City of Seattle Stands Up for Uber Drivers’ Rights, Is Sued by U.S. Chamber

By Rick Claypool, Research Director for Public Citizen’s President’s Office

Local elected officials across the U.S. are facing fierce opposition when the interests of their constituents come in conflict with the demands of ride-hailing corporations like Uber and Lyft.

In cities like Austin, Texas, and Boston, Mass., much of the conflict stems from efforts to require rideshare drivers and taxi drivers to follow the same background check requirements, especially fingerprinting. Since the deadly shootings by an Uber driver in Kalamazoo, Mich., these conflicts have sharpened. In New York City, the conflict is over traffic.

In Seattle, Wash., the point of contention is an ordinance passed unanimously by the city council in December last year recognizing drivers’ right to organize and form a union. Uber – a corporation with an estimated value of $50-70 billion – is engaging in aggressive tactics to stop drivers from forming a union.

Now the always chivalrous U.S. Chamber of Commerce has rushed in to assist this corporation in distress by suing the city of Seattle. The Chamber’s lawsuit seeks to block the ordinance from implementation and a declaration of the ordnance as unlawful, hence voiding any possible enforcement.

As an act of sabotage against local democracy by the biggest bully working on Big Business’ behalf in Washinton, D.C., it’s stunning. As an act of hypocrisy – considering the Chamber’s claims to represent the interests of small businesses – it’s absolutely breathtaking.

Ride-hailing companies, insist on classifying drivers as “independent contractors,” not employees. It’s a policy Uber has defended repeatedly before judges and regulators. It will have ample opportunity to keep making its case. Last year, it lost before the California Labor Commission – and it now faces a class action lawsuit from drivers seeking reclassification as employees.

Uber touts the “freedom” and “flexibility” it provides its drivers – who it calls “partners” – with significant exceptions, such as the company’s authority to set rates and “deactivate” (i.e., fire) drivers.

So Uber clearly prefers some freedoms to others. In Seattle, instead of embracing a policy such as the one passed by democratically elected lawmakers, which gives the drivers the right to choose whether to organize or not, the corporation would prefer that their “independent contractors” not have a choice.

The Chamber, meanwhile, is no stranger to lobbying against the interests of workers under the banner of “freedom.” What’s interesting in this instance is that Uber and the Chamber argue that the workers in question are independent contractors. If so, that makes them the smallest of small businesses. The Chamber lawsuit is based on the notion that these small businesses are impermissibly joining together to bargain with the giant company Uber.

If the drivers are independent contractors, the Chamber and Uber’s argument asserts that they should be in competition with each other, not working together to secure a better deal for themselves.

If the Chamber truly believes these drivers are independent contractors, than this is an instance of the Chamber taking action directly against the interests of the smallest of small businesses and on behalf of Uber, a multibillion-dollar goliath that one would expect to be able to fight its own battles.

The lawsuit makes it all too clear where the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Uber stand when the perceived interests of powerful corporations are pitted against workers, small businesses and local governments. And it provides a case study of how Corporate America responds when faced with democratic action that prioritizes the freedom and wellbeing of real people over unchecked greed.

Despite the Chamber’s small business PR efforts, the Chamber siding with Big Business should not surprise anyone. After all, most of the Chamber’s funding comes from a handful of large corporations that have much more in common with Uber than its drivers.

Every day when news pundits discuss the election, they say the public is angry. With conflicts such as this between profits and people playing out across the country, no one should be wondering why.