The Fight Over Rideshare Is Coming To Massachusetts

By Henry De Groot

From California to Massachusetts

In California, Uber and Lyft are spending more than 100 million dollars on a ballot initiative to strip drivers of their rights. Just a year ago, rideshare drivers in California were able to win Assembly Bill 5, or AB5, which made it clear that drivers are employees entitled to benefits, NOT independent contractors. The corporate-funded “Yes on Proposition 22” campaign threatens to roll back this legislation and keep drivers working for poverty wages, with no benefits or path to unionization.

This summer when a California judge ruled that Uber and Lyft must immediately reclassify their drivers, the companies threatened to shut down their operations in that state. With this threat in mind, the appeals court overruled the first judge, allowing Uber and Lyft to continue operating in violation of the law. 

With similar legal action pending in the Bay State, Massachusetts could be next. Our own version of AB5 has been on the books since 2004, and the Boston Independent Drivers Guild was recently successful in pressuring Attorney General Maura Healey to bring a case against Uber and Lyft, adding to two on-going private suits in the 1st and 9th circuit courts. A judge in any one of these cases could soon issue an injunction ordering Uber and Lyft to immediately reclassify drivers; in response, these companies may again threaten to shut down their operations.

Threatening to suspend rideshare is not a joke. Like it or not, Uber and Lyft are now essential features of our transportation system. Many doctors, nurses, and other front-line workers use rideshare to get to work, and I have personally delivered patients to the ER because they could not afford an ambulance. Uber and Lyft drivers are at the heart of keeping our essential services running during this pandemic.

Unlike in California, Uber and Lyft are not currently running a ballot initiative. But they may use their considerable financial resources to lean on Massachusetts legislators in the hopes of winning a carve-out from our law banning misclassification of employees. It is only a matter of time before Uber and Lyft are fighting in Massachusetts to keep drivers down. We cannot wait for Uber and Lyft to bankroll a corporate counter-attack. Drivers and their allies must take the fight to big tech.

Workers face off with the Massachusetts National Guard during the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike. Photo from Wikipedia.

How did Massachusetts workers win in the past?

So what is the way forward to win real change for drivers here in Massachusetts? It is worth considering how workers in the past have organized to win better wages and working conditions. 

Perhaps the most famous strike in Massachusetts is the 1912 Lawrence textile strike, also known as the Bread and Roses strike. Like rideshare drivers, Lawrence textile workers were a largely immigrant workforce that the rest of the labor movement wrote off as “un-organizable.” But after the bosses cut these workers’ pay, the workers were ready to fight back. International Workers of the World (IWW) organizers and Socialist Party members quickly built a strike committee of 56, with 4 representatives each of the 14 main nationalities. This committee united the angry workers and launched a strike which quickly shut down every mill in the city, involving more than 20,000 workers speaking over 40 different languages. 

The authorities were quick to mobilize local militia to patrol the streets, arresting dozens of striking workers. There were also attempts to frame the strikers, with one local politician planting dynamite in several locations around town after receiving a large payment from one of the local mill owners. While 24 workers were sentenced to a year in prison for throwing ice at factory windows, the planter of the dynamite was fined $500 and let go without serving time. As the strike escalated, the authorities declared martial law, banned all public meetings, and called out 22 militia companies to descend on Lawrence. Harvard students were even given exemptions from their final exams to join the militias. The battle lines were clear: the workers were squaring off with the rich and powerful.

Legendary IWW leaders ‘Big’ Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurly Flynn arrived in Lawrence to help lead the strike effort. In a feat of great public relations, they organized workers to send their hungry children to stay with sympathetic households throughout the Northeast. As word of the conditions of the textile workers spread, as well as the police brutality against the mostly-female workforce, it created a public outcry. In the face of a congressional investigation, the bosses decided to settle the dispute, agreeing to 20 percent increases in workers pay, far more than what they had cut in the first place.

But a key part of the strike, as with many strikes of the last century, was the workers ability to hurt the bosses profits by keeping the factories shut down. By picketing at factory gates, these workers were able to keep away strikebreakers (also known as scabs), thereby keeping the factories idle. And unlike today where most industries are run by international corporations with near unlimited access to capital, in these days many factory owners owned just one factory. If their factory was kept idle, the economic pressure was severe.

