June 23, 2021, 2:00 p.m. EDT

Massachusetts coalition launches to fight Uber, Lyft and avoid California gig-work outcome

By Levi Sumagaysay

Trying to avoid a repeat of gig companies’ victory in California last November, Massachusetts workers, community organizers, labor and civil-rights groups on Tuesday launched an effort to fight an expected ballot measure over worker classification.

The Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights expects Uber Technologies Inc. (NYS:UBER) , Lyft Inc. (NAS:LYFT) , DoorDash Inc. (NYS:DASH) and other gig companies to continue their campaign to treat their workers as independent contractors instead of employees in Massachusetts, which has some of the toughest labor laws in the nation.

The companies “want to undermine our state’s longstanding civil rights and worker-rights laws,” said Mike Firestone, director of the new labor-backed coalition, at a news conference. “We know that the only way to combat that kind of money is to organize early.”

The companies’ filing deadline to get a measure on the ballot in Massachusetts — where Uber and Lyft are facing a lawsuit from the state attorney general over misclassification of their drivers — is Aug. 4, Firestone said. He added that he expects the companies to spend more than $100 million on such a campaign.

Shannon Liss-Riordan, a labor attorney who has been suing gig companies for the past decade, said at the news conference: “We believe Massachusetts will be the next ground zero in the worker battle. They’re going to try to do here what they did in California, which is to buy themselves a law.”

Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart spent a record-breaking $200 million-plus to put Proposition 22 on the ballot in California last year. After 58% of the state’s voters approved the measure, the companies said they would seek to expand it elsewhere. Massachusetts gig workers, labor groups, civil rights and environmental justice groups have banded together to try to keep that from happening in their state, partly by drawing from lessons learned in California.

What happened in California

Drivers, California lawmakers and labor advocates say Proposition 22, which promised guaranteed earnings of 120% of the minimum wage, health-care stipends and some other benefits, has largely failed to deliver.

Nicole Moore, a Los Angeles-based driver and worker organizer who says drivers are not seeing better pay, told MarketWatch: “We were literally outspent 10 to 1… Now we are stuck with a low that is literally throwing the welcome mat out for super exploitation with no end in sight.” 

“Part of what they did in California was to lie, to misrepresent the reality of what the bill was,” said Veena Dubal, a labor professor at UC Hastings College of the Law, at the news conference. For example, she noted that drivers are not paid for the time between rides.

In addition, a recent survey commissioned by SEIU 721 in Los Angeles found that most drivers are finding they are ineligible for the health-care stipends because they are low income and qualify for health insurance through the state. In response, a coalition representing the companies has said “thousands of drivers” have started receiving health-care stipends since Proposition 22 passed.

See: Uber, Lyft drivers say new California law isn’t solving their health-care needs

Proposition 22 was the gig companies’ successful effort to exempt themselves from a California law that would have required them to treat their drivers as employees. That law was modeled after a similar Massachusetts law, which uses the “ABC test” to determine when workers can be considered an independent contractor: when they control their work; when their duties fall outside of the usual scope of a company’s business; and if they independently do that work.

Massachusetts polls so far

The Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, whose members include the gig companies plus chambers of commerce and tech industry groups, said Tuesday that surveys it commissioned show that 64% of drivers in the state want to remain independent contractors, and that seven in 10 voters support legislation that would classify drivers as independent contractors while giving them benefits.

But the newly formed Massachusetts worker coalition released contradictory results of a survey it commissioned. It showed that less than one-third of the state’s voters support the gig company-backed bill.

“You’re going to get these conflicting polls,” Liss-Riordan said. “It all depends on how you ask the question. These gig companies are not being straight. You can have flexibility and you can have protections under the law.”

Beyond ride-hailing

Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman, echoing some of the comments by Liss-Riordan and Dubal, said the upcoming battle in Massachusetts is more than just about ride-hailing drivers and those currently classified as gig workers. They said grocery delivery drivers, hotel and restaurant workers have lost their union jobs since the passage of Proposition 22 in California.

See: Albertsons, Vons shifting to third-party grocery delivery in California, elsewhere

“The [companies] come in here with their high tech, high-falutin’ attitudes and think they can change Massachusetts,” Tolman said. “We’re not going to allow it.”

Dubal said, “This is about protecting wages and livelihoods of service workers across the country.”

Civil-rights issue

Dubal also said the fight “is a civil-rights issue, not just a labor-rights issue.”

During their campaign in California, the gig companies “used the facade of racial benevolence to say this was going to somehow benefit people of color,” she said. “We’ve already seen in the aftermath that wages have gone down and consumer prices have gone up.”

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP, also spoke at the news conference. She acknowledged the “opportunity in the gig economy” but added that “it is critically important that, from a civil-rights standpoint, we stand with labor on this particular issue.”

William Gould, professor emeritus at Stanford Law School and a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, told MarketWatch that the Massachusetts worker coalition should watch which organizations may have received financial support from gig companies. “One thing we didn’t understand here [in California] was the extent to which some civil-rights groups were apparently influenced to either remain silent or support the companies,” he said. 

See: Race has played a large role in Uber and Lyft’s fight to preserve their business models

A recent report from The Markup detailed Uber and Lyft’s donations to organizations that work with communities of color. Some of those organizations placed op-eds extolling the virtues of gig work in minority newspapers.

Beth Griffith, a driver and chair of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild, said at the news conference that upwards of 70% of Massachusetts’ 220,000 gig workers are people of color and immigrants.

“We may not have the biggest budget but we have the biggest heart,” Griffith said of the fight the new coalition has launched, which will include educating gig workers and the public about the worker protections that are at stake. “And we have the most to lose.”

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