Uber has argued repeatedly that a federal law meant to prevent price fixing prohibits its drivers from collectively bargaining. But on December 15, 2015, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved an ordinance that, for the first time in the U.S., would allow drivers for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft to unionize.
Seattle’s decision, which cleared the way for organizing efforts by the Teamsters Local 177, put the city’s approximately 10,000 Uber drivers at the center of Uber’s nationwide political, legal, and media campaign against unions.
One piece of this campaign is Uber Seattle Partner Podcast, a transparent piece of anti-labor propaganda that shows up in the Uber app. The app alerts drivers to new episodes with a “listen now” button, as The Verge reported last month, and while drivers are not required to listen, the notification stays at the bottom of the screen for four or five days.
The podcast was created “at the request of drivers in order to keep them informed about the Seattle collective bargaining ordinance,” in the words of host Brooke Steger, Uber’s general manager for the Pacific Northwest. The format features drivers who ask Steger questions about unionizing and talk about how much Uber has helped them (plus a few non-ordinance related episodes with general Uber advice). The first and most frequent guest on the podcast is identified as Charles, a driver who has been with Uber for over a year and a half.
CHARLES: Driving for Uber has been really good for me, I mean it’s really helped me financially and has helped my family financially. So I’m really kind of confused about all this “collective bargaining” stuff and wondering, who is behind this? I’ve heard that the Teamsters are behind this, doing an ordinance and passing this law that we didn’t know about, and I’m just wondering who is really behind this.
STEGER: It’s our understanding that the Teamsters are behind this ordinance. […] And you know, they’ve been losing members consistently over the course of the last few years, and they’re trying to find a new source of revenue. And so we see drivers on the platform as a target for them and a new source of income. —Episode 1
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This is one of the podcast’s main themes: emphasizing the Teamsters as an enemy that doesn’t want Uber to be allowed to operate at all. Other themes include how the unions supposedly could “turn Uber into a taxi company” by making hours less flexible, the fact that some part-time drivers can’t vote on whether to unionize, and the threat that the Teamsters will intimidate or trick drivers into voting to unionize when they don’t want to. Each episode is about 10 minutes long, and usually highlights one of these themes, before ending with a call for drivers to stay “informed” or “educated,” and take action by contacting Seattle representatives, or voicing opposition at city hall meetings.
ERIC (guest driver): It’s hard to understand how they can be trusted.
STEGER: Yeah Eric, I agree. If I were a driver, I wouldn’t want them in charge of my future or representing me. —Episode 16
Uber’s narrative portrays the Teamsters as an outside force working with their city hall allies to turn Uber into a standard taxi company like those they already represent. While it’s true that the Teamsters have fought Uber in the city, unionizing wasn’t their idea: As reported in Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, two dissatisfied Uber drivers began meeting with fellow drivers, which grew to the point that they contacted the union for help, forming the App-Based Drivers Association, which worked to develop the ordinance.
Still, in spite of Uber performing social experiments on its workers, denying them benefits, and plotting to replace them with robots, the company does provide a much more flexible source of income than what existed before. If unionization leads to policies like the 150-car limit the Teamsters and Seattle’s traditional taxi service Yellow Cab tried to impose in 2014, it could result in fewer or more rigid hours.
So why organize? A U.K. government report found that drivers frequently make less than minimum wage, forcing some to work 60 or 70 hour weeks to make up for the low pay — and that’s in a country where healthcare is free. Between unpaid time between rides, lack of overtime pay, the costs of maintaining a car (especially if it’s leased through Uber’s system, which has been described as predatory), and Uber’s ability to slash fares and earnings without warning, it’s a precarious gig. According to the company’s own numbers, half of drivers quit after a year.
CHARLES: What can I do today to take action? Because I need to do something to stop this, and other drivers when they hear this they’re gonna want to do something immediately to stop it as well.
STEGER: Yep, I think again the first thing to do is always educate yourself… —Episode 4
Charles describes himself as a veteran and video production company owner who, like every driver here, refers to himself not as an employee but a "driver partner," "small business owner," and "entrepreneur,” who doesn’t work for Uber, just “on the platform.”
CHARLES: Okay well, I have another question. Why do the Teamsters want to represent Uber drivers, who are entrepreneurs? I mean we own our own businesses, we’re not employees, why would they want to represent us?” —Episode 1
This language isn’t just branding. Classifying drivers as “independent contractors” is the legal basis a corporation valued at $68 billion uses to avoid having to, among other things, pay its workforce minimum wage. Since Seattle’s ordinance was passed two years ago, some drivers in New York City and Philadelphia actually have gained union representation, but because they’re still independent contractors, they have no collective bargaining rights, and lack the critical ability to negotiate wages.
