Why Is the Teamsters Backing an Uber- and Lyft-Friendly Worker Classification Bill?

Uber and Lyft continue their crusade to misclassify drivers as "independent contractors," now with a bill in the Washington State Legislature. Unfortunately, they’ve hit on a new tactic: cutting deals to get labor union support.

Washington's state legislature is pushing through House Bill 2076, which legalizes the misclassification of gig workers at Uber and Lyft as "independent contractors." (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

I resolved to never again let Uber driving threaten my livelihood in exchange for money the day gunshots rang out feet from my car as I approached a pickup location. Behind cover, I fired up my Uber Driver app to cancel the trip, but the app warned me that if I did my trip cancellation rating would approach the deactivation threshold. In other words, I could lose my job if I didn’t risk my life for the company right now. Adrenaline coursing through me, I made the foolish decision to go through with the trip. I came out of it unscathed, but sadly the same can’t be said for the shooting victim that day.

Now my self-preservation alarm bells are ringing again, as corporate politicians from both parties in the Democrat-controlled Washington State Legislature are pushing through a backroom deal they have made with Uber and Lyft, House Bill 2076. The bill legalizes the misclassification of gig workers as “independent contractors,” relegating me and countless others to the status of second-class workers, consigning us to constant economic precarity. HB 2076 also bars local governments and voters from regulating the companies — a tactic known as “preemption” which entrenches this attack on workers’ rights by undermining local democracy.

Unfortunately the leadership of my union, Drivers Union, an affiliate of Teamsters Local 117, is fully backing this bill as a necessary compromise, even though it would weaken important victories that our union organized to win in Seattle, like our minimum wage standard. More troubling, the bill is already inspiring copycat legislation elsewhere, in many cases with the backing of unions.

I have been an active and proud part of Drivers Union’s legislative and political efforts since 2019, and it pains me to disagree with my union’s leadership here. But, like many others in the labor movement who are speaking out against HB 2076, my solidarity is with all workers, and that means speaking up when union leadership is making the wrong decision. Like many other Uber drivers, I have more than one job, and I perform work in other industries that are rapidly being gigified into “contracting” relationships. I’ve seen how this arrangement works in corporations’ favor, and I’m compelled to join the chorus warning the governor about the dangers of signing House Bill 2076 into law.

This bill threatens to undermine preexisting labor frameworks for part-time, software-dispatched, unionized employment that are currently serving workers like me well in other industries. As a part-time employee through International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 15, I have enjoyed greater scheduling flexibility and twice to three times the compensation of all the unrepresented “independent contractor” gigs I have taken. Instead of cowering to companies like Uber and Lyft, drivers must organize and fight as a union for full employment status and flexibility, rejecting the corporate line that these are mutually exclusive.

Given how negatively misclassification impacts workers, why would the union leadership make this deal with the companies? HB 2076 is set up to provide fifteen cents per ride directly to Drivers Union on the hundreds of thousands of trips dispatched in Washington every day. This bill amounts to tens of thousands of dollars in daily revenue for Drivers Union. But the Drivers Union leadership doesn’t boast about this aspect of the deal. Instead they tout the “benefits” and “pay increases” the law offers in exchange for the misclassification and preemption compromise.

In reality, the benefits offered in the bill are meager, and its rates enshrine the humiliating pay cuts the companies have made to driver earnings over the years — the driver rate was once double the rates offered by HB 2076. Moreover, the bill’s pay fails to ensure a minimum wage standard. Perhaps worst of all, the bill dispenses with the idea that workers should be paid for all the time they spend working. Instead, workers’ pay and benefits are calculated strictly according to time making money for the boss. The effects of this workplace norm shattering will be widely felt, especially among immigrants and people of color who disproportionately depend on these subminimum wage jobs to feed their families.

Unions in other industries are struggling to maintain employer status for workers. The gigification blitz will be emboldened by HB 2076, because companies around the world now see that some union leaders, for the right price, may be compelled to support the companies’ regressive demands on labor status. This deal damages the trust workers place in their union leadership to advocate for them, and that loss in trust redounds to companies’ benefit. Eroded trust in unions also harms the broader labor movement at a time when workers across the nation, like Starbucks baristas from Seattle to Buffalo, are trying to convince their coworkers to unionize.

Drivers Union leadership has been pressuring drivers to take this deal by telling us that “a gun is to our heads”: if we don’t compromise now, the companies will run a preemption ballot initiative like Prop 22 in California. Our union leadership has assured us that the companies have “promised” to not run a ballot initiative if we support HB 2076. This promise is a clear glass of bullshit: the companies have made no legally binding statements to not run an initiative, and they have betrayed their promises to us and local legislatures time and time again. If and when they eventually do run an initiative, our union leadership will be caught flat-footed, having foolishly trusted the bosses.

The history of the labor movement is full of examples of workers and their leaders making the wrong decisions when guns, both metaphorical and literal, are pointed at them. It’s also full of stories of brave workers and their leaders standing their ground. I won’t be coerced again into risking my livelihood for a few bucks from the companies, and I urge all workers to recognize the serious dangers of HB 2076 rather than swallowing the sales pitch about its small, short-term gains. We must never compromise on our basic rights.