By Don McIntosh
Portland City Council, in a unanimous 5-0 vote May 23, moved forward on a plan to give drivers for app-based transportation companies like Uber and Lyft greater say over their working conditions.
The Oregon AFL-CIO and its largest private sector affiliate, UFCW Local 555, have been calling on City Council to do something for the drivers, who are currently in a legal limbo somewhere between employees and independent contractors.
But an hour before a hearing on the City Council proposal, a group of Lyft drivers held a rally outside City Hall opposing it, and then testified against it. That led to several lively exchanges in which City Commissioners Nick Fish and Chloe Eudaly challenged the resolution’s critics, and spoke in defense of union principles.
The resolution in question, co-sponsored by all five City Council members, was part of a package of three items in which the City Council is reviewing its policies on so-called Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft.
Uber, which three years ago entered Portland as a scofflaw and villain, played nice at the May 23 hearing.
“I acknowledge that we have made missteps here,” Uber’s new Northwest general manager Alejandro Chouza told City Council. “Now and in the future, we will conduct our business with integrity, humility and passion for improving the community.”
Uber began operating in Portland in December 2014 in open violation of local taxi ordinances, and even deployed software called Greyball that effectively blocked City enforcement agents from using the Uber app to summon a car.
One of the three items City Council approved May 23 was an ordinance that, among other things, makes Greyball explicitly illegal. Another resolution directs the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) to study whether TNCs have contributed to greater traffic congestion in Portland.
But the resolution that got attention from labor leaders directs PBOT to develop a proposal for a new oversight body focused on “transparent collection and use of data, accessibility, wages, public safety, safety and reliability for passengers, equalizing standards across the for-hire sector, and equitable dispute resolution.” PBOT is supposed to work with stakeholder groups and come back to City Council with such a proposal within six months.
The resolution also directs PBOT to study the issue of taxi and TNC insurance. When Portland City Council legalized TNC operations in 2015, it passed “separate but unequal” regulations imposing more stringent insurance and background check requirements on taxis than on TNCs.
Since then, TNC use in Portland has soared. PBOT officials told City Council that over 10,000 people are driving for Uber and/or Lyft in Portland, providing 300 to 700 rides per hour. That means TNC drivers may now outnumber taxi drivers by about 10 to 1.
At the hearing, Commissioner Nick Fish asked Uber and Lyft representatives point blank if they support the idea of the new oversight body.
“We do support finding a way to accomplish the goals that you’re looking to accomplish, so we will happily work with you to try to find an operational process, understanding what those motivations are,” said Chouza, the Uber general manager.
“We are also open to having creative conversations on how to accomplish these,” said Lyft public policy manager Rena Davis.
“That’s a lot of words,” Fish replied. “Some questions do lend themselves to yes or no.”
Pressed further by Fish, Chouza said Uber is okay with the proposal, depending on details; Davis said Lyft would prefer the status quo but would work with City.
Judging by conversations the Oregon AFL-CIO has been having with Uber and Lyft drivers for the last 30 months, the status quo is not working for all.
“We have a TNC system in the City of Portland without checks and balances from the drivers’ perspective, void of transparency, a system where workers’ voices are not heard,” AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain told City Council.
Chamberlain was one of a handful of people invited to speak about the issue before open public comment began. Another was Owen Christofferson, a PSU student who drives for both Uber and Lyft and supports an AFL-CIO-backed driver group, Transportation Fairness Portland.
Christofferson said TNC drivers need an oversight body like City Council is proposing, because they’re exempt from minimum wage, workers compensation, unemployment insurance and the right to collectively bargain.
“A few months after I started driving, Uber and Lyft cut rates with no warning,” Christofferson said. “We have no guarantee of protections from future rate cuts, so at a moment’s notice we could be earning even less.” Drivers also have no recourse in the event of an unfair deactivation or other grievance, Christofferson said. “The TNCs have unilateral authority to determine our ability to work, and us as drivers have no ability to hold them accountable for their actions.”
The commissioners then heard an hour of public testimony from taxi drivers feeling squeezed by the TNCs, from TNC drivers in Transportation Fairness Portland who support the resolution, and from TNC drivers wearing Lyft t-shirts who oppose it.
Opponents said things are fine the way they are. Drivers can speak for themselves in dealing with Uber and Lyft and don’t need a city board or a union to speak for them, several said.
Full-time TNC driver Douglas Wright, who’s driven for Uber and Lyft for six months, said he saw no need for an oversight body, even though he at times earned less than minimum wage when he started. Wright said he had no sympathy for any TNC driver complaining — if they don’t like it they should do something else. That drew an animated reaction from Commissioner Fish.
“When I hear, and you’re not alone, people come before this body, and essentially say that the claims of other drivers are invalid, and that they don’t need to have a forum to have those issues addressed, it almost sounds to me like the taxpayer who says ‘I’m never going to have a fire, so why do we have a fire bureau?’ … or maybe even Zsa Zsa Gabor’s first husband saying, ‘We love each other; I don’t need a pre-nup.” [See the whole exchange here.]
“I’m persuaded that TNC drivers do not have a meaningful voice in the workplace,” Fish said later, explaining his vote in favor of the resolution.
“Corporations do a great job looking out for their own interests,” added Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. “Workers, whether they are employees or independent contractors. have a right to organize and advocate for their rights, and it’s our duty as elected representatives to look out for their rights.”