SEATTLE—On an overcast morning in early April, three members of the Seattle City Council arrived to find their cavernous, titanium- and maple-paneled meeting chambers packed to capacity with a noisy, unwelcoming crowd. Many wore T-shirts bearing the message “I drive, I vote.” When the council president tried to open the hearing, one argumentative man kept interrupting so industriously that security had to escort him from the room.
The confrontation had been orchestrated in part by Uber, the ride-share company, as the latest move in its long-simmering war with the city. Almost from the moment Uber chose Seattle as its third test market, back in 2011, the city has sought to put itself between the company and its drivers: first, there had been an ordinance attempting to cap the number of ride-share drivers here; then, in 2015, the City Council passed a law allowing drivers to bargain collectively. Now, the city was considering a law to force ride-share companies to nearly double the base rate paid to their drivers, from $1.35 to $2.40 per mile.
City officials argued the new rate was necessary to ensure that drivers earn Seattle’s $15-an-hour minimum wage. But Uber, king of the budget ride, was having none of it. After blasting an email to its Seattle-area customers warning that the city “wants to double your rates,” Uber dispatched a small army of company-friendly drivers to City Hall to lobby the council in person. Seattle, a city famous for promoting innovation, was innovating in a way that Uber didn’t appreciate.
Yet, it’s the kind of assertiveness that Uber and the rest of corporate America will probably have to get used to. Ever since 2014, when Seattle became the first major municipality to adopt a $15 minimum wage—over the objections of its own business community—the famously left-of-center city has rolled out a series of ambitious, often controversial laws aimed at shielding workers from the chaos of the fast-changing, technology-disrupted urban job market. Today, Seattle’s workers enjoy a list of on-the-job benefits that feels almost European in its scope—everything from a high minimum wage to a ban on last-minute schedule changes to a city-sponsored retirement savings plan. And more are on the way. This year, council members are considering a “bill of rights” for the estimated 33,000 housecleaners, nannies and other “domestics” who work for the city’s population of high earners.
Seattle, celebrated mainly for software, airplanes and overpriced coffee, is now at the forefront of a radical new experiment to see how far a city can go—and should go—to improve the lives of the people who work there.