In California, Uber and Lyft’s ballot initiative to strip drivers of worker rights, Proposition 22, was approved by over 58 percent of voters. This represents a serious blow to the fight for drivers’ rights in that state and around the country.
Proposition 22 over-rode California’s AB5 law which protects against misclassification. Under the new system, drivers will be exempted from employee status, while receiving woefully insufficient wage guarantees and minor health benefits, if they qualify.
This set-back shows that our movement for raises, rights, and respect for Uber and Lyft drivers must grow significantly if we want to win. Although we have made many steps forward in the 18 months since the Uber IPO strike, driver unionists must continue to build power if we hope to stand firm against our corporate overlords.
The Devil Is In The Details
Uber and Lyft argued that drivers deserve their own category, somewhere in between the flexibility of an independent contractor and the benefits of an employee. But Proposition 22 does not guarantee a minimum wage; rather, it guarantees 120% of the California minimum wage plus 30 cents a mile for time drivers spend driving, not waiting for a ride. According to a study paid for by the companies themselves, this would cover only two-thirds of the time drivers spend working. It only takes basic math to see that two-thirds of 120 is 80; so according to Uber and Lyft’s own estimates, this pay guarantee is worth only 80% of the current minimum wage. And the IRS estimates that the cost per mile is 58 cents, not 30 cents. With these factors in mind, the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center issued a report which estimates the pay guarantee is worth only $5.64 an hour! And the health care stipend will only equal $1.22/ hour for a driver who averages 30 hours in a week.
And what is the cost to drivers of Uber and Lyft’s pay guarantee? If drivers are classified as employees, they are due the minimum wage for 100% of the time they spend working — including time spent waiting for rides, as well as driving — as well as an additional 58 cents per mile (the IRS’s estimated cost-per-mile) and overtime pay. Employees are also due benefits including paid sick time. And while there is no national employer health care mandate, the Affordable Care Act issues penalties to companies if they do not provide health benefits to employees working 30 hours a week or more. This incentives companies to provide healthcare, and Uber and Lyft would almost surely provide healthcare to drivers who work at least 30 hours per week. And finally, independent contractors do not have the right to unionize, while employees do.
So what does this all add up to? Instead of full rights as employees, Proposition 22 gives California drivers the bare minimum We are not fighting just for the bare minimum! We want to organize a union so we can fight for higher wages, full benefits, and respect on the job.
Of course, Uber and Lyft did not bill their ballot initiative as a way to deny drivers basic rights and to keep their wages low. The companies brought out their well-worn line that their business was incompatible with employee status, even though no law requires companies to set their employees’ schedules.
Yet Uber and Lyft still trotted out that narrative, going so far as to bring in allies like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the California chapter of the NAACP to hide their campaign under a progressive disguise. They argued that ridesharing is an easily accessible means of employment for people of color, veterans, immigrants, and other disadvantaged communities. And we agree that it is! But don’t people of color, veterans, and immigrants deserve fair wages, not $5.64 an hour?! That is what we are fighting for.
Buying Their Way To Victory
Uber, Lyft, Doordash, Grubhub, and other big-app companies spent a record-breaking $200 million dollars on Prop 22 in California, filling airwaves, billboards, social media sites, and television commercials with their narrative. This media blitz was undeniably effective, with the companies netting 9,578,556 votes. The companies spent more than $20.00 per vote.
In contrast, the No on 22 campaign was able to raise only $19 million, mostly from labor unions. With 6,768,455 votes against the proposition, unions were spending $2.81 per vote. Almost 7 million votes is undoubtedly an impressive figure, and showed that the public was not unanimous on this issue; nonetheless, outspent 10-to-1, the unions were not able to tread water in the sea of company money.
But Uber and Lyft’s spending spree went far beyond flooding the airwaves. The TNCs used their funds to buy support from different influential non-profits, expanding their coalition to confuse voters.
Uber has a long-standing relationship with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a national non-profit. As early as 2016, MADD faced criticism for failing to disclose the hundreds of thousands in donations it was receiving from Uber after it released a report showing that rideshare was leading to a decrease in drunk driving. We do not have access to exactly how much Uber has donated to MADD, but we can make an educated guess that they have continued to provide a sizable amount of funding for an organization whose annual budget is less than $35 million.
In the case of the California chapter of the NAACP, the issue of corruption is more clear cut. Uber and Lyft paid $85,000 to a consulting firm run by the president of the California chapter of the NAACP, Alice Huffman. With the NAACP in their pocket, Uber and Lyft were able to weave a false narrative that Proposition 22 is good for black drivers. Alice Huffman is a far way from the heroic tradition laid out by socialist and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois., the founder of the NAACP. Du Bois would not have taken money from Uber and Lyft to sell black drivers down the river. Instead, he would have encouraged black, asian, latino, and white TNC drivers to unite in a strong union, and fight together for raises, rights, and respect.
