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Litigation Over Seattle Law Allowing Unionization For Ride-Share Drivers Continues

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Monday in two lawsuits against Seattle's law allowing drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft to unionize.

The lawsuits were dismissed by a District Court judge in August. But both groups are appealing to let the lawsuits proceed. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is suing the city in the interest of such companies. The organization alleges the law violates federal anti-trust and labor laws and claims the city did not have the authority to pass such a law.

Most of the judges' questions Monday revolved around the anti-trust claim. The Chamber argues that allowing these drivers, who have been considered independent contractors, to set compensation rates through collective bargaining amounts to price fixing.

Attorneys for the city did not fully concede that point. They also argued the city was exempt from that aspect of the law anyway, which lawyers for the Chamber disputed.

In a separate lawsuit, a group of drivers represented by the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation and local anti-union organization Freedom Foundation allege the city violated drivers' privacy and First Amendment rights in addition to federal labor law.

The main question in that lawsuit is whether the drivers' claims can be heard yet.

Attorneys for the drivers say the ordinance introduces the potential for union shop provisions, which means drivers would have to join a union in order to drive for Uber and Lyft in Seattle. They claim that exclusion could be considered a form of coercion. 

But drivers haven't officially moved to form a union yet. The law has been on pause since the lawsuits were filed in April 2017. 

In his Aug. 24 order dismissing the lawsuit, U.S District Court Judge Robert Lasnik wrote, "Whether the Teamsters will be designated as the representative of any group of for-hire drivers, whether it will attempt to negotiate a union shop provision with the driver coordinator, and whether such efforts could reasonably be viewed as a threat, coercion, or restraint on the named plaintiffs have yet to be seen."

The appeals court judges asked several questions along those lines Monday.

Passed in 2015, Seattle's ordinance is the first of its kind in the country. Many of the legal questions surrounding the law are central in debates over the ride-share industry and the gig economy as a whole.

"I think the main thing I saw was a panel of judges grappling with a really new type of law and now the question is, 'What does that mean for our existing law?'" said Charlotte Garden, a labor law professor at Seattle University who has been following the unionization ordinance closely.

She also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the city.

An appeals court decision is expected in a few months, but litigation will likely continue after. 

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.