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Jacobin - February 19, 2022

Gig companies have always maintained that people use their apps for the flexibility, not the wages, and that this flexibility is not available to full employees. However, the kind of flexibility in work that Uber and Lyft are trying to sell is not a guarantee for their drivers, nor is it definitionally exclusive with traditional employment. It’s a false choice, meant to obscure the real reason why this issue is so important to rideshare and app delivery companies: a precarious workforce of individual independent contractors competing for jobs and legally barred from collectively bargaining for better pay and working conditions means cheap labor.

In November 2020, the people of California voted to pass Proposition 22, which classified workers for rideshare and delivery companies as independent contractors instead of employees. The ballot measure was a direct response to the California State Legislature passing Assembly Bill 5, which had classified app-based workers as employees, with all the legal protections that designation entails, just over a year earlier.

Companies like Lyft and Uber claimed benevolence. They argued that AB5 would force them to raise prices and cut their number of workers, if not withdraw completely from the state. They wanted to help their workers so much that they spent more than $200 million convincing voters that basic labor rights would harm drivers.

Labor experts, activists, and organizers collectively warned the public that Prop 22 would set a dangerous precedent for pay and working conditions, but their warnings were drowned out by the barrage of corporate propaganda. Big Tech even elicited support from some racial justice organizations, which proceeded to make the case that precarious gig work provides jobs to people of color and is therefore an anti-racist endeavor.

In the end, gig companies got the victory they paid for. And they won it by confusing voters: leading up to the election, polling showed that 40 percent of people who expressed concern about workers’ interests voted yes on Prop 22. The ballot measure was later ruled unconstitutional by a judge, but its success changed the game for gig companies, providing a blueprint for how to cut down on labor costs and maximize profits at workers’ expense.

One of the most progressive states in the country had just voted to gut worker protections. It was time for Uber, Lyft, and their contemporaries to take the show on the road.

The Massachusetts State House is currently considering Bill H.1234, which is essentially a Prop 22 clone. Now that the gig companies have shown their hand, labor advocates are using the lessons learned in California to fight for a different outcome.

Flexibility Is a Four-Letter

WordProp 22 was framed as a compromise between providing benefits and protections to drivers and maintaining “flexibility.” Companies would provide training, guarantee a minimum wage, and make available a health care stipend to qualifying drivers.

Immediately after Prop 22 passed, the gig-economy companies announced price hikes to cover the cost of the legislation they claimed would keep prices the same. The promised minimum wage of $15.60 an hour proved to be just another piece of Silicon Valley vaporware: taking into account the loopholes, onerous qualifying metrics, and expenses for drivers, the UC Berkeley Labor Center calculated that the true average minimum wage for drivers would amount to $5.64 an hour. Accessing health care similarly remained out of reach to most rideshare and delivery app workers. ...
Read full report at Jacobin