Uber, Lyft Drivers Can Now Unionize in Seattle. Could Philly Be Next?

Let the legal wrangling begin.

Promotional photos from the press kits of Uber (left) and Lyft

Promotional photos from the press kits of Uber (left) and Lyft

Seattle has become the first American city to pass an ordinance allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize.

As is the standard in the sharing or gig economy, Uber and Lyft drivers work as independent contractors — giving them flexible schedules but not company-paid health care or retirement benefits. If they were in unions, they can presumably negotiate wages and benefits with their respective companies.

“We’ve heard from Seattle drivers making sub-minimum wage, and companies like Uber have turned a deaf ear to their concerns. This bill was only introduced out of necessity after witnessing how little power drivers themselves had in working for a living wage,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien, in a statement.

Seattle will have an uphill battle on its hands as the companies are likely to appeal and have deep pockets to fund any legal fight.

But it begs the question, could other cities like Philadelphia, pass similar legislation? Philly has traditionally been a pro-worker city and politicians routinely fight for union rights — just like they did for airport workers recently. It’s also a city with deep ties to the Fight for 15 movement — where workers of all types are asking for a minimum wage of $15 per hour.

But legally speaking, it’s a long shot because federal labor law — not local law — mandates what is and isn’t a union. Plus, Uber says that 50 percent of its drivers work fewer than 10 hours per week and 69 percent have a full-time job but drive for Uber on the side. That makes it very hard to argue that they’re employees of the company not independent contractors.

Even if workers wanted to unionize, they’d have to get 30 percent of the employees to sign a petition saying they want to be represented by a union. Then the National Labor Relations Board would have to determine whether they’re employees or independent contractors. Then it would hold a union vote with all eligible workers.

“Uber and Lyft would defend it vigorously,” said Wally Zimolong, an attorney with Zimolong LLC in Philadelphia. “I’m sure the local NLRB would not have the final say on it. It would matriculate its way up the channels.”

Logistically speaking, forming a union would be a serious challenge.

“How does one get signatures when everybody is scattered all over the place? It’s not like the old days when you walk along the factory floor and say ‘here sign this petition, we want to be represented by a union,’ ” said Zimolong.

When asked if a Philadelphia City Council could pass a similar resolution to Seattle, Zimolong said yes, but he isn’t convinced that it’ll be enforceable.

“I can say with 100 percent legal certainty,” said Zimolong, “that anything City Council would pass speaking to the authority of whether they can unionize would be 100 percent symbolic and have no legal standing whatsoever.”

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