It’s about big tech trying to buy a law

This is about all workers

Gig work and rideshare companies have already begun pouring tens of millions of dollars into a looming conflict in Massachusetts. Their hope is to continue to exploit drivers by side-stepping labor laws and misclassifying them as independent contractors rather than employees. If that sounds familiar it’s because it’s the same tactic companies like Uber and Lyft used to push Prop 22 through in California in 2020. Opponents of such a move here in Massachusetts, which you are if you are reading this newsletter, say the tech companies want to codify what has become the norm in gig work into law, continuing the Uber-ization of labor as we know it.

Specifically what form the fight will take remains to be seen here. Attorney General Maura Healey has been in the process of suing these companies since 2020 for cheating workers out of benefits and protections that she believes they are rightfully owed. A bill (H.1234) supported by the tech companies is also currently under consideration in the State House. Then there’s the possibility if they don’t get their way through legislation that the collection of anti-worker tech shitheads will push a question onto the ballot this November, which is where the real blizzard of propaganda dollars will be spent on confusing voters with phony appeals to the supposed ideals of worker flexibility and independence and so on much like they did in California.

Seeing how things played out with Prop. 22, a broad coalition of groups in the state, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the National Employment Law Project, and dozens of others are working together to oppose a repeat, Wes McEnany, the Director of the umbrella opposition group Mass Not For Sale told me. I asked McEnany to explain more about what’s at stake here.

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This whole issue is confusing, and that’s by design I think. Can you frame the basic stakes for us? This is about rideshare companies trying to prevent the workers they routinely exploit through labor loopholes from being classified as employees, rather than independent contractors, correct?

Yes. Massachusetts has one of the strongest labor laws in the country. We have the ABC test, which they also have in California. And so our argument, and the Attorney General’s argument, as she’s suing the companies, is that [Uber, Lyft etc] have been misclassifying workers. As a result they’ve skirted 100 years worth of civil rights protections, payroll taxes, OSHA regulations, benefits, and minimum wage laws, to be able to claim that these drivers are just independent contractors. But more importantly it’s about them not paying any taxes, not granting drivers any rights.

These companies are so ubiquitous and have amassed such insane amounts of wealth, that they’ve realized they can raise $100 million to buy a law. So it’s not really just about the drivers, as much as the companies want to claim it is. Obviously drivers are getting a raw deal. But as we saw in California, where they passed Prop 22 in 2020, this year they’ve come back with a ballot initiative for healthcare workers that would essentially turn nurses, anything below a doctor, including in the veterinarian space, into an independent contractor. So hospitals, some of the biggest, wealthiest “non-profit” and for profit systems in the country, would then not have to pay any payroll taxes, and wouldn’t have to guarantee the licensure of nurses. After Prop 22 happened they saw this with grocery stores. The first thing they did was a bunch of union grocery store workers that delivered groceries got independent contractor status. They went from being union workers with a ton of rights, a pension, healthcare, to not having any of those things.

We’re talking about DoorDash and Lyft and those type of workers here in the Massachusetts issue, but in the bigger picture, this is like a Trojan Horse type of thing, to kind of sneak in and turn everything into gig work.

Yeah, big tech has figured out they can replace a taxi dispatcher, a human being, with an app, so they can sidestep 100 years of labor laws brought about by worker struggle, and they can make that the whole future of the workforce.

Are they using the same playbook they used for Prop 22 in California here? Also, wasn’t that recently ruled unconstitutional?

One of the things they put in the initiative there was that it could never be changed, and that was recently ruled unconstitutional. Now the legislature is working on taking it back, which is exciting, but also kind of goes to show you they’ll spend as much money as they can trying to pass laws that aren’t legal using this process. So it’s pretty messed up. I think it is the exact same playbook they used in California. They’re trying to paint this as sort of like a black and brown workers liberation, but really what it is is turning those workers who haven’t had opportunities for better jobs into an underclass. To ensure that those workers don’t have the same rights as other workers have.

That’s a particularly shady thing they’re doing here. The language they’re using, couching it in this false liberatory type thing. “Giving workers the freedom they demand and deserve” kind of thing. It’s all doublespeak, which is what makes it confusing to the average person.

This happened in California. Through my work with the Campaign to Organize Digital Workers I know a lot of people in California, and a lot of people voted the wrong way thinking they were voting the right way. They thought they were voting for workers rights, not realizing they weren’t. And that was because of the onslaught of the $250 million big tech spent confusing the issue. They’re going to try to do the same thing in Massachusetts.

What we’re going to do differently is lift the hood on this and try to explain to voters that this is about big tech trying to do a number of different things. There’s a climate angle here too. How is the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts and the country going to meet any of the emissions standards if we continue to have, at least in this space, 60,000 cars on the road?

The reality is there’s also a ton of safety concerns. I’ve talked to a lot of women drivers that have been assaulted, that have been scared, stuff like that.

You probably saw the Boston Globe article about Will Good? He played in a bunch of punk bands in Boston, known him for fifteen years, kid from Southie. He takes an Uber home, the Uber gets in an accident. Uber says we’re not responsible in any way. Now he’s a quadriplegic, and they basically say tough shit. You should’ve taken the MBTA if you didn’t want to get into an accident. So, we want to talk about that. We want to talk about the safety aspects. And frankly, they want to exploit this moment of racial reckoning in this country, but we want to have a conversation about, well, what about voting rights and democracy in this country? This initiative is supposed to be a direct democracy initiative, where citizens can sidestep the legislative process. Instead they’re spending a vast amount of foreign resources — and it shouldn't be lost on anybody that Uber is half capitalized by a Saudi state investment firm — that this is also a blatant attack on democracy.

