Support Union Rights in the “New Economy”

On December 14, 2015, the Seattle City Council passed groundbreaking legislation to provide the legal framework necessary for drivers of taxis and transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft to form unions and bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions. See my speech below.

Sisters and Brothers,

Thank you for being here for what I think, if this passes, will be a historic step towards offering collective bargaining rights for otherwise precarious workers. I want to start my comments by echoing the comment by my sister Marsha Botzer when she said, “Uber does not share, and does not care.” I think that is absolutely correct.

The sharing economy – the so-called “sharing economy” – is nothing new. It is not innovative. Ever since sharecropping, the sharing economy has meant sharing in one direction – that is, workers have the privilege of sharing what they produce with their bosses. And just like in the past, these workers have to take out loans to buy a car to use for work, and then they are trapped by debt into the sharing economy.

As other speakers have said, Uber drivers can be can be deactivated – which is a fancy word for being fired – for no reason, with no legal protection. Last week, Uber drivers in Seattle were asked to sign a new contract agreeing that they are private contractors and not workers, and not eligible for worker rights. And just like for so many other precarious workers, such as adjunct professors (and I used to be one of them), the free market – the so-called “free market” – has given big business total dictatorial power to set the rates and conditions in the workplace.

The important point here is that, this is really a reflection the decimation of the union movement in the past many decades. Union density in the private sector has fallen to 6.6% in 2014 from a high of 35.4%. And as workers have lost that organized union movement to fight for our rights, income inequality has skyrocketed, median income has not kept up with inflation, and more and more workers have become precariously employed. Now a full 1/3 of US workers identify as “freelance,” and most of those are not six figure salary earning consultants for Microsoft. Most of those workers have precarious employment, with virtually no rights in the workplace.

All of this can be reversed by rebuilding the union movement, and by doing that we can rebuild workers’ pay, benefits, and conditions. This bill, if passed, will be one step forward in this process. And we should know that we do have power, because, without people to drive, Uber could not make a penny in profits.

What the council is doing today is the easy part. Any councilmember who votes “NO” on this will clearly be saying that they care more about the profits of a multi-billion dollar company than the rights of Seattle’s workers.

One argument I have heard is, “Isn’t it just easier to legislate working conditions?” Meaning, “Can’t we just have separate legislation on pay rates, and so on? And why should the Council be voting on allowing workers to have collective bargaining rights?”

Well, first of all, NO, workers themselves should have a say in negotiating their conditions, and I would like to remind my colleagues that the same councilmembers who might be saying that workers rights can be legislated might be the same councilmembers who voted against workers’ right to paid parental leave a couple of weeks ago.

At which time they said, “Well, the unions need to negotiate this.” Well, I think, one way or another, these are excuses to deny workers their rights. I think it’s a very easy task for the Council today to vote yes on this, because it’s straightforward – there is nothing complicated about it, in terms of what workers will gain.

The next step for drivers is far more difficult. Drivers will have to put in the long hours to actually build a union. You will have to go around talking to your coworkers. You will have to answer the big lies and myths that big business will continue to use to disrupt your efforts. You will continue to be risking deactivation, and other intimidation tactics. But when you win, you will win a decent life for yourselves and your families, and will be doing a huge service for other workers.

Thank you to Councilmember O’Brien for his work on bringing the legislation forward. I thank the Teamsters and other unions in the labor movement for doggedly fighting for workers’ rights. And I have the deepest respect for all the workers who have joined this fight, particularly the 200 Uber drivers who organized your own strike last year, despite being denied any legal protections.

You have shown all workers the courage you need to fight for a better world, and especially I wanted to thank you for putting forward the idea of driver unity. Many of you have placards that say, “Driver Unity.” Taxi, app-based, and for hire drivers have to unite. That is the only way forward. And, as a union member myself, I am proud to vote yes on this bill.

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