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UBER’S NEW GIG WORKER BILL IS THE SAME OLD TRICK: DEREGULATION AND SPECIAL TREATMENT FOR EXPLOITIVE COMPANIES

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In New York State, legislators are reportedly considering a bill, brokered by gig companies including Uber and Lyft, that would remove app-based drivers and food delivery workers from virtually all labor and discrimination protections. Though its supporters are selling this “Right to Bargain Act” as a novel form of bargaining in the app-based economy, there’s nothing new about this anti-worker bill. It’s straight out of a well-worn playbook for companies like Uber, Lyft, Handy, DoorDash, and Instacart: Subvert labor laws, undo industry regulations, and duck accountability to workers and the public.

New York’s “Right to Bargain Act”

As drafted, the bill would permit certain unions, if certified by 10% of “active network workers” in each industry, to exclusively represent ride-hail drivers and delivery workers at an “industry council,” where they would negotiate with the companies over a set of bargaining topics.

After reaching an agreement, and if a majority of workers who vote approve the agreement, a state board would accept (or modify) the recommendations, and then implement and supervise the agreed-upon terms across the industry.

While “sectoral bargaining” can deliver improved labor standards in the right context, there are serious flaws built into the New York bill: It precludes some member-led groups that have organized app-based workers from representing workers in bargaining; there is no mechanism for rank-and-file workers to democratically participate throughout the bargaining process; and strikes and work stoppages are explicitly banned. Each of these provisions seriously calls into question whether workers could ever build and bring power to bear on the bosses sitting across the bargaining table.

Even more troubling about the legislation is that, in exchange for this bargaining system—compromised as it is—drivers and delivery workers would be unable to access any rights or protections under any New York state or local law. Gig companies would be free of any obligations to their workers under state labor law, disability law, paid family leave, paid sick leave, and city and state human rights law.

The companies would evade accountability even if a court finds their workers to be their employees, as they already have under certain laws in New York and around the country. That means a workforce of mostly underpaid immigrant workers and people of color in New York would be permanently excluded from foundational labor standards.

Worse yet, cities would lose the ability to legislate improved working conditions in the app-based economy. Even existing protections, like New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) rules that create a pay floor for ride-hail drivers, would be dismantled. Under the proposed New York bill, Uber and Lyft drivers could start anew and bargain up—but only from half their current pay.

A Longer History of Anti-Worker Deregulation

Many have compared the New York bill to Proposition 22, a 2020 California ballot initiative that removed nearly all employment protections from app-based transportation and food delivery workers in exchange for newly-created “benefits” that already have proven illusory and mostly inaccessible to workers. The similarities, obviously, are there. But the roots of the New York bill go back further.

Ever since heralding the app-based economy in 2008, Uber and its peer companies have sought to preserve their business model—essentially, an illegal practice of misclassifying their workers as independent contractors to save as much as 30% of labor costs—by lobbying aggressively to rewrite the law to their satisfaction. More than anything else, the companies want to preserve the legal fiction that their workers are not employees—in order to profit off of their exploitation.

In 2014, Uber launched a national effort to pass state laws locking ride-hail drivers into independent contractor status, denying them their employee rights. The bills, which passed in more than forty states between 2014 and 2017, ushered in a wave of ever-worse carveout policies.

Newer state bills, this time pushed by the domestic work company Handy, created labor law exclusions for “marketplace contractors” across platforms such as Uber, Handy, and Postmates. In Texas, gig company lobbyists skipped the legislature entirely and targeted the state’s unemployment board in 2019 to implement a rule that disqualifies from unemployment insurance (UI) payments any worker dispatched through an app.

And yet, workers pushed back.

In recent years, ride-hail drivers, delivery workers, and other misclassified workers organized to fight for better working conditions. More than that, they started winning. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance led organizing and protests that eventually led to the creation of minimum pay for Uber and Lyft drivers in New York City in 2018. The next year, app-based workers mobilized support to push California legislators to enact Assembly Bill 5, a law that presumes that most people in the state are entitled to employment protections.

The Gig Companies’ “Third Way”

In the face of successful worker organizing, losses in court, and increasing public support of workers over the past couple years, the app companies pivoted: If they were to hold onto an exploitive business model, something had to give. Instead of outright denying unjust working conditions, they’d have to co-opt the language of workers’ rights and concede some limited benefits on the margins—while preserving the ultimate goal to exempt themselves from nearly all employer rules (see Prop 22 as Exhibit A).

…the app companies pivoted: If they were to hold onto an exploitive business model, something had to give. Instead of outright denying unjust working conditions, they’d have to co-opt the language of workers’ rights and concede some limited benefits on the margins…

At the same time, in the summer of 2020, the country erupted over the murder of George Floyd. Rather than paying a living wage or providing paid leave to a disproportionately poor, racialized workforce, the gig companies commodified the movement for Black lives. Uber, in particular, put its resources into this strategy—“If you tolerate racism, delete Uber”—to obscure the economic and racial subjugation of its drivers.

After winning their Prop 22 campaign in California, the companies had found their new approach: A “third way” between overt corporate extraction and full employment rights for their workers—veiled in the language of racial justice. Uber soon began pressuring the federal government to create a new system of regulation: A “third worker category” that would grant some limited benefits—such as a portable benefits system—while forever locking workers out of employment protections.

New York’s “Right to Bargain Act” is just that: A “third way” proposal—this time dressed up in a veneer of “collective bargaining”—that would excuse app-based companies from any accountability to their workers or to public social insurance funds.

And if this bill passes in New York, expect the companies to ramp up their efforts to derail the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act in the U.S. Congress and lobby for a “third worker category,” coordinated by the corporate mega-alliance the Coalition for Workforce Innovation.

Deregulation at that national scale doesn’t only concern workers in the so-called “gig economy,” it means degraded working standards and conditions for all of us, creating a legal avenue for any company to “gig” out its workers.

Deregulation at that national scale doesn’t only concern workers in the so-called “gig economy,” it means degraded working standards and conditions for all of us, creating a legal avenue for any company to “gig” out its workers.

Behind their “flexibility” and “new benefits” sleight-of-hand, the gig companies’ “third way” policies really are the same old trick: Corporate redistribution of billions of dollars from the poor and working class to the ruling elite.

Conclusion

After the companies’ long history lobbying against workers’ rights, legislators in New York and across the country should reject outright any proposal that has had input from companies like Uber, Lyft, or DoorDash. It is, instead, the workers on the streets—organizing for equal rights, better pay, and just labor standards—who must lead the way forward.

This blog originally appeared at Bloomberg Law on June 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: As a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, Brian focuses on combating exploitative work structures that subordinate workers in low-wage industries. Through litigation and policy campaigns, he supports workers’ efforts to build power at their workplace.


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