In 2015, Seattle became the first and only city to allow its ride-share drivers to unionize. But now the union may be broken up before it holds a single bargaining session, thanks to a legal alliance between Uber and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — joined recently by the Trump administration.
The 9th Circuit of Appeals is currently deliberating Chamber of Commerce v. City of Seattle, a suit brought on Uber’s behalf by the pro-business organization. Uber and the chamber hope to label the Seattle ordinance, passed unanimously by the city council in 2015, an antitrust violation. The argument, in essence, is that the city’s coalition of largely working-class and immigrant drivers would violate antitrust rules if they were allowed to negotiate together with the ride-sharing companies that sign their paychecks. Since the drivers are classified as independent business operators, the logic goes, they would be illegally conspiring to set prices.
Recently, Uber’s side got a boost from lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice, led by an outspoken Donald Trump supporter and former aide, and from the Federal Trade Commission. The agencies filed an amicus brief late last year, and an FTC lawyer presented oral arguments last month in front of a three-judge panel. The City of Seattle, for its part, maintains it should able to set its own labor rules, and that it wants to be a “laboratory’ for testing innovative policy responses to the problems created by new technologies and the changing economy.”
The appeals case, the culmination of a more than two years of legal battle, stands as an example of how Uber has cultivated support well over the heads of local officials, who are directly exposed to its operations and often most inclined to regulate it. Beyond the courts and sympathetic members of the executive branch, Uber also benefits from a sprawling army of lobbyists. Recruited from both parties, these lobbyists help enact industry-friendly transportation laws at the state level, which can make Seattle-style unionization efforts nearly impossible. Against this political backdrop, Chamber of Commerce v. City of Seattle takes on an added urgency: It underlines just how difficult it is for workers in the precarious gig economy, who generally cannot unionize, to gain any leverage over the well-capitalized platforms for which they work
Uber’s battle against municipal legislation has been long, grinding, and multifaceted. It has also tended to get lost in the news cycle, even as Uber’s scandals have become increasingly explosive. Allegations that the company fostered a top-to-bottom culture of sexual harassment, that it stole self-driving car technology from Google, that it built software to evade regulatory monitoring — these charges and others have been scrupulously documented and dissected, down to how much water ousted Uber CEO Travis Kalanick drank during recent court testimony. The company’s political and legal maneuvers, meanwhile, tend to rumble below the surface. But the outcome of the Seattle case, like other slogging regulatory Uber fights, could have far-reaching implications for countless workers trying to earn a living in the app-based labor market.