Finally, the TNCs were able to use their apps to push free messaging to passengers and drivers throughout the state.
We’ve Been Here Before
Although the two initiatives are not identical, Uber and Lyft’s strategy for their Proposition 22 campaign resembles the hospitals’ campaign against safe patient ratios when that question was on the ballot in Massachusetts 2 years ago.
In the nurses’ case, it was the nurses union that introduced the ballot initiative after being unsuccessful at the legislative level. Although the nurses union started off with overwhelming support, the hospitals used a combination of misinformation, big-money advertising, and messaging through their patient portals.
The nurses union relied on the public trust of nurses, centering nurses’ voices at the core of their campaign. And initially this was highly successful. Except the hospitals easily hired actors to dress up in scrubs and claim the mantle of a nurse. They introduced the idea that many nurses opposed safe patient limits, just as Uber and Lyft argued that many drivers did not want additional rights. And unfortunately, this messaging works, to a degree. Many nurses were scared into submission, just as many drivers falsely believe that winning employment rights will lead to a limitation on flexibility or drive the companies out of business altogether.
In both cases, the public believed that they were doing the right thing. But with unlimited treasuries, the companies were successful in confusing the public into voting against the interests of the workers.
Will Proposition 22 Impact Massachusetts?
Proposition 22 only applies to California. Massachusetts already has strong laws against misclassification, which have only begun to be enforced after BIDG pushed Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to sue the TNCs.
However, there is speculation that Uber and Lyft will take their victory in California and spread it far and wide. Uber and Lyft will not be able to get a ballot initiative before voters until 2022. But they could take their scheme of poverty wages and push it through the state legislator. Uber and Lyft may find it more challenging to convince legislators that denying rideshare drivers basic worker rights is for their own benefit. But we know that money talks.
In order to protect against this possibility, the Boston Independent Drivers Guild is leading an offensive fight against Uber and Lyft at the State House. Our Rideshare Drivers Bill of Rights will increase drivers pay, create a path to unionization, guarantee benefits, protect driver flexibility, restore surge pricing, protect against passenger harassment, and win millions for drivers and for the public.
As in California, Uber and Lyft will undoubtedly try to buy endorsements from trusted non-profit organizations. Therefore, drivers must act now to build as broad a coalition of supporters as possible, in order to protect against misinformation.
Next Steps For the Drivers Movement
California was arguably leading our movement, and winning the biggest victories for rideshare drivers. Now our allies there have been seriously set back. We do not doubt that the members of Rideshare Drivers United and other California-based groups will continue to build driver power and lead fighting campaigns. But at least for now, they will not be at the forefront of the national movement, setting expectations for the rest of the country.
This defeat in California is doubly concerning, because the drivers movement was well organized and professional there more than anywhere else. RDU has over 17,000 members, and has brought drivers on as paid organizers to strengthen and deepen their work.
BIDG and other driver groups outside of California need to step up our organizing. We need to engage many more drivers, raise more resources, hire professional organizers, build broad coalitions, and generally strengthen our ‘subjective factor,’ or our independent organization strength. Proposition 22 did not at all prove that the public does not support drivers, but only shows that the public, in its desire to support drivers, is easily misled. All the public support in the world is worth nothing if our movement is not strong enough to capture and direct it in a productive direction.
Possibly the single most important step forward for the drivers movement would be to establish a national center. There have been various attempts to bring the various drivers groups together, and many US drivers groups joined the International Alliance of App-Based Transport Workers this year. However, there is no center in the US which is providing direction and assistance to the various drivers groups.
The US labor movement could do better in leading the fight for drivers’ rights. Multiple national unions including SEIU, the Teamsters, UFCW, the Machinists, and CWA are already organizing drivers. It would be preferable if the AFL-CIO would designate a single national union to lead driver organizing, as drivers do not benefit from a multitude of unions who are essentially in competition with each other. Unions put millions of dollars to defeat Proposition 22, as they should. However, this money could have been invested years ago in order to build lasting power, rather than being dropped last minute to defend against a massive corporate onslaught.
The political left can also play a large role in the fight for drivers’ rights. Organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America can support national and local efforts, and encourage their members to volunteer to help build the drivers movement. Considering the thin layer of drivers activists, even 100 socialist volunteers around the country could double the organizing capabilities of the drivers’ movement.
The passage of Proposition 22 will have a big impact on the drivers movement, including here in Massachusetts. California will need time to reorientate to their next campaign. Now it is up to Massachusetts drivers to set the pace and show an example to drivers around the world.
The basics remain the same: Bring drivers together. Share our story. Demand raises, rights, and respect. We will never surrender to our corporate masters. We will fight on.