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Uber denounces survey meant to inform driver unionization law

A 2015 Teamsters' rally for the unionization of ride-hailing service drivers. Credit: Paul Roberts

Even before city administrators finalize the specifics a law to allow Uber drivers to unionize, the ride-hailing company is crying foul. In a letter to the city, Uber bemoaned a survey of drivers — part of a fact-finding mission to inform rules and regulations — as unfairly excluding 2,000 people queued up for driver permits, and including “potentially thousands” of inactive drivers.

Nearly a year ago, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved collective bargaining rights for drivers at Uber and Lyft, following a proposal by Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien. But the specifics of the law have been sufficiently complicated to delay implementation.

The worry now, says Nathan Hambley of Uber, is that the first-of-its-kind law will not reflect the true will of the drivers.

“If they don’t get an accurate snapshot of the complete driver community they could end up misrepresenting the driver community,” says Hambley.

But while decrying the survey’s targets, Uber has been unwilling to share data about its drivers. The company has offered the city pre-crunched numbers or access to its database of anonymized phone numbers. But the city has demurred, worried about putting the survey in the hands of the company.

Most elusive is the question of who has a say in the collective bargaining process: Should it be every driver, no matter how part time? Or should the city impose a ride minimum to qualify?

Answering that question and others has fallen to the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS). According to Matthew Eng of FAS, those rules should be set by mid-November, with the first public hearing in December.

Although Uber is apparently not, as Hambley says, “against collective bargaining full stop,” it hasn’t hidden its distaste for the legislation, lobbying the public as well as City Hall.

“Uber is by far the most active,” says Eng. “They ask the most of us in terms of questions and concerns.”

In the meantime, the city is frantically moving forward, attempting to paint a picture of who actually drives Uber or Lyft. After a failed roundtable with drivers, FAS began attempting a more comprehensive survey of drivers in October. According to Eng, however, this survey was never meant to be a definitive look.

“One thing we stressed to Uber and others: we are not treating this as a scientific survey,” he says. “We will use survey results just as we’d use testimony at a city council meeting…. I can’t say that we are relying 100% on the survey. And to be honest we’re doing it because Uber and Lyft have not been forthcoming about operational data.”

Eng doesn’t dispute Uber’s concerns. There is, in fact, a significant backlog of drivers waiting for permits from King County. And because there is so much employee churn within the ride-hailing world, it’s likely some people who filled out the survey have since quit .

Uber claims they’ve been nothing but willing to help; the city’s not “respecting” or “responding” to those offers says Hambley. Caleb Weaver, also an Uber spokesperson, calls it a “dramatic mischaracterization that we were unwilling to provide data to the city,” arguing that the company just needed more clarity as to what to provide.

The city wants to create its own picture of the ride-hailing community, without Uber dictating its terms. “This is a city survey,” says Eng. “This is not an Uber survey.”

But that requires raw information, which Uber been hesitant to provide: The company is already in the middle of a lawsuit with the city, separate from the collective bargaining conversation, to prevent disclosure of data they provided following new regulations in 2014.

Uber’s unwillingness to offer unfiltered data is what led the city to the database of drivers registered in King County.

By casting doubt on how the city is writing its rules, Uber is seeding doubt that its drivers support the new regulations at all.

“Is their methodology biased in any way?” posits Hambley. When asked if he had reason to believe it was, he suggests that the immigrant community could be under-represented in the survey because, he says, they switch cell numbers more often.

When Seattle approved collective bargaining rights for Uber drivers, the council knew full well it was walking into a fight. A fight, it seems, they’re getting.

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