In the U.S., several lawsuits have attempted to win employee status for drivers, but so far none have set any wider precedents. One involving 385,000 drivers in California in Massachusetts has potentially huge ramifications, but is still ongoing after a federal judge rejected Uber’s settlement, while another only reclassified one driver as an employee, and has yet to be applied to anyone else. The U.K., however, has been more decisive, and while the two countries’ laws aren’t interchangeable, a British judge ruling that Uber drivers are employees attacked the same underlying concept, saying: “The notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common ‘platform’ is to our minds faintly ridiculous. Drivers do not and cannot negotiate with passengers… They are offered and accept trips strictly on Uber’s terms.”
STEGER: Whatever happens, we’ll continue to stand up and fight alongside the driver community.
ERIC (guest driver): Well, Brooke, that’s really great. I mean it feels so wonderful to know that Uber is really going to bat for all the drivers. —Episode 13
Unlike some labor actions taken against Uber, the Seattle ordinance doesn’t attempt to reclassify drivers as employees — it just lets them collectively bargain anyway. That makes it a little tougher for Uber to argue that the change represents the end of autonomy for its drivers. Instead, the company argues that the union would end drivers’ ability to choose their own hours; exclude some part-timers who don’t work enough hours from voting on whether or not to join the union, and require Uber to give the Teamsters contact information for all drivers, which, they claim, would open them up to “stalking” and “harassment.”
These arguments are pretty thin. The issue of flexible hours would only be threatened if drivers voted for it. The part-time threshold works out to less than five rides a week, and those drivers could still be in the union, they just can't vote on whether to unionize. Finally, the issue of giving driver information to the Teamsters just seems like an attempt to capitalize on the popular image of Teamsters as big, scary truck drivers, and convince people that, as Don Creery, a driver involved in the unionization effort, told us by phone, “there are these horrible Teamster monsters out there.”
Creery took issue with the use of the word “stalk.” “You’ll be contacted once by email or text, and if your response is ‘no,’ that’s the end of it,” he said.
CHARLES: Y’know, this sounds like voter suppression to me… —Episode 12
In order to form a union, a simple majority of drivers have to sign a union card. The podcast explicitly tells drivers not to sign, but it has other calls to action as well. Listeners are encouraged to join Drive Forward Seattle, the Uber-sanctioned anti-union group that Charles, whose last name is Jenkins, according to Seattle Weekly, helps lead. And to some degree, they company has succeeded in mobilizing anti-union driver contingents at public events.
STEGER: It’s great to see drivers coming together as a community to take action, and we’re happy to support all of you in that.
FREDRICK (guest driver): As is best demonstrated in America, we must stand together against entities that want to limit our ability to determine our own direction.” —Episode 18
Yet, the Uber Seattle Partner Podcast’s arc is of growing urgency. Back in the days of Episode 4, Steger winkingly compared signing a union card to marriage — easy to get into but difficult to leave. By Episode 20 though, she sounds genuinely scared to remind you that “you are not in the Teamsters’ pocket.” The normally affable Charles even gets audibly mad, complaining that Local 117 organizer Dawn Gearhart “called us … employees, and we’re not employees. We pay city taxes as businesses, we buy business licenses, and it’s … just not fair.”
CHARLES: Drivers out there that are listening, you need to find out what’s really going on by reading the city’s rules, and you will have no confusion about what’s really going on. —Episode 20
By showcasing hosts and guests who seem to buy Uber’s worldview, the Uber Seattle Partner Podcast wants to convince drivers that its union-busting is done out of concern for the driver community. Creery, who first contacted the Teamsters in 2014 after “a drastic cut in pay” drivers could do nothing about, disagrees. “There’s a lot of outlandish statements that are designed to cause fear,” he says of the podcast, “that are not backed up with anything.” He emphasizes that Steger’s claim about losing flexibility, which he’s also heard her repeat at the Uber-hosted information sessions he’s attended, is “an article of faith” that “can’t happen,” since “no driver is going to negotiate that we want to get rid of our flexibility,” and overall describes the Uber Seattle Podcast as “fundamental fearmongering.”
As of April 4, the ordinance has been temporarily halted while lawsuits play out, but the fight to unionize has teeth. And so, the Uber Seattle Partner Podcast lives on, whether drivers want to listen or not.
Charlie Heller is a freelance writer in New York City.