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Uber Drivers Organize Themselves in Seattle, Other Drivers Look to Do Same

BY Sam Roudman | Tuesday, May 27 2014

Seattle. Credit: Bala Sivakumar, Flickr.

About 9 months ago, Daniel Ajema, a 33-year-old law student moonlighting as a driver for Uber, ran into a fellow driver in a gas station parking lot. The man had just been fired for getting poor ratings from passengers. But as a private contractor, like every other driver for the app based transportation network, he had no recourse to the company. Even worse, the man and his wife had sunk $39,000 of their own money into buying an SUV for the express purpose of him driving for Uber. Ajema recalls the man being on the verge of tears. What could he do?

Two Sundays ago, a couple hundred Uber drivers provided an answer, by forming a labor group with the help of the local Teamsters union, called the App-Based Drivers Association. The group won’t have the full powers of a union, for instance leadership can’t vote to make its entire membership strike. But with about a third of Seattle drivers signed on, the group hopes to use its leverage to advocate for greater transparency and responsiveness from the $12 billion company.

“They call us partners, and basically we demanded a true partnership,” says Ajema. The group wants the company to change its firing policy to require a hearing before a driver’s contract is terminated. They also want to be consulted before Uber changes its employment and pricing policies without warning.

Ajema says “we’re not necessarily against the rating system,” where users rate the quality of the ride they receive on a five star scale, “but there’s gotta be some kind of hearing before drivers lose the investment.” Uber provides feedback and in-person meetings with staff to get drivers up to speed, but consistently low ratings can result in the termination of a driver's partnership with the company.

Brooke Steger, Uber’s Seattle manager, told the Seattle Times that no employee would face retribution after joining the association. That does not mean that Uber is pleased with the group’s formation. In a statement to techPresident, Uber spokeswoman Eva Behrend described the association as “a smoke and mirror attempt by the leadership of Teamster’s Local 117 to fill their coffers and pay their six-figure salaries.”

Paul Zilly, from Local 117, begs to differ. “To this point, neither individual drivers nor the association have paid any money to the Teamsters,” he says. He added that the dues structure agreed on will be similar to the one the Teamsters has with Seattle’s taxi association, and that “if that experience is any guide, we will spend thousands of dollars more per year than is collected in the service fee paid by the association.”

Setting up the association was a challenge for Ajema and his colleagues. The company balked at giving them a list of drivers, and the Uber app doesn't make it easy for drivers to connect to each other. So they hit the pavement to drum up interest. “We had to go to a hot spot like the airport, or stop drivers on the street,” says Ajema. Over months, they collected interest cards from over 500 drivers, and met weekly to coordinate. At the meeting on the 18th they elected leaders and ratified bylaws.

According to Zilly, it’s a process that might be repeated.

“The concerns and issues these drivers face is the same elsewhere,” he says, “it wouldn't surprise me if there are other attempts to organize elsewhere in the near future.”

Zilly might be right. Since announcing the association, Ajema has received interest from Uber drivers looking to form similar organizations across the country in Colorado, Washington D.C., and Boston. Drivers from California have contacted him with the idea of forming a regional association that would span the west coast.

Ironically, Ajema will be done organizing in a couple months when he starts his job as a prosecutor in Seattle. But it seems like the effort to organize workers in the so-called "sharing economy" is just beginning.

“This is a new model for organizing, and a new experience,” says Zilly.