As we have previously reported, Unions currently face a serious existential threat as the unionized workforce in America continuously declines and the looming threat of a National Right to Work law steadily grows. Recognizing that when employees have a choice, they are losing the battle for the hearts and minds, Unions have not taken these deleterious developments lying down and have deployed numerous countermeasures designed to increase their dues paying membership, including unprecedented forays into previously untouched industries and membership pools. These efforts extend beyond “employees” as unions now are also targeting independent contractors, with one of the most notable being the robust ridesharing industry made popular by apps like Uber and Lyft.
Uber and Lyft have become synonymous with affordable, on-demand transportation throughout the world. Their innovative business model has reinvigorated the for-hire transportation market –historically dominated by powerful unions and restrictive legislation – with some much needed competition. These apps have created an inexpensive and efficient alternative in on-demand transportation while giving entrepreneurial drivers an opportunity to earn extra income on their own schedule and their own terms. This could all change, though, if unions successfully infiltrate the rideshare market: drivers could lose the flexibility they enjoy, consumers could see a sharp rise in costs and the rideshare market could lose its competitive ability to dynamically adjust to consumer demands.
A Federal District Court Rejects The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Motion For Injunction Relief Pending Appeal Of the Court’s Finding That Seattle’s Ordinance Is Not Preempted By The National Labor Relations Act.
Rideshare drivers utilizing apps like Uber and Lyft are independent contractors and, therefore, are expressly excluded from the collective bargaining rights granted by the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”). In December 2015, Seattle passed Ordinance 124968, which conferred collective bargaining rights on rideshare drivers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce subsequently filed an action in the U.S. District Court of Washington, Western District, claiming, among other things, that the Ordinance was preempted by the Act. On April 7, 2017, the District Court temporarily enjoyed enforcement of the Ordinance pending the outcome of the litigation.
However, on August 1, 2017, the District Court lifted the injunction after it granted Seattle’s motion to dismiss, finding that the Act’s independent contractor exclusion did not preempt state law. The Court likened the independent contractor exclusion to other exclusions in the Act, such as the agricultural laborer and domestic service worker exclusions, which have long been held not to preempt state law.
In doing so, the District Court rejected the Chamber’s attempt to analogize the independent contractor exclusion to the Act’s supervisor exclusion, which decidedly preempts state law. Citing to the legislative history of the supervisor exclusion, the District Court reasoned that Congress deemed the unionization of supervisors “a threat to the very purposes of the Act as well as the interests of both labor and management,” and these destructive consequences “would arise regardless of whether supervisors unionized under NLRA or under state law.” By contrast, the District Court concluded, Congress did not identify unionization of independent contractors “as a threat to the free flow of goods, nor is there any indication that allowing them to participate in the collective action would threaten the independence of labor organizations or the rights of management.”
As further support for its holding, the District Court cited Section 14(a) of the Act, which allows supervisors to organize, but precludes the Board from compelling employers to recognize such unions. No similar provision exists for independent contractors, agricultural laborers, or domestic workers, so the Court concluded the Act treated these groups alike.
Interestingly, the District Court did not engage in a deep analysis of Congress’ purpose for excluding independent contractors or whether, like the supervisor exclusion, those reasons justified preemption of state law, let alone did it examine whether the Act’s purpose in regulating the free flow of commerce constituted preemption. It merely concluded that the justifications behind the independent contractor exclusion were different than those driving the supervisor exclusion and, because there was no express exemption specifically applicable to independent contractors like there was for supervisors, independent contractors were intended to be treated “more like the other excluded groups who have long been the subject of state regulation.”
On August 24, 2017, the Chamber filed a motion for injunction relief pending appeal of the District Court’s Order. The same federal judge that granted Seattle’s motion to dismiss denied the Chamber’s motion for preliminary injunction, thereby permitting the Union to commence its organizing drive of Uber and Lyft drivers.
Ninth Circuit Temporarily Grants The Chambers’ Emergency Motion For Injunction Relief While It Considers The Merits Of The Motion
On August 29, 2017, the Chamber filed an emergency motion for injunctive relief with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal. The Ninth Circuit temporarily granted the motion while the Court considered the merits of the motion. Seattle filed its opposition to the Motion on September 5, 2017, and the Chamber’s filed its reply September 7, 2017. Importantly, this truly could only be a temporary reprieve for rideshare companies as the Ninth Circuit Provided no indication one way or the other as to its leaning on the merits.
The Fate Of Unionization of Rideshare Drivers
Ninth Circuit’s ruling effectively stayed the Union’s right to begin its efforts to unionize Uber and Lyft drivers, but this reprieve may only be temporary. If the Ninth Circuit denies the emergency motion, it will clear the way for Teamsters, Local 117 to begin its organizing drive while the Chamber appeals the dismissal of its lawsuit to block the Ordinance. However, even if the Court denies injunctive relief and Teamsters successfully organizes the drivers, the Ninth Circuit could still decide the Act preempts Seattle’s unprecedented ordinance and reverse the Union’s gain. If Ninth Circuit sides with Seattle, though, and permits the Ordinance to stand, this scenario will likely be repeated in other cities across the nation as Unions, with the aid of the members of city councils and legislatures they funded and elected, desperately seek to reverse the long running trend of declining membership by targeting new industries. And if this occurs, the rideshare industry will likely be dramatically transformed in fundamental ways – ways that may destroy the flexibility and affordability that made this industry so popular in the first place.