Seattle Uber Drivers Split on City Decision to Let Them Unionize

While some drivers celebrate the prospect of employee rights, others fear losing independence.

The debate over Uber drivers' employment status continues across the country, including here in the Massachusetts Statehouse. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Fasil Teka knew they’d won before the Seattle City Council even voted.

On Monday afternoon, Seattle became the first city to allow taxi, for-hire, and app-based drivers to unionize. The vote from the city council was unanimous.

The ordinance requires that companies share contact information so union reps can contact drivers, who were previously deemed contractors and not allowed to organize, to collectively bargain on wages and working conditions. Teka, an Uber driver who has worked on this effort to unionize for the last two years through the App-Based Drivers Association, said City Hall was filled with joyous Uber and Lyft drivers.

“We declared victory before they even made the vote, since every councilperson said how they supported the ordinance,” says Teka, who’s driven with the company for four years. “We were clapping the whole time. Then eight out of eight passed it and everybody was screaming and yelling, clapping and hugging.”

Teka has been in Seattle since 1990, when his family emigrated from Ethiopia. He says many Uber drivers, like him, were not born in the U.S. But unlike some of those drivers, he says, he can speak English well and voice his desire for more rights as an employee.

“They saw how Uber was strong and they didn’t think they could fight with a big company,” he says. “Some of them barely speak English. I can express my feelings better than most of the guys. They came to me and said they needed help. I don’t tolerate when bad things happen to powerless people.”

This is just the first step, he says. Since Uber and Lyft opposed the measure, there will probably be legal action.

The continued national debate over whether Uber drivers are independent contractors or employees will also continue—not just among government officials, but also among Uber drivers.

Larry Green, another Uber driver in Seattle, says he does not want to unionize. After going to the Teamsters Local 117 and city council meetings, he says unionizing will add an unwanted cost for many drivers who joined the company for flexible hours and independence.

“The union is the last thing that we need for drivers," he says. "I'm working in the sharing economy. A union is going to take away a lot of options and choices for drivers. They're saying drivers are going to benefit, but really drivers are going to have to pay to become a member of the union."

Green has been driving with Uber for over two years, after a knee injury halted his basketball career. Since then, he found work in the sharing economy, from delivering food through phone apps to running an Airbnb rental.

While Green has seen the ride fares go down quite a bit and felt that being a driver has gone from being enjoyable to being more of a grind—both among the reasons drivers wanted to unionize—he's worried this move is going to limit drivers to only certain hours or certain days, and take away choice.

"I would like to see the fares go back up," he says. "But there should be more unity between drivers than a union. We want our voices to be heard and the platform able to adapt to make drivers' lives more sustainable. It's unity versus union."