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Fight over rights of Massachusetts gig workers escalates

A proposed ballot question about the status of gig workers in Massachusetts is shaping up to be a long, bitter, and costly fight.
A proposed ballot question about the status of gig workers in Massachusetts is shaping up to be a long, bitter, and costly fight.Carl Juste/Associated Press

A fight over a proposed ballot question about the status of gig-economy workers in Massachusetts escalated Monday, as a labor-backed coalition accused its political opponents, who are backed by technology giants, of violating state law by failing to report campaign expenditures.

The charge is the latest development in the fight between big tech companies including Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash and powerful labor groups in Massachusetts over how drivers and delivery workers should be classified, and the impacts that would have on their wage and health benefits.

On Monday, the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights — which includes the AFL-CIO and ACLU of Massachusetts — submitted a complaint with the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance accusing the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work of lying about expenditures in paperwork it filed last week to set up a committee to advocate for the proposed ballot question.

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The ballot question, which was also filed last week, would allow drivers and delivery workers to continue to be classified as independent contractors instead of employees, while being given some health, time-off, and wage benefits. Opponents of the measure say the proposed benefits are not enough, and that those workers should be treated as employees. (Attorney General Maura Healey filed a lawsuit against Uber and Lyft last year for allegedly misclassifying their workers as independent contractors and denying them legally entitled benefits.)

“The Uber/Big Tech Committee’s aim is to undermine the labor and civil rights protections of Massachusetts workers,” Mike Firestone, director of the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights, said in a statement. “Given the industry’s record of unprecedented corporate spending on misleading advertisements ... we ask that OCPF hold them accountable.”

Firestone told state regulators in a letter that the Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers committee, backed by the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, checked a box on filing paperwork that said “no money had been raised or spent prior to the organization of the ballot question committee.” Paperwork was received by OCPF shortly before noon on Aug. 3.

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The Coalition to Protect Workers Rights said this was “false,” and alleges its opponents spent money on a number of items, including consultants for its ballot-campaign strategy; signs, stickers, and other campaign materials prior to a press conference held on Aug. 3; digital advertisements; and website and social media promotion materials. The group wants state regulators to investigate the matter.

Conor Yunits, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, denied the charge.

“It is unfortunate that others would try to draw attention away from what drivers clearly want by making false claims based on their willful misunderstanding of Massachusetts campaign finance law,” he said in a statement. “We remain focused on one thing: ensuring drivers’ voices are heard by securing new benefits for them while protecting their flexibility.”

Jason Tait, a spokesman for the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance, said his office “doesn’t confirm the existence of a complaint,” and added that OCPF’s legal department reviews all requests sent on a “case-by-case basis.”

The dispute forecasts a long, bitter, and costly fight in Massachusetts, which could become the epicenter of the movement to increase the rights of gig workers. Experts said it could be like a similar ballot measure that passed in California last November and drew in some $220 million in outside spending.

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Pranshu Verma can be reached at pranshu.verma@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @pranshuverma_.