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Teamsters or Disrupters? Unions for Gig Workers in CA and Seattle

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Seattle and California, birthplaces of the $15 an hour minimum wage and the app that lets you spend it, have been at the forefront of labor and tech innovation. And now the Emerald City and the Golden State may be creating another addition to modern employment law: a union for gig workers.

West Coast legislation could give gig workers like Uber and Lyft drivers the ability to organize and form unions, as well as collectively bargain for pay and benefits. Sounds like an old idea is disrupting the disrupters.

Labor Legislation

Last week, Seattle's city council voted to allow for-hire drivers (from cabbies to Uber and Lyft drivers) to unionize, and drivers in the city created the Washington App-Based Drivers Association with the Teamsters Local 117 as a means to protect drivers' rights and collectively bargain with employers. Meanwhile, California assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez is planning to introduce the California 1099 Self-Organizing Act in January, which would allow gig workers to collectively bargain with platforms like Uber, Lyft, and TaskRabbit without forming unions. California has its own App-Based Drivers Association, aligned with Teamsters Local 986 based in Los Angeles County.

Driver Designation

The National Labor Relations Board only allows employees to form unions, and gig employers have gone out of their way to classify gig workers as independent contractors in order to avoid union organization and other employee protections like minimum wage, overtime pay, workers' compensation, and unemployment insurance. And there are quite a few current lawsuits challenging the employee/contractor distinction for gig workers.

The fate of both efforts is up in the air. Uber and Lyft will probably challenge the Seattle measure, and there's no guarantee the California bill will pass. But their mere existence and support evidence an attempt to circumvent the laws regarding union membership and employment status; the same laws platforms like Uber and Lyft were attempting to circumvent by classifying full-time workers as contractors rather than employees. They're a jerry-rigged solution to a rigged problem, and one that businesses employing contractors or gig workers may need to keep an eye on.

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