Driver wars: Uber-backed advocacy group protests potential tax, unionization effort in Seattle

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Uber and Lyft drivers from Drive Forward protest at Seattle City Hall. (Drive Forward Photo)

The debate over how to deal with gig economy workers has pitted two groups of Uber and Lyft drivers against each other in Seattle.

In the latest development, an Uber-backed driver organization called Drive Forward held a demonstration at Seattle City Hall on Thursday.

A caravan of about 40 Uber, Lyft, and Eastside for Hire drivers showed up to protest a ride-hailing tax that was floated by the city months ago. The event comes just a few weeks after an opposing group of drivers held their own caravan protest to demand better wages and worker protections. That event was organized by the App-Based Drivers Association, an offshoot of the Teamsters 117 union.

For years, the Teamsters and Uber have been engaged in a proxy war with the two driver groups in the vanguard. At the center is a Seattle law passed in 2015 that allows Uber and Lyft drivers to form a union. The courts are still deciding whether or not that law will be implemented.

Seattle is one front in a larger battle over the protections and freedoms gig economy workers receive. The companies operating these services and the drivers that comprise Drive Forward claim that they should retain their status as independent contractors because it gives them flexibility.

“We are here, once again, to fight vigorously for our rights as independent business owners and the freedom and flexibility offered to each and every one of us,” said Drive Forward Director Matthew Wald in his prepared remarks. “As we’ve said before, we don’t need the Teamsters or the city to come between us and how we earn money.”

But labor activists like the App-Based Drivers Association claim that the workers powering these services deserve the same protections as full-time employees.

“It’s insulting, but unfortunately not surprising, that they are trying to silence our growing driver-led movement for fair pay, due process on deactivations, and a voice,” said Peter Kuel, a member of the App-Based Drivers Association, in a statement.

They have sympathizers at Seattle City Hall. In May, Councilmember Kshama Sawant called Uber and Lyft “sweatshops on wheels” and pledged to “fight alongside drivers in the Seattle region to achieve the same standards, and to help unionize gig economy workers.”

Sawant’s remarks were one of the reasons Drive Forward organized the demonstration Thursday.

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