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Uber and Lyft are in an Election Day showdown with California. Massachusetts might be next

The companies are trying to undo a Calif. law requiring them to treat drivers as employees. Massachusetts has already sued them over the issue.

A demonstration against Proposition 22, a ballot measure that would exempt companies like Uber from state labor laws requiring them to treat gig workers as employees, outside Uber's headquarters in San Francisco.
A demonstration against Proposition 22, a ballot measure that would exempt companies like Uber from state labor laws requiring them to treat gig workers as employees, outside Uber's headquarters in San Francisco.JIM WILSON/New York Times

As if there wasn’t already enough to watch out for on election night, Massachusetts voters might want to keep an eye on California for a taste of a massive political battle that might be coming here next.

A ballot initiative in California asks voters whether to exempt gig economy companies such as Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash from a new law that requires them to treat their workers as employees, making them eligible for wages and other benefits. If Proposition 22 passes, workers would remain independent contractors, though with some baseline benefits.

The companies’ practice of treating drivers and delivery workers as independent contractors has been a key component of their business models, and they are projected to spend $200 million on the campaign.

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That may foreshadow developments in Massachusetts, where Attorney General Maura Healey recently sued Uber and Lyft to enforce a state law that she argues does essentially the same as that in California: classifies drivers as employees.

“Anywhere there are efforts to challenge the model that Uber, Lyft, and other platforms have built, those companies have shown that they are going to fight as hard as they can against it,” said David Weil, dean at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. “So with the AG’s suit, yeah, there will be undoubtedly a response.”

In California, Proposition 22 has pitted organized labor against Silicon Valley behemoths in a state renowned for both innovative companies and progressive politics. Residents are being inundated with mail and advertising about the issue, as well as more creative and controversial messages that critics say essentially use drivers as billboards or campaign workers in support of the companies' positions.

Drivers for DoorDash, for example, are delivering food in bags printed with messages urging customers to support keeping workers as contractors, and Instacart drivers have been required to slip similar flyers into grocery bags. Uber drivers, meanwhile, have repeatedly received messages like “Prop 22 is progress” within the app.

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“The messaging through workers, I think, has been really sinister," said Vanessa Bain, a Bay Area Instacart worker who is campaigning against Proposition 22. "In addition to being bombarded in the app every day, we’re receiving directives to literally deliver propaganda against our own self-interest. . . . Our labor is being utilized to convey the message that our labor should be permanently enshrined as a second-class status of worker.”

Yet the companies are putting drivers at the center of their campaign, saying they prefer contracting status. Driver surveys by third parties have shown that most prefer being classified as contractors even if they want better pay or better conditions, likely because they value the flexible schedule.

“For all the negatives about driving for Uber and Lyft, it’s still better than a lot of other jobs,” said Harry Campbell, an industry expert from Los Angeles who runs TheRideShareGuy.com. “Most people would rather do it than work at McDonald’s for the same level of pay. You have some level of independence and more flexibility.”

California’s law says on-demand drivers should not be considered contractors, because their work is so closely tied to the companies and the way their apps function.

Massachusetts has a similar law that dates to 2004. Healey announced this summer that she would enforce it on Uber and Lyft, the only companies named in her suit; delivery companies such as DoorDash and Instacart are not named. The attorney general’s office said it is currently preparing legal briefs in the case.

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The legal issues in the two states are nearly identical, but the political tactics the companies take may differ, Weil noted. In Massachusetts, Uber and Lyft will first contest Healey in court. They could also try to lobby the Legislature to carve out a new contractor role specific to gig-economy jobs.

But if those efforts fail, they could turn to the Massachusetts ballot initiative process to re-create the kind of aggressive, expensive campaign that has hit California.

Uber and Lyft seemingly hope they won’t ultimately have to go that route.

“We are confident that, unlike California, Massachusetts leaders will work together to ensure that drivers are able to gain new protections and benefits while keeping the flexibility they overwhelmingly want," Uber spokeswoman Alix Anfang said in a statement.

The companies' approach in Massachusetts and other jurisdictions may also depend on how things go in California this month, Campbell said.

“A win for Proposition 22 would give Uber and Lyft more confidence,” he said. “If they lose Prop 22, they’re going to have to take a step back and decide how they want to approach it in every other state.”


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.