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Racial justice is at the heart of a dispute over gig drivers’ rights

Uber and Lyft driver Charles Clemons Muhammad disinfected his vehicle after driving a customer in Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The first of two stories focused on the battle over gig drivers’ rights.

As labor advocates fight for rights for gig economy drivers, they appear to be lacking support from a key constituency: the drivers themselves — at least according to surveys conducted by the companies they work for.

The drivers’ employment status is the focus of a contentious ballot question proposed for the fall. If it’s approved, drivers would be formally established as independent contractors, locking in their ability to work whenever they want — but forgoing the full slate of protections labor advocates stress they’re entitled to under state law.

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It’s on behalf of all workers, these advocates say, that they’re fighting the question. If Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash are allowed to misclassify drivers, they say, other industries looking to save money and limit liability are bound to follow suit.

But many drivers are more concerned with protecting the freedom they already have.

Polls conducted by the industry, which has poured millions into the fight, found that more than 80 percent of drivers support the status quo, plus new benefits included in the proposal. But labor advocates say the companies are trying to buy drivers’ support and misleading them by needlessly threatening to take away their flexibility. They note that the polls don’t address the more robust employment rights drivers stand to gain by voting against the ballot measure and that more than a dozen drivers testified in support of employment rights at a legislative hearing and hundreds have attended rallies backing full employment status.

The majority of drivers are people of color — nearly 70 percent of those who’ve done gig work nationwide are Latino, Black, or Asian, according to the Pew Research Center — and race is playing heavily into the battle over the rights of the estimated 200,000 active drivers statewide.

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The companies’ push to enshrine drivers as independent contractors would create a second-class category of workers, opponents say, most of them immigrants and people of color.

“They are creating a . . . permanent sub-worker class, carving out a specific group of workers, who are predominantly Black, predominantly brown workers, to forever be independent contractors, and the rights that would normally trickle down to them as employees will be denied to them,” state Senator Lydia Edwards said at a legislative hearing focused on related legislation in March. “It’s modern-day sharecropping.”

But some drivers feel strongly about remaining independent. In February, four Black drivers on an industry-hosted panel invoked slavery and civil rights as they stressed the significance of earning money without having to answer to anyone.

One of the speakers, Charles Clemons Muhammad, a former candidate for state representative and Boston mayor, said he often drives before dawn so he can avoid traffic and spend time with family during the day. That independence, combined with the ability to earn $25 to $35 an hour in his seven-passenger Dodge Caravan, is priceless, he said.

“We were brought over here from Africa, enslaved people, and supposedly we were set free,” Clemons, a DJ and former limo company owner, said in a recent interview. “Living paycheck to paycheck is not freedom. It contributes to the generational trauma that Black and brown people have gone through right here in America.”

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This freedom is at the crux of the ride-hailing and food-delivery companies’ argument. They maintain that if they’re forced to classify drivers, the majority of whom drive part time, as employees, there will be fewer drivers working less flexible hours — and fewer riders due to higher fares needed to cover increased costs. This could cause the number of job opportunities across the four platforms to drop by upwards of 58 percent, a company-funded study found.

But opponents say the companies are seeking a loophole that will save them massive amounts of money, and there’s nothing requiring employees to be put on set schedules. (Attorney General Maura Healey’s pending lawsuit against Uber and Lyft kicked off the battle in 2020.) Last year, the companies poured $17.8 million into the campaign, compared to the labor-backed coalition’s $1 million, amounts that are bound to rise significantly. In a similar battle in California, where the issue is now tied up in court, the industry spent a record-setting $200 million.

Support for the 2020 California ballot measure enshrining drivers as independent contractors was “significantly higher” in neighborhoods with larger Latino and Black populations, according to a report commissioned by a technology trade group.

In Massachusetts, the battle has sown discord in some communities of color. The Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts was initially listed as a founding member of the industry-backed coalition, but last summer the Urban League board chairman noted that the organization was not part of the coalition and had been “lifted up where it may be useful for those in the coalition to put our name there.”

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Ensuring gig drivers have full employment rights is especially crucial for people of color given their history of oppression, according to an amicus brief filed by civil rights groups in support of a challenge to the ballot initiative. “There is a history of systemic racial barriers that prevent workers of color from securing stable and higher paying jobs,” it states, which also plays into why so many have flocked to the gig industry in the first place.

