By Henry De Groot
Big Gig’s tidal wave of propaganda is coming to Massachusetts.
Do you remember when Michael Bloomberg’s radio and TV ads flooded the airwaves? As a presidential candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary, Bloomberg spent around $1 billion dollars—or $3 per U.S. resident—on his campaign. It seemed like his ads—on TV, radio, webpages, and social media—were inescapable.
If Bloomberg’s messaging annoyed you, just wait until Uber and Lyft’s ads start running for their 2022 Massachusetts ballot initiative. The app companies collectively spent over $220 million in California—or $5.50 per resident—to push through Proposition 22, which stripped app-workers of important labor rights. For a cool $33 million these companies’ new pet organization – the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work—could spend at the same rate, flooding the Massachusetts airwaves from Mount Greylock to Provincetown with their corporate messaging.
To stand against Uber, Lyft, Doordash, and the rest of Big Gig, unions and community groups have formed an organization of their own, the Coalition to Protect Worker Rights. But what will it take for labor’s coalition to emerge victorious?
If we fight the battle Big Gig has picked, we will lose
These companies are not stupid. Their ads will not trumpet how their business model is based on avoiding and eroding basic labor protections. We can get a sense of their strategy from their campaign in support of HB1234, “An Act Establishing Portable Benefit Accounts For App-Based Drivers”—a stalking horse for their ballot initiative which faced strong opposition at a state house hearing on Wednesday, October 6th. They aim to disguise their attack on worker rights—in this case, exempting drivers from regulations around employee benefits – in the shroud of financial “guarantees” which a recent UC Berkeley study found were worth a measly $4.82/hour.
Fear-mongering will accompany the sweet talk. These corporations will warn that ensuring driver rights will strip drivers of their coveted flexibility, and seize on popular social justice narratives to present employee rights as a threat to the best interests of their largely immigrant and POC workforce.
At the statehouse hearing earlier this month, panel after panel of well-spoken drivers—obviously hand-picked and groomed by Big Gig—testified in support of H1234. They spoke about how they appreciated the flexibility of app-work, which allowed them—as mothers, retirees, and students—to better manage their other commitments.
UC Hastings professor Veena Dubal – an expert on labor and employment law – fired back at this company narrative. She pointed out that there is no law which requires employees to have set schedules, and that the only threat to drivers’ flexibility comes from the app companies themselves.
Convincing drivers that they should be employees is an uphill battle because it runs counter to their lived experience. The fact of the matter is that for many drivers, being classified as an independent contractor means flexibility, while being classified as an employee means set schedules and tight supervision. We must remember the second of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals—“Never go outside the experience of your people.” In my personal experience—more than two years of organizing app-based drivers—convincing a driver that they would be better off as an employee is no easy feat, even in a fair fight.
But this will not be a fair fight. We can have all the community groups, all the experts, and a well-funded campaign. But Uber and Lyft can and will drop $30 million, $100 million, or even $200 million to convince drivers and the public that employee status means losing flexibility. We will be pushing a boulder up a hill in the middle of a mudslide.
Fighting for the workers’ voice
In the fights over California’s Proposition 22 initiative and Massachusetts’ Safe Staffing Initiative – where hospital corporations successfully beat back proposed improvements to nurse/patient staffing ratios – both sides sought to lay claim to the voice of the workers. In both initiatives, both labor and corporate put the voice of impacted workers at the core of their messaging strategies, because both sides knew that voters would trust workers.
In the early stages of the Safe Staffing campaign, the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) had polling that showed that voters overwhelmingly trusted nurses. Therefore, the MNA deployed the slogan, “Nurses Say Yes!”
But what they didn’t anticipate was that anyone—or at least anyone with millions of dollars—can hire an actress to put on scrubs, buy the airwaves, and raise the counter-slogan “Nurses Say No!” Voters trusted nurses, but the nurses themselves appeared—and because of fear-mongering about hospital shutdowns, were to a degree – divided.
In California, it was more of the same. One poll shows that 58 percent of all voters – including 40 percent of those who backed Uber’s initiative—thought they were helping drivers’ ability to earn a liveable wage, while only 33 percent thought they were ensuring that businesses like Uber and Lyft could continue to exist.
Ultimately voters—not drivers—will decide this initiative. But if Uber or the MNA’s experience is any indication, voters will largely vote for what they think is best for drivers.
HB1094 breaks Uber’s false choice
HB1094—An Act Establishing A Driver Bill of Rights—is our best weapon to cut across Uber’s ballot strategy.
The bill was democratically drafted by drivers and specifically designed to win driver support to our cause and away from Uber’s proposal.
Because it does not undermine existing law or create a third category of workers under the law, HB1094 skirts the issue of classification to give drivers the rights that all workers deserve—including paid sick leave and overtime—regardless of status. It also legally guarantees driver flexibility by banning set schedules for drivers. Drawing on legislation passed in Seattle, HB1094 sets mandatory minimums for driver per-mile and per-minute rates, establishes a Driver Resolution Center to advocate for drivers, and gives drivers a path to unionization.
Drivers may not agree on employment status, but drivers can all agree that we would like higher pay rates, more rights, and protections from unfair deactivations. If we can present drivers with a choice between Uber’s bill and the Rideshare Driver Bill of Rights, we can win an army of drivers who can proselytize to voters during every Uber and Lyft ride in the Commonwealth.
If the Coalition to Protect Worker Rights decides not only to fight Uber’s legislation, but also endorses HB1094, it will have a crucial weapon to organize drivers in its fight against Big Gig’s assault on worker rights.
If we lose, we can still win
Furthermore, HB1094 is relevant even if Big Gig is successful in hoodwinking drivers and voters. If HB1094 is passed in the legislature after a defeat at the polls, it makes the app-companies’ legislation largely irrelevant. Does it matter if drivers are called independent contractors if they have all the rights afforded to employees, as well as pay guarantees well above minimum wage, just cause termination provisions, and a path to unionization with terms more favorable than those afforded under the National Labor Relations Act?
In California, unions spent over $18 million to fight Proposition 22; after they lost, they had little to show for that money. Building support for HB1094 now as part of the fight against BigGig’s initiative means that even if they win, we will have invested that money in an enduring project for driver rights.
Henry De Groot is an editor of Working Mass, a member of the Boston DSA Labor Working Group, and a board member of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild.