Seattle Progressives Fight Inequality: Teamsters Take On Uber

Seattle Progressives Fight Inequality: Teamsters Take On Uber

The metropolitan region's progressive groups have come together in a union-led, community-based movement for a sustainable city.

July 12, 2016

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Metropolitan Seattle is two worlds. The city’s center is a gleaming fantasyland, with cruise ships on the bay, yellow construction cranes looming above the office towers, one-of-a-kind boutiques and ubiquitous coffee shops and bakeries. On the periphery sprawls a working-class world packed with immigrant-owned mom-and-pop shops and strip malls featuring chain drug stores and payday loan dealers. Connecting the two worlds is a service sector, where sales clerks, baristas, and taxi drivers meet the needs of techies and hipsters. What’s unique to Seattle is a progressive movement trying to bridge the two worlds to create a sustainable economy, with good jobs and efficient public services. Four big unions are at the center of the battle, but they’ve brought allies with them: environmentalists, faith leaders, NGOs, and above all, the organizations of the myriad immigrant populations of Sikhs, Somalis, Ethiopians, Kenyans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Pakistanis, and Mexicans. 

While Seattle’s Service Employees International Union provided the seed money and initial impetus for the moves to create a more equitable city, today Teamsters Local 117 is the spearhead of the battle. It has mounted a multi-pronged campaign to organize the city’s for-hire drivers, those who sit at the wheels of 1,000 regulated yellow and orange cabs, as well as their nearly 10,000 competitors who are deployed via apps backed by billions in venture capital at Uber and Lyft. 

For all the drama surrounding Uber’s invasion of America’s cities, this battle in Seattle is unique because the Teamsters aim to build a union that unites what are usually two opposing groups or workers. Their goal is to build one union that wields power for all the for-hire drivers, not an association without bargaining rights or worker power. The battle was made possible by the Seattle region’s progressive movement, which, during the 2015 City Council elections, mobilized environmentalists, union members, and immigrants to make regulating Uber the linchpin of progressive city politics. A social media campaign led by a labor-community coalition, Working Washington, engaged and educated Uber riders about the ways the company mistreated its drivers and flouted municipal laws. The media mobilization was coordinated with the work of Puget Sound Sage, which brought environmentalists together with the Teamsters, and with the rallies led by Teamster organizer Dawn Gearhart, who brought hundreds of cabbies and independent drivers together demanding a Decent Work ordinance.

(Photo: AP/Ted S. Warren)

Taxi driver Benyam Hailu holds a sign at a Seattle City Council meeting on March 17, 2014.

Working together, these groups changed the way Seattle residents perceived Uber. No longer was it the White Knight vanquishing the hated yellow-cab monopoly. Instead, Uber became the bully, and 16 of the 18 candidates for council seats endorsed an unprecedented For-Hire Drivers’ Bill of Rights designed to give collective-bargaining rights to all drivers.

Joining the push were the region’s immigrant communities, which had been mobilized in 2013 to vote “Yes” on the referendum establishing the $15 minimum wage at SeaTac Airport. Seattle’s cross-class movement established the principle that regulating for-hire transportation was an interest shared by workers and consumers, and on December 15 last year, the city council unanimously adopted the “Giving Drivers a Voice” ordinance permitting drivers to organize and bargain, marking the city the only jurisdiction in the country recognizing the right of independent contractors to organize. Independent contractors are excluded from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act, which gives most workers the right to bargain collectively, but so are other categories of workers, like public employees, who have won such rights at the local and state levels. The Seattle ordinance was the first to extend those rights to independent contractors.

Local 117’s then–secretary-treasurer, Tracey Thompson, and a pair of Cornell Labor College alumni, Organizing Director Leonard Smith and Lead Organizer Dawn Gearhart, undertook the campaign because, after organizing taxi drivers at SeaTac, the transportation network companies were the next logical step. The trio began by recruiting, educating, and mobilizing leaders drawn from the drivers’ ethnic enclaves. John Scearcy, who succeeded Thompson as secretary-treasurer, has continued the campaign and injected new enthusiasm—and resources—into the effort. The local created a worker-led organization, the Western Washington Taxi Cab Operators’ Association. At its founding convention in 2012, delegates rejected the bylaws proposed by the Teamster legal staff, insisting that directly elected officers should have only one-year, not three-year, terms, so the members could hold them more accountable.

Today, Gearhart haunts the drivers’ airport parking lot, where the association’s lobbying has gained yellow-cab drivers a place to eat, pray, play ping-pong, and use the bathroom. (Uber and Lyft drivers, who only recently gained the right to pick up fares at the airport, have been slower to join the association; so far, they have only been granted parking spots and port-a-potties.) When she’s not at the airport, Gearhart can usually be found at the mosques and eateries of working-class metropolitan Seattle. She knows yellow-cab drivers by number—“There’s 414, Amadeep Singh, he’s Sikh”—and she plants the seed of collective action among the drivers who work for the app-based companies, most of whom are East African. 