Uber and Lyft driver Ehab Hilali posed with his vehicle outside the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The sense of being their own boss is a big draw for drivers. Yet Ehab Hilali refers to himself as a “fake” entrepreneur. Yes, driving for Uber and Lyft allows the Revere resident to take long trips to visit family in Sudan and pray throughout the day at whatever mosque he’s closest to. But he has to drive 60 to 70 hours a week to make ends meet. The companies set the fares and control the passengers, yet he’s responsible for the costs of driving and gets no overtime or holiday pay.

“I love the flexibility, but not if they treat me bad,” said Hilali, who supports full employment protections for drivers.

The new benefits the companies are offering — including an $18 minimum wage while transporting passengers, paid leave and sick time, accident insurance, and a health insurance stipend — don’t provide the same protections state labor laws do, according to labor advocates and civil rights organizations. The proposed antidiscrimination protections, for instance, cover hiring and termination but not issues on the job, such as claims that Uber’s customer rating system has a disparate impact on Black and brown drivers. Shannon Liss-Riordan, a board member of the labor-backed coalition and a candidate for Massachusetts attorney general, has filed a class-action lawsuit over the rating system.

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Proving to drivers that they’re entitled to employee protections and don’t have to lose their flexibility is “an uphill battle,” acknowledged Noemi Ramos, executive director of the social justice organization New England United for Justice and a member of the Massachusetts Is Not For Sale coalition fighting the ballot measure.

During the pandemic, gig-economy companies increased their support for communities of color — sponsoring events and offering free rides — and now they’re cashing in, Ramos said: “They’re literally using their resources to buy out leaders to come to the table to be a front for their campaign.”

The tech companies’ donations to organizations supporting communities of color that back their cause have come under scrutiny around the country. (In Massachusetts, 2022 contributions aren’t reported until September.) In a congressional briefing last year, the National Employment Law Project pointed to the hypocrisy of the industry’s support for racial justice — including a Lyft ad announcing free rides for underserved communities with a Maya Angelou poem as the soundtrack — while denying drivers rights.

Supporters of the industry-backed coalition include the We Are Better Together Warren Daniel Hairston Project in Roxbury, which works with women affected by homicide and incarceration. The organization benefited from donations from Lyft and Uber early in the pandemic, said founder Ruth Rollins, but her support is based on drivers she knows who are “happy the way that things are going.”

“We’ve got to make systems for us,” she said. “I’m so tired of the government . . . making decisions for Black and brown people.”

Some gig companies have longstanding relationships with these organizations, said Conor Yunits, spokesman for the industry committee Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers, who noted that a number of groups supporting full employment have received funding from unions in that coalition. As for drivers maintaining full flexibility as employees, he said, “basic laws of economic logic prevent it.”

Longtime Boston public relations consultant Colette Phillips wrote in Commonwealth Magazine in January that the gig economy is “a critical piece of the puzzle to help us close the racial wealth gap here in Boston once and for all.” Phillips is cochair of the Massachusetts chapter of the Independent Professionals Association, which lists Lyft as a partner, but said she hasn’t received contributions. Phillips, who was born in Antigua, said starting her career as an independent contractor allowed her to take “control of my own destiny.”

Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Council of the NAACP, which supports full employment rights for drivers, is skeptical that independent contractor work can narrow the wealth gap. “It is very difficult to build wealth if you are not getting the compensation that you should be getting,” he said.

But convincing the drivers to consider the long-term impact is challenging when the companies control their ability to make money now.

Ehab Hilali (right) took part in prayer at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Thaddeus Miles, the community activist behind the cultural appreciation project Black Joy, has talked to dozens of drivers using their earnings to attend college, buy a house, or send money home. Some have told him they make more ferrying passengers and delivering food than at previous low-level corporate jobs. The conversations drove him to back the independent contractor campaign, and Black Joy is the first supporter listed on the campaign’s website. Lyft sponsored several of his events last year, he said.

More than anything, drivers are worried about what might happen if they become employees, Miles said. What if earning opportunities shrink and the playing field becomes less level?

Of the 30 or so drivers he’s talked to, he said, most of them people of color, “I have not met one that’s on the other side.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her @ktkjohnston.