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Union-backed group says proposed gig economy ballot question is not constitutional

In this file photo, the logo for Uber appears above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.Richard Drew/Associated Press

The labor-backed group working to thwart a proposed ballot question about gig workers says the initiative is unconstitutional and is asking Attorney General Maura Healey to nix it.

The Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights announced Tuesday that it sent a memo to the attorney general asking her office not to certify a petition that would put the question of whether app-based workers should continue to be treated as contractors on track to go before voters in 2022.

The challenge to the proposed question’s constitutionality is the latest escalation in the battle over the classification of gig workers, further signaling that Massachusetts may be in for a drawn out and expensive battle if the issue goes before voters next year.


“These companies have grossly overreached,” said Mike Firestone, the director of the group opposing the proposed ballot question and a former top aide to Healey.

The memo to the attorney general, signed by lawyer Thomas O. Bean, argues that language in the proposed ballot question that opponents say seeks to shield tech companies from liability in the event of accidents, injuries, and assaults falls outside the scope of the question’s stated topic, rendering it unconstitutional.

“They’ve buried in the fine print of this ballot measure a liability shield that would give them unprecedented protection in the event that there’s an injury, an accident, or an assault,” Firestone said in an interview after a Beacon Hill news conference Tuesday. “In Massachusetts, there are strict rules for what can go on the ballot, and you’re not allowed to, buried in the fine print, change laws related to multiple different things.”

The memo also says that the law is unconstitutional by seeking to classify gig workers as independent contractors, not employees, “under multiple and disparate areas of employment law in one fell swoop.”


More broadly, the union-backed group says that gig workers should already be treated as employees under state law.

A spokesman for the industry-backed Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, which introduced the ballot question and has emphasized the new benefits it would grant gig workers, said in a statement that the labor-backed group’s effort is a distraction.

“This ballot question raises the standard for the industry by mandating public safety training for drivers, and it adds occupational accident insurance to the $1 million commercial auto liability insurance that Massachusetts law already requires for app-based rideshare companies,” the spokesman, Conor Yunits, said.

“Given that drivers support the ballot question by a margin of seven to one, it’s no surprise that opponents of driver independence want to distract from this fact by making outlandish claims that do not hold up to scrutiny, all to block voters from having their say.”

The industry group includes tech giants such as Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash.

A spokeswoman for Healey declined to comment. Her office is expected to release its decisions regarding the certification of all 28 proposed ballot laws on Sept. 1.

If that happens, ballot committees would begin the arduous process of collecting tens of thousands of signatures.

Healey is separately suing Uber and Lyft, arguing that they violate state law by misclassifying drivers as independent contractors, not employees. The state’s lawsuit, though, is distinct from the ballot initiative petition process.

Though it has not even been green-lit to go on the ballot, the gig worker debate has already proven contentious — as it was in California, where a similar question became the most expensive ballot measure in state history. Less than two weeks after paperwork was filed to place the question in the hands of voters, the coalitions on dueling sides of the issue are both saying the other one has violated state campaign finance law.


The group in favor of keeping gig workers as contractors filed a complaint with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance Tuesday, asking the agency to investigate their opponents. In a letter to the office, the Coalition for Independent Work alleged that Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights raised and spent money before filing its initial paperwork with elections officials, violating state law.

The investigation request follows a separate campaign finance complaint filed by the union-backed coalition, which last week accused their opponents of failing to report expenditures.

In a statement, Firestone said the Tuesday complaint was “retaliation.”

“We are a coalition supported by working people and anyone can see our full disclosures online. By contrast, the Uber/Big Tech lobbying group has disclosed zero ($0) in campaign contributions or spending in what is widely expected to be the most expensive ballot campaign in state history, continuing a pattern of blatant disregard for state laws,” he said.