Since Uber and Lyft came to town and recruited ten times the number of drivers that had been issued licenses under the city’s regulatory taxicab regime, earnings of all drivers have tumbled. While Uber started out allowing drivers to keep almost the same amount per mile driven as the regulated taxi drivers were getting, it has since cut that rate from $2.35 to $1.35 per mile. Now Uber drivers charge lower fares, and they get the lion’s share of the business. But with their low mileage rate, they have to work seven 12-hour days each week to make enough to live in the expensive metropolitan region. Mohammed, a somali driver I met near the Al Aqbar mosque that was the first to allow drivers to hold organizing meetings, told me that he knew driving such long hours was dangerous. “But what choice do I have?” he asked. “I have to pay for my car, my apartment, to put food on the table.” 

Mohammed told me he pays $600 per week for the car Uber pressured him to lease from Toyota. He also pays the company $1.40 per passenger as a “safe rider fee,” though he can’t figure out what he or his passengers are getting for the money, since background checks are minimal and fingerprinting is unknown. On the day I visited the airport parking lot, Uber drivers waited 40 minutes, on average, before they got a call to pick up a passenger. Some days are better, Mohammed informed me; by now the drivers know when the planes are landing, and they try to time their arrival at the airport to minimize their wait. But even when they time it right, their earnings are limited; a ride from the airport to town only nets them $16, and there’s no tipping. Worse, a recent company-imposed pooling policy requires drivers to pick up multiple passengers at different places to take them to common destinations at severely reduced fares. This “innovation,” communicated to drivers through Uber’s app, really has the drivers grumbling.

(Photo: AP/Ted S. Warren)

A driver for Uber Technologies Inc. arrives at an authorized customer pick-up area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle.

Licensed-cab taxi drivers probably have it worse. At nights and on weekends, millennial customers use their Uber app. As a consequence, most licensed drivers work an early shift, from 4:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon, seven days a week. Driving cab number 718, a Somali driver who was afraid to give me his name told me that before Uber arrived, he used to be able to make a decent living driving eight hour days. Now he has a choice; he can drive seven 12-hour days or he can reduce his lifestyle. He’s moved to a cheaper apartment and settled for straitened circumstances. He’s philosophical about his change of life, but he doesn’t think it’s right. “I don’t mind competition,” he told me. “Competition makes everyone play their best game. If you are skilled and have a good strategy, you can win. But this competition is unfair. Uber doesn’t pay the standard mileage rate, its insurance is no good, and it makes its drivers work unsafe hours. This competition you can’t win.” Another driver, an Ethiopian, made the other choice, working seven 12-hour days. “My kids think I’m an ATM machine,” he told me. “I never see them.”        

Smith and Gearhart try to help the drivers overcome their sense of helplessness and isolation by showing them the victories achieved at the city council. They’ve fought off efforts to reduce the city’s taxi mileage rates, for example, even though rates have been cut in most cities invaded by Uber. They’ve also persuaded the city to create 35 additional taxi medallions, so more cabbies can drive for themselves. At the state capitol, the Teamsters beat back proposed legislation to create a separate regulatory authority for the app-based transport companies. And on the organizing front, Taxi Association leaders engage with the each of the drivers’ ethnic communities to garner support.

One ally is Ahmed, who led me to the Al Aqbar mosque in South Seattle to meet the imam who was the first to open his place of worship to association organizers. Ahmed is a veteran of the two canvassing campaigns conducted in Seattle’s working-class communities adjacent to the airport. The first, which occurred in 2011 and 2012, was led by Jonathan Rosenblum, who was then at SEIU 775. In the course of an effort that reached 100,000 homes to engage people in conversations about their working lives, Ahmed and his fellow canvassers discovered that low-paying subcontracted jobs cleaning planes, loading luggage, and pouring pop at airport fast-food joints were the problems uppermost in the minds of community residents. Two years later, in 2013, Ahmed worked on the referendum campaign led by Working Washington, which deployed organizers from SEIU Locals 775 and 6, Teamsters Local 117, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 8, to convince voters to approve establishing a $15 minimum wage in the city of SeaTac, home to Seattle’s airport. After weeks of door-knocking and street-pounding, they mobilized enough support to earn a razor-thin victory for the ballot measure—a clear defeat for Alaska Airlines, the dominant carrier at the airport, and the airport’s multiple subcontractors. This was the first victory for the Fight for 15 movement, and its success inspired progressives in cities around the country to believe that $15 was not an impossible dream; Seattle passed its own $15 minimum-wage ordinance in June 2014.

