By DON McINTOSH, associate editor
In Paris, France, when Uber started operating in violation of the law, police raided its offices and arrested its executives. In Portland, Oregon, when Uber did the same, Mayor Charlie Hales promised to make its operations legal within five months.
Portland City Council had just reformed taxi regulations in 2012 to improve conditions for taxi drivers. But the reform process was dropped when City Commissioner Steve Novick took the reins of the Portland Bureau of Transportation in 2014. Instead, he announced that a top-to-bottom review of taxi regulations would be followed by a new ordinance to allow app-based Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft to operate.
Novick told the Labor Press in November 2014 — before the rewrite began — that he hoped the new regulation would include protections for workers. That didn’t happen. Nothing in the ordinance passed Dec. 2 protects workers in the industry.
Instead, the ordinance sweeps away a regulatory structure that was fine-tuned over decades to protect drivers and the public and ensure stability in the taxi industry. Most significantly, the new law gets rid of the caps on the number of for-hire vehicles and the rates they can charge the public. But it also allows more lax vehicle inspections and driver background checks. And it sets up separate and unequal regulations that favor the out-of-town app-based upstarts over Portland’s own taxi companies: TNCs were given substantially lower insurance requirements, and unlike taxis, TNC vehicles don’t have to have cameras in the vehicle for the protection of drivers and passengers. The new ordinance also got rid of the City’s mandate that 20 percent of vehicle fleets be wheelchair accessible. And it imposed a new rider fee of 50 cents per ride to pay for enforcement — which Novick acknowledges has been less-than-robust in the past.
The ordinance mostly followed the recommendations of a citizen task force Novick launched in January. Portland is alternately praised and ridiculed for its tradition of public process. Normally all stakeholders are given some representation on city task forces and committees that affect them; they’re supposed to hash out differences and come up with proposals everyone can live with. But for the Private For-Hire Transportation Innovation Task Force, Novick appointed members who had little familiarity with the industry they were about to overhaul. Taxi drivers and companies were specifically excluded, which prompted protest from a coalition they formed, the Transportation Fairness Alliance. Immigrant rights advocate Kayse Jama of the Center for Intercultural Organizing was the only member on the 11-member task force who ostensibly represented the interests of working people. And Jama found himself a minority of one on the business-heavy committee. When the committee issued preliminary recommendations, he wrote a dissenting minority report, which was ignored.
Sparks fly at City Council
Over several months, Portland’s five-member City Council spent dozens of hours in hearings about the TNC issue, but the sides stayed the same: At each stage, Novick, Hales, and Dan Saltzman sided with TNCs, while Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish voted against them.
I feel so sad for my friends in Union Cab …. You worked so hard to win approval. You offer dozens of immigrant families not only a chance at the American Dream, but an opportunity to belong to an American Union … And now the majority of Council is telling you you’re an expendable casualty in the free market – the free market that is grinding the working class and the middle class into the servants of the billionaire corporations.” — Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz.
Fritz also blasted the process used to draft the ordinance: None of the workers most affected had a seat on the task force, and TNC lobbyists had multiple private meetings with Hales and Novick, while taxi representatives did not.
“I feel so sad for my friends in Union Cab, supported by the Communication Workers of America Local 7901,” Fritz said. “You worked so hard to win approval. You offer dozens of immigrant families not only a chance at the American Dream, but an opportunity to belong to an American Union, part of the united American Federation of Labor movement. You achieved the dream, in winning approval of your franchise. And now the majority of Council is telling you you’re an expendable casualty in the free market – the free market that is grinding the working class and the middle class into the servants of the billionaire corporations.”
Since April, when Portland allowed TNCs to operate in a test run of full legalization, TNCs have taken a significant majority of the private for-hire transportation market, though the market has also grown quite a bit. Uber’s new Portland general manager Bryce Bennett told City Council the company had facilitated 1 million rides as of November, and has nearly 5,000 active drivers and an office in the Lloyd District.
Seattle’s new ordinance letting Uber drivers unionize will come to Portland
On Dec. 14, Seattle City Council passed by unanimous vote an ordinance that gives TNC drivers a way to engage in collective bargaining — even though as independent contractors they’re not covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The ordinance — backed by Teamsters Local 117 and the King County Labor Council — makes the City list of licensed TNC drivers available to groups that want to organize them, and then requires city-permitted TNCs to bargain terms and conditions if drivers vote for representation.
“That strikes me as a really groovy idea,” Novick told the Labor Press by phone Dec. 11, before the vote. “I promise you that by September I will introduce an ordinance on collective bargaining modeled on Seattle’s.”
But Novick said his attention will shift first to getting a gas tax passed, with funds to be dedicated to fixing Portland streets and making them safer.