Already Lyft gave the biggest one time politician donation in Massachusetts history to influence this issue right?

Yeah, $14 million. Their side has pledged that they’re ready to spend $100 million to pass this law.

Another way this all gets confusing is there are different prongs. Healy is suing them. Then there’s a couple different bills we might vote on in November. Are they solidified yet?

They’re going to need to collect another 12,000 signatures to get certified on the ballot, which they shouldn’t have a problem doing. They paid a firm to collect all the signatures so far. There’s a couple bills in the legislature around this issue, but neither of them are probably going to go anywhere. And we’re not going to cut a deal here. We’re not going to cut a deal to sell workers out. We have the best laws for workers in Massachusetts and we’re prepared to defend them. In 2023 we’re very interested in passing our own law that codifies what we think is the right classification for these workers, and to really go after these companies. We feel very strongly moving on a legislative strategy in 2023, regardless of whether or not we win in November.

A lot of these consulting groups the rideshare companies are paying are the same ones from the last time we had some big contested initiatives a couple years ago. The right to repair law and the nurses staffing issue, there was a huge amount of money spent then too. Anyone here probably remembers the constant fucking ads. These are the same slick fuckers who are going to be working on this issue too right?

100%. They’ve hired some of the same consultants. They’re prepared to put slick ads together and bombard people. Right to repair was the most expensive ballot initiative ever.

The thing with those questions, hearing the ads, they threaded the needle in such a way where even I was like, wait, which is the good thing here? It’s hard for the average person, the way they talk about this shit, to tell what’s reasonable.

They’re banking on that. That voters will be confused, and voters will think they’re voting for the right moral side of the issue. One disadvantage in California was that four of their media markets are in the top twenty, six were in the top fifty, so their money went a lot further than I think it will go here, because we have only one media market. To be competitive getting our message out won’t take as much money. What we have that they don’t have is the biggest political coalition that’s ever been established in Massachusetts. You can look on our website, there are dozens of organizations that have signed on including the NAACP, the Sierra Club, the National Consumer Law Center.

One thing it seems like the rideshare companies are trying to do is give a little ground so it seems like a fair compromise. They’re going to pay more than the minimum wage they say, but it’s actually only going to count for when drivers are driving, not waiting for their next assignment. There are a couple of things baked into what they want to pass that seem decent, but it’s a bit of con.

Yup. The flexibility issue is a huge one. It’s a huge one for drivers. But the company sets the schedule, they don’t need to misclassify workers in order to do that. And for the benefits they say they’re going to offer, through our analysis, it would be something like less than 10% of workers would qualify to even enter into the benefit pool. It is a con.

Where is opinion landing amongst drivers as far as you know? I’m sure there are plenty who just want to work when they want, they enjoy the supposed ideals of gig work.

They’ve published some polls with supposed numbers. But I think a lot of drivers are confused. They’ve been propagandizing them through the apps, trying to scare drivers, telling them if this doesn’t pass they’re all going to lose their jobs. It’s complete nonsense.

How many people are there in this category in Massachusetts?

Somewhere around 60,000.

What if a guy just drives five or eight hours a week. Would you still want him to be counted as an employee?

Absolutely. Part time workers in all other industries have rights. These workers don’t. These workers, under this bill, wouldn’t be eligible for any of the benefits the companies are advertising.

I did a piece on temp workers in here recently. How routinely they’re exploited. Is there a common ground for how this all could benefit temp workers too?

I think temp workers are in a similar dynamic. It’s another attempt by multinational corporations to sidestep labor laws. If you can put workers into these other kinds of classifications, then all the benefits that people think they have, protections against discrimination, civil rights, all these things, won’t exist.

A lot of people have probably come to think of these apps as an essential part of their lives. More convenient and so on. Do you think there’s any putting the genie back in the bottle so to speak?

I think there is. A bunch of European countries have outlawed the business model. The CEO of Uber recently said we’ll make any model work. And they have. They made it work in the UK. They made it work in Spain and across Europe where they’ve been taken the carpet for some of these worker misclassification issues. One of the differences here is that in Europe your benefit status, your pension, that stuff isn’t tied to your employment in most countries, whereas it is here. The companies aren’t forced to make any of those kinds of contributions here, and because they don’t pay any taxes through loopholes they’re off the hook. Drivers still have to pay 1099 taxes, but the companies don’t.

What do you want people to do?

They can sign up on our website to volunteer. We really need to get the word out. Once people understand what’s going on here they support our side. We need small dollar donations and people to get involved in the campaign.  Again, they’re going to try to make this seem like it’s just about drivers, but it’s not, it’s about all of us. If you’re a scheduled employee, it's especially going to affect you. Retail workers, mechanics. Already in California, some of the diesel mechanics outfits, high skilled workers, have turned some of their mechanics into contractors via apps. This is about all workers. People should talk to their friends and family and not let this be a confusing issue. It’s about big tech trying to buy a law, not paying any taxes, and not be on the hook for any of the bad things that come with their business model.