomes first U.S. city to let Uber drivers unionize

Phuong Le Associated Press

SEATTLE – Seattle on Monday became the first city in the nation to allow drivers of ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft to unionize over pay and working conditions.

Supporters erupted into cheers after the City Council voted 8-0 in favor of the legislation, which is seen as a test case for the changing 21st-century workforce. The companies strongly oppose it, and several council members acknowledged there would be legal challenges ahead but said it was worth doing.

The measure requires companies that hire or contract with drivers of taxis, for-hire transportation companies and app-based ride-hailing services to bargain with their drivers, if a majority show they want to be represented. Drivers would be represented by nonprofit organizations certified by the city.

Seattle has been a national leader on workers’ rights, such as gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 and requiring most employers to provide paid sick leave.

“My intent is to make sure that the people, the drivers, the workers in our community continue to have access to good-wage jobs,” Councilmember Mike O’Brien said. He added innovation can continue to happen, but it shouldn’t be done at the expense of workers.

Many drivers in Seattle are immigrants who depend on full-time work, but some make less than minimum wage and lack basic worker rights, such as sick leave and protection from retaliation, he said.

The National Labor Relations Act does not extend collective bargaining rights to independent contractors.

San Francisco-based Uber and others say federal labor law prevents cities from regulating collective bargaining, and the ordinance would violate federal antitrust laws. Opponents also argue it would be costly for the city to implement, it would violate drivers’ privacy since their information would be given to the organization, and it would stifle the growth of the on-demand economy.

In a response to a request for a comment on the legislation, Uber said in a statement Monday it is “creating new opportunities for many people to earn a better living on their own time and their own terms.”

San Francisco-based Lyft urged the mayor and council to reconsider the measure and listen to those who seek the flexible economic opportunity the company offers.

“Unfortunately, the ordinance passed today threatens the privacy of drivers, imposes substantial costs on passengers and the city, and conflicts with longstanding federal law,” Lyft’s statement said.

Uber has about 400,000 drivers nationwide with about 10,000 in Seattle. Its rival, Lyft, also has thousands of drivers in Seattle but declined to give a number.

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