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Uber hired CIA-linked research firm to investigate Seattle union politics

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After a tense city council vote, the secretive firm was called in to investigate 'the dynamics of labor unions'

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For months, Uber has been fending off fraud allegations related to an investigation into one of its legal opponents, which the company commissioned from a secretive CIA-linked research firm called Ergo. Documents related to the case also refer to other investigations Uber contracted with Ergo for, and so far, the details of those investigations have remained secret.

Now, The Verge has found evidence of a separate Ergo project investigating union politics in Seattle, conducted shortly after a controversial ordinance in December granted the city's drivers the power to bargain collectively. Uber confirmed the project and characterized the effort as research into the city's political landscape, emphasizing that it was not targeted at any individuals or drivers.

Investigating "recent developments in labor unionization in Seattle"

In one email, Ergo reached out to a labor historian named Trevor Griffey, seeking insight into "the recent developments in labor unionization in Seattle" and offering to pay for consultation work on the topic. The email was sent in mid-January, roughly a month after the collective bargaining ordinance was passed. Griffey declined the offer and shared the email with The Verge.

In the email, the sender identifies himself as an Ergo representative, but says his work is on behalf of a private, anonymous client and that the resulting study will not be released to the public. According to the message, the study would deal with "Seattle's political stakeholders and the dynamics of labor unions in the city." The final report was due to be submitted "relatively soon." Ergo did not respond to requests for comment.

Uber has undertaken a number of initiatives to convince Seattle drivers not to support the newly empowered App Based Drivers Association. In January, Uber customer service representatives began contacting Seattle-based drivers with a new script, which began as a driver satisfaction survey but concluded with a strong anti-union message. "This is simply a case where collective bargaining and unionization do not fit the characteristics of the work," the script read, a turn one former employee characterized as "union-busting."

"We don’t have anything to hide."

While Uber took no public position while the Seattle ordinance was being debated, it lobbied heavily behind the scenes and released a number of studies favorable to Uber while the bill was being considered. Some Uber drivers were also deactivated by the service after participating in pro-union activities, which some characterized as an act of political harassment by the company.

The US Chamber of Commerce has filed a lawsuit against the city of Seattle to suspend the new rule, an effort that Uber has vigorously supported.

"I’m not surprised they’re investigating us but I don’t know what new information there is to be gained," said Dawn Gearheart, a Teamsters official who’s been providing organizational support for the new union. "We don’t have anything to hide."

In New York, Uber continues to face fallout from the Ergo investigation into a class action plaintiff and his lawyer. On Monday, US District Judge Jed Rakoff ruled that Ergo had "engaged in fraudulent and arguably criminal conduct" while pursuing its investigation and barred its report from being used in court. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick agreed to pay Meyer and his legal team an undisclosed sum of money as recompense for the breach.

"It is a sad day," Rakoff wrote, "[when] a corporate defendant feels compelled to hire unlicensed private investigators to conduct secret personal background investigations of both the plaintiff and his counsel."

In a deposition related to the case, an Uber executive testified that the company had hired Ergo for four separate investigations. No further details were made public, and the bulk of the deposition remains under seal. Uber has not disclosed any information regarding its other operations with the firm.