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Labor coalition asks Mass. high court to block gig worker ballot questions

The ballot initiatives would allow Uber and Lyft to continue classifying their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/file

The opponents of two petitions that could reshape how gig economy workers are classified in Massachusetts are asking the state’s highest court to block them from reaching the November ballot, arguing that they are unconstitutional.

Advocates working with a labor-backed coalition fighting the proposed ballot questions filed a complaint with the Supreme Judicial Court charging that the attorney general’s office “wrongfully” certified the petitions and that the secretary of state’s office should not be allowed to put them before voters.

The tech industry-backed ballot initiatives would allow Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash to continue classifying their drivers and deliverers as independent contractors rather than employees, while also granting the workers some new benefits.


The opponents argue that the petitions contain “multiple subjects that are not related” — a violation of the Massachusetts Constitution that requires such ballot initiatives to have subjects that are related or “mutually dependent.”

It’s a legal argument business groups used in 2018 when the SJC rejected a citizen-submitted ballot petition implementing the so-called millionaires tax, a surtax on Massachusetts’ highest earners. (The question is resurfacing on this year’s ballot after supporters took a different legal path, submitting it as a proposal from state lawmakers, not citizens.)

The complaint filed Tuesday targeting the gig economy petitions lists Attorney General Maura Healey and Secretary of State William F. Galvin as defendants.

“Uber and Lyft are attempting to shield themselves from protections for both consumers and workers, as well as exempting themselves from numerous tax requirements,” Nicole Decter, general counsel for the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights — the committee formed by labor advocates to fight the ballot questions — said in a statement released by the group.

“Not only do these proposals eliminate otherwise mandated rights, but they also blatantly violate our Constitution,” Decter said.

The fight over the petitions mirrors one that played out in 2020 in California, where a $201 million measure, known as Proposition 22, was the most expensive in the state’s history, pitting labor officials on one side and ride-hailing and delivery companies on the other.


That state’s voters overwhelmingly sided with the tech companies, allowing them to continue treating drivers as independent contractors. But the ballot proposition has also been embroiled in court disputes, with a California judge declaring it unconstitutional in August.

Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch wrote that Proposition 22 violates a constitutional provision that requires laws and initiatives to be limited to a single subject. He said it “obliquely and indirectly” prevents those who opt to work as independent contractors from bargaining collectively.

Such a prohibition on legislation authorizing collective bargaining by app-based drivers does not “provide minimum workplace safety and pay standards for those workers,” he wrote. “It appears only to protect the economic interests of the network companies in having a divided, ununionized workforce, which is not a stated goal of the legislation.”

Supporters have appealed the ruling.

The court challenge in Massachusetts is expected to roil an already heated fight. Supporters of the gig economy petitions say the proposal would give workers the flexibility they desire, while also granting them benefits including health care stipends and paid sick time. Labor advocates argue that gig workers already should be guaranteed the rights and benefits of full employees under state law, and that in practice, few workers actually would receive the new benefits promised in the proposal.


The tech-backed committee behind the petitions reported raising more than $17 million last year, including a $13 million contribution from Lyft that ranks as the single largest political donation in Massachusetts history.

The group, known as the Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers committee, has already spent millions on pollsters, signature gatherers and well-known consultants, including the husband of Representative Ayanna Pressley, in its push toward the ballot.

“We are confident the questions will survive this desperate attempt to keep them off the ballot,” Conor Yunits, a spokesman for the group, said of the court challenge. “Voters have the right to stand with drivers and protect their independence.”

The labor-backed coalition fighting the petitions reported raising $464,500 within two months earlier last year, but it has yet to file a report detailing its contributions and spending for the entire year. The deadline is Thursday.

The court challenge also argues that Healey, whose office summarizes certified ballot questions for voters, created incomplete and “misleading” summaries of the petitions. That’s because Healey “failed to state that the Petitions would reverse the presumption that drivers are employees of Network Companies,” according to the complaint.

“In so doing, she failed to describe the compensation and benefits drivers would receive as employees under existing law,” the complaint reads.

Healey is a politically complicated target of opponents. While her office is responsible for certifying proposed ballot questions, she is also separately suing Uber and Lyft over the same issue, arguing that the tech giants are currently breaking the law by failing to classify drivers as employees.


Indeed, in the same press release the coalition released Wednesday announcing the complaint against her and Galvin, advocates noted it has “expressed strong support” for the lawsuit Healey brought. Healey, a South End Democrat, is also expected to announce as early as tomorrow that she is running for governor, the Globe reported Thursday. The open seat could appear on the same ballot this fall as the gig economy initiative.

A spokeswoman for Healey declined to comment on the complaint.

Legally, the complaint argues the petitions include multiple subjects, including attempts to both “define and regulate” the relationship between rideshare companies and app-based drivers but also to regulate the companies’ relationship with passengers injured in an Uber or Lyft ride.

The initiatives, it argues, are also trying to protect companies from liability by “sweetening the pot” for drivers with certain benefits. They’re also attempting to regulate what the complaint calls “disparate areas of employment law” that aren’t related to each other, such as laws relating to wages and hours, unemployment compensation, or workers’ compensation.

The two petitions that Healey certified feature slightly different versions of the same question. Proponents are expected to move forward with only one question, the secretary of state’s office said last month after measures had gathered more than the 80,239 signatures required to move toward the ballot.


The ballot petitions now sit with the Legislature. If Massachusetts lawmakers do not take any action on them, proponents must file an additional 13,374 signatures by July 6 to secure a place on the ballot.

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.