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Federal Judge Temporarily Blocks Seattle Ride-Share Drivers From Unionizing

Simone Alicea
Rideshare drivers demonstrate outside the house of City Councilmember Mike O'Brien to protest a city law allowing them to unionize.

A federal judge has temporarily blocked a law that would allow for-hire drivers, including drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft, to unionize in Seattle.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik's granted a preliminary injunction Tuesday stopping continued implementation of the law until two lawsuits make their way through court.

The ruling is seen as a setback for Teamsters Local 117, which was recently certified by the city as a potential driver union.

"It's disappointing to see that the company would rather sue than to sit down and talk with their own drivers," said Dawn Gearhart, the association policy coordinator who's been organizing drivers for Teamsters Local 117.

Uber, which is not a party on either lawsuit, said in a statement that  the company looks "forward to the court's full consideration."

But in his 18-page decision, Lasnik said the injunction "should not be read as a harbinger of what the ultimate decision in this case would be."

Difficult Case Ahead

Seattle University labor law professor Charlotte Garden has been following this issue. From what she saw during a hearing last week and from Lasnik's decision, the judge has a lot to consider and wants to take his time.

"It's a difficult case because this is really a first-of-its kind ordinance in the country," Garden said.

Lasnik's ruling pertains to two separate lawsuits filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce anda group of drivers claiming the ordinance violates antitrust and labor laws. 

Michael Riebs is one of the drivers suing the city. He and more than a dozen other drivers demonstrated outside of City Councilmember Mike O'Brien's house Monday, the day before the ruling came down.

"The way that this is being done is not going to benefit drivers," Riebs said. "I don't know if it really is something for the city to decide whether we should organize or not. I think it's something for the drivers to decide."

O'Brien shepherded the collective bargaining ordinance to a unanimous City Council vote in 2015. Since then, the city has been figuring out how to implement the law.

Tuesday's ruling comes at a crucial point in that process. The injunction means that companies like Uber and Lyft do not have to turn over lists of drivers and their contact information to the Teamsters.

These lawsuits are the latest challenges to the unionization law, including one filed by the chamber last year. 

Lasnik dismissed that lawsuit in August, saying it was premature.

New Way Of Doing Business

Now that the law is being implemented, these companies and their attorneys can make the case that it threatens their business, according to Garden. The main question is whether a city like Seattle has the authority to regulate this particular industry in this particular way.

"It's certainly possible that this model, if it's eventually upheld, will spread," Garden said.

Companies like Uber and Lyft have said that drivers shouldn't be considered employees, but as individual business owners who contract with those companies using their apps.

These lawsuits don't deal with the question of whether drivers should be considered independent contractors. Rather, the question is whether independent contractors -- who are not provided for in federal labor law -- can be allowed to unionize through local ordinances.

Garden says these work arrangements are becoming more common and they wade into murky legal territory.

"This statute was really a first attempt at saying, 'Well, how can we give those people some of the rights that permanent employees have,'" Garden said.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.