Today, Ahmed works for the Fair Work Center, an organization partly funded by the city to provide education, outreach, and support to workers seeking to enforce the city’s municipal labor standards. His effort is backed by members of Seattle’s progressive movement, like Howard Greenwich, research director of Puget Sound Sage (a community alliance which began life as Seattle Alliance for Good Jobs and Housing for Everyone), and Sage Wilson, media director of Working Washington. They’re lobbying members of the city council to pass a budget creating a sustainably funded municipal agency that enforces recent paid sick leave and minimum-wage ordinances. They’re determined that local businesses will not be able to get away with wage theft. 

(Photo: AP/Ted S. Warren)

Taxi and for-hire drivers hold a rally outside City Hall in Seattle before a meeting of the Seattle City Council on March 17, 2014.

Labor lawyer Dmitri Iglitzin was involved in drafting the novel legislation that gives independent contractors the right to organize and bargain along with employed cab and licensed drivers. He argues that the city was granted the authority to regulate for-hire transportation by the provision in the state constitution which gives the city of Seattle the responsibility to protect public safety. The council’s creation of a municipal miniature Wage and Hour Division is a natural outgrowth of that responsibility, he argues. Whether the courts ultimately accept his argument, only time will tell. But Iglitzin is not alone in believing that Seattle has adopted an agenda which puts government action at the center of the push for a sustainable city. Wilson, who led the social media campaign for the For-Hire Drivers’ Bill of Rights and is currently at Working Washington, explains that as office towers and apartment blocks have sprouted up in affluent city neighborhoods, Seattle residents have pushed for a sustainable urban agenda, including expanded public transportation, zero-emissions electric trolleys, and protection of open spaces. The latest addition to the progressive community’s agenda is fair scheduling for the city’s retail workers and sustainable funding for the new enforcement office.

I wondered aloud more than once how Seattle’s progressive community moved from running a suburban minimum-wage ordinance to promoting a regional agenda for sustainable communities—a transition requiring uncommon levels of cohesiveness as well as political and movement-building skills. Leonard Smith of the Teamsters and Jonathan Rosenblum, who has worked at SEIU and Working Washington, both said that the movement partners have learned to trust one another in the course of repeated campaigns. Each victory bore fruit for several organizations, and over time, everyone benefited. Leonard pointed out that the SeaTac campaign was the first time he had ever seen unions commit staff to a multi-union effort in a manner that allowed staffers to be directed by an official not from their own union.

David Rolf, president of SEIU 775, believes that the Seattle progressive community’s power has grown because it has developed two important capabilities. First, “We learn from our mistakes.” After Seattle’s labor progressives determined that they could not organize subcontracted airport workers directly, they realized that there were other ways to gain power. “We did a mass canvass,” Rolf continues, “and came up with the minimum-wage campaign, which had previously improved standards at California airports. When the Teamsters saw that Uber stood in the way of improving the conditions of taxi drivers, they realized that trying to drive Uber out of town wouldn’t work. Uber was too popular, and the taxi companies too unpopular. We built support for regulation throughout the city’s neighborhoods by knocking on doors and educating people about the issues.”

Rolf believes that Seattle’s progressives are in a fortunate position because their city has more self-rule than many others, which are constrained by state preemption. It has a liberal electorate, and union leaders who are willing to cooperate. Equally important, he argues, local business leaders are not as firmly committed to low-wage business models as is the case in other cities. Microsoft and Amazon, he argues, don’t have many low-wage workers within the city limits. This favorable environment means that Seattle progressives have room to experiment; they can try out a variety of strategies to see which ones work and which ones don’t. Not every initiative will be successful, he acknowledges, “but that’s all right if we learn from the failures.” Moreover, now that Local 775 (which has been a major funder of the region’s progressive endeavors) has organized 45,000 workers in the long-term-care sector of the home-care industry—workers who weren’t even in a bargaining unit 15 years ago—it has the capacity to risk the occasional setback.

How Seattle regulates the for-hire transportation industry is not necessarily the right approach for every city, Rolf allows. In New York, where taxis are more closely regulated than Seattle’s taxis ever were, progressives might choose a different path. Cities with fewer home-rule powers might have to take yet another tack. Nevertheless, what the union-initiated, community-based Seattle progressive movement has set in motion should be scrutinized closely by progressives throughout the country. Old-style worker-organizing;  community canvassing and organizing; social media mobilizing; inter-union cooperation; timely electoral campaigning; cross-class multicultural alliances; building a deep bench of professionals, academics, researchers, organizers, and faith leaders—together, these initiatives have all combined to build a powerful movement in the heartland of the “new economy.”   

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