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SJC rejects gig worker ballot question in victory for unions

Anthony Martinez, 5, (left) and his brother Felipe, 7, sat in the back of their father, Felipe’s car during a protest with Uber and Lyft drivers. The state’s highest court on Tuesday rejected a controversial ballot question that could have reshaped how gig economy workers are classified in Massachusetts.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The state’s highest court on Tuesday rejected a controversial ballot question that could have reshaped how gig economy workers are classified in Massachusetts, upending a fierce, multimillion-dollar battle between a coterie of high-powered tech firms and labor advocates over working conditions for some 200,000 people in the state.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the tech industry-backed initiative was unconstitutional because it buried “vaguely worded provisions” deep into a proposal that, in effect, melded two unrelated subjects under a single question.

The decision was hailed by the initiative’s critics as a victory for worker rights, and had the potential to carry wider ramifications for an industry buffeted by questions about its treatment of workers.

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The proposal would have allowed Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash, and similar companies to continue classifying their drivers and deliverers as independent contractors rather than employees, while also granting the workers some new benefits. The committee was pushing two slightly different versions of the ballot initiatives, though proponents signaled that, should they have survived the legal challenge, they would have moved forward with only one.

But the court sided with opponents, who had argued that the petitions contain “multiple subjects that are not related,” a violation of the state Constitution that requires the subjects of such ballot initiatives to be related or “mutually dependent.”

The ballot questions included at least two “substantively distinct” policy decisions, the court ruled, one of which was buried in “obscure language” that could have had far-reaching consequences beyond simply defining the relationship between companies and drivers.

By saying all workers were “not an employee or agent,” the proposed language had the potential of shielding companies like Uber and Lyft from liability in lawsuits brought by those injured in a traffic accident or even sexually assaulted by a driver, the court found.

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That raised the potential of not only confusing voters, but depriving them of a “meaningful choice.”

“Voters may support one and not the other,” Justice Scott L. Kafker wrote for the court, adding that while some voters may approve of providing better wages and benefits, they also may strongly oppose “limiting their own rights to recover money damages from network companies if the tortious actions of drivers . . . cause them injury.”

Others, Kafker wrote, may not “even be aware they are making the second, unrelated policy decision.”

When even lawyers and judges cannot be sure of the meaning of the contested provisions, it would be unfaithful to [the Constitution] to allow the petition to be presented to the voters,” he wrote.

App-based delivery and rideshare companies have poured millions of dollars into their campaign in recent months, aiming to build on a win on a similar measure in California two years ago. Lyft alone contributed more than $14 million to the effort, including a single $13 million donation in December that was the largest one-time political contribution in Massachusetts history.

If implemented, the legislation would have established 200,000 Massachusetts drivers as independent contractors with unlimited flexibility on scheduling, but limited benefits.

But the ballot proposition in California has also been embroiled in court disputes, with a judge there declaring it unconstitutional in August. In Massachusetts, labor advocates first filed the complaint against the ballot initiative in January, aiming to knock it off this fall’s ballot.

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The proposed question had already sparked fierce debate among politicians, labor advocates, and the drivers themselves. Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, which supports full employment rights for drivers, said Tuesday’s court decision was a “huge step in the right direction.”

“There were societal issues by the gig industry failing to accept the responsibilities for the workers, like the full cost of health care . . . the full cost of employment compensation,” he said. “It transferred the actual cost to society.”

Massachusetts Is Not For Sale, a labor coalition that opposed the ballot initiative, said the ruling is a triumph for workers positioning themselves against the tech industry. The ballot initiative, the group said, was “an attempt to reduce the rights of drivers.”

“In order for these companies to do the right thing, they need to be forced,” said Mike Firestone, the coalition’s former director who now works as chief of policy for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. The city, too, had filed an amicus brief supporting the challenge in court.

“This is not just an issue of whether they can be held accountable to Massachusetts law. This is a question for the whole country,” Firestone said. “Where do we draw the line for the whole industry? What rights do we want to uphold in the face of their money and their power?”

Flexibility & Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers, an industry-funded group pushing for the ballot question, criticized opponents for bringing the court challenge, arguing Tuesday that they sought to “subvert the democratic process and deny voters the right to make their own decision.”

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“The future of these services and the drivers who earn on them is now in jeopardy,” the group said in a statement.

Prossie Namanda, an Instacart driver who lives in Waltham, supported the ballot question because the companies told drivers that formalizing their independent contractor status would protect their flexibility, even though, as labor advocates note, there’s nothing in state employment law preventing the companies from allowing drivers to work whenever they want.

Namanda is relieved her flexibility will remain intact, at least for now, and is hopeful that the companies will voluntarily give drivers the limited benefits that were included in the proposed ballot measure.

Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office had certified the ballot questions for the ballot, said in a statement that she respects the court’s decision and will “continue our efforts to force Uber and Lyft to comply with Massachusetts employment law and to ensure rideshare drivers have the same rights as all other employees.”

Healey, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, is also separately suing Uber and Lyft over the same issue, arguing the tech giants are breaking the law by failing to classify drivers as employees.

Tuesday’s ruling marked the second time in four years the SJC has struck down a high-profile initiative from the ballot along similar legal grounds.

In 2018, it rejected a question that would have raised the state income tax on the highest earners. The decision prompted supporters to pursue the measure, known as the millionaires tax, through the Legislature, where lawmakers overwhelmingly voted last year to advance it to this year’s ballot and give voters the chance to weigh in.

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Coincidentally, the court decision on gig workers could indirectly help that effort. Many of the labor coalitions backing the so-called Fair Share Amendment were also simultaneously opposing the gig workers initiative, threatening to split their money, resources, and time. Tuesday’s ruling ensures they have one fewer campaign on their plate.

“We knew we would be torn spending some time on defense,” Chrissy Lynch, the chief of staff for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said of opposing the gig workers question. “This is good for Fair Share.”

There is still legislation pending on Beacon Hill that, too, would preserve drivers’ status as independent contractors, but it’s unclear if lawmakers will now pursue it.

Representative Carlos González, a Springfield Democrat who is cosponsoring the bill, said he sent proponents and critics of the ballot question a new draft of a proposal three months ago, which included giving drivers collective bargaining rights. But, he said, “the only thing I wasn’t able to do was bring them to the same room.”

“I hope this provides a window of opportunity for both sides to sit down and rethink their positions and what’s in the best interest of the drivers,” said González, adding that it would be “very challenging” for lawmakers to agree on a bill before their legislative session ends on July 31.

Henry De Groot, an Uber driver and executive director of Massachusetts Drivers United, the group behind a proposed driver bill of rights, said now is the time for a “counterattack” that capitalizes on the drivers, labor advocates, and community groups that have come together to fight for drivers’ rights in recent years.

“What we want to do is capture that energy,” he said, “and rather than playing defense go on the offensive right away.”

Katie Johnston and Diti Kohli of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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