Will the same tactics work for rideshare?

In many ways the driver workforce is similar to the Lawrence mill workers. We can learn from their struggle by organizing drivers along the lines of language and nationality. We can act quickly to mobilize angry drivers when the companies cut pay or change our conditions for the worse. We can count on a handful of socialists and radicals to play a leading role in helping workers run an effective campaign. And we can share our stories and our struggles with politicians and the public in order to build public support for our cause.

But unlike the Lawrence textile workers, drivers will have a more challenging time leading a successful strike. Even though Lawrence workers had to face down police brutality and mass arrests, the strategy was basic: stand outside the factory gates and keep the boss from making profits while building public support. Individual workers could not cross the picket line without exposing themselves as traitors to the cause.

In the rideshare industry, there are no factory gates. Drivers can go online from anywhere and begin working. If we launch a strike, how will we keep selfish drivers from crossing the picket line? There are some key points we could focus on, like the airport, but this would not be enough to stop Uber and Lyft from making profit. 

Additionally, unlike the Lawrence textile industry where factory workers worked more than 56 hours a week, the TNC industry is split between a small core of drivers who drive full time, and a wide array of drivers who drive part time, seasonally, or just between jobs. BIDG is committed to fighting to better the conditions of both full time and part time drivers, but we recognize that many part time drivers are not concerned with basic rights or benefits. Some, although certainly not all, of these part time drivers would be more likely to cross the picket line by working during a strike.

Furthermore, Massachusetts is just one part of Uber and Lyft’s business model. Even if we did succeed in shutting down rideshare in Massachusetts, the companies could continue to refuse to meet our demands, using their other markets to stay afloat. We would be in for a very long battle. This is not to say that a strike is impossible to organize, but we had best think of other strategies to get what we want.

A century ago, labor leaders dismissed Lawrence workers as un-organizable, and many labor leaders today feel the same way about Uber and Lyft. I strongly disagree… drivers ARE ready to fight for raises, rights, and respect. But we need a strategy that takes the structure of the rideshare industry into account.

Taking the Fight To Uber and Lyft

The Boston Independent Drivers Guild is not waiting to play defense. Drivers in Massachusetts are building a Rideshare Drivers’ Bill of Rights legislative package to launch our offensive against Uber and Lyft. While the legislation is still being drafted, this mega-bill for workers rights may include a raise in drivers minimum wage, a state-level path to driver unionization, as well as resources for greening rideshare and more.

Drivers are looking to Seattle as an example, where, in addition to passing a $6/hr increase in drivers wages, the city council was able to pass a tax on Uber and Lyft, raising over $50 million each for public transit and affordable housing, as well as $16 million for a driver resolution center to deal with drivers’ grievances.

In order to build the political power necessary to take on Uber and Lyft, drivers will need to build a broad coalition of community support. This means building a legislative vision which includes not only benefits for drivers, but benefits for the wider working class. We can tax Uber and Lyft and use the money to address our housing crisis, invest in public transportation, green the rideshare industry, and address shortages in funding for education and healthcare. 

What Role Can Socialists Play?

The mainstream labor movement continues to neglect new worker organizing. There have been some investments by national unions towards organizing the rideshare workforce, but none so far here in Massachusetts. 

Socialists are committed to helping rebuild the labor movement. Individual DSA members and other socialists can help by signing up to drive rideshare and becoming a BIDG member, or simply by joining our organizing committee as a non-driver volunteer. (Email DriveBIDG@gmail.com for more information.)

Furthermore, Boston DSA working groups and other union members and activists should consider how their goals may overlap with the legislative goals of the rideshare drivers movement. A tax on Uber and Lyft is an opportunity to fund socialist projects and deliver big, concrete gains to both the rideshare drivers and the wider working class. 

We must take the fight to Uber and Lyft before they take the fight to us. Socialists and drivers, unite and fight for a better Commonwealth.

Henry De Groot is the Executive Director of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild, an editor of Working Mass, and Co-chair of the Boston DSA Labor Working Group.

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