Ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft scored a major victory with the passage of Proposition 22 in California, and worker rights advocates fear they will push similar measures in other states. Prop 22 will exempt companies in the so-called gig economy from having to classify their workers in the state as employees rather than as independent contractors. Uber, Lyft and other companies that rely on gig workers spent more than $200 million to promote Prop 22, and a survey of California voters who voted “yes” on the measure showed 40% thought they were supporting gig workers’ ability to earn a living wage, even though critics say the measure will do the opposite. “The law will now exempt drivers like me from basic wage and labor protections afforded to most workers in the state in the middle of a pandemic and recession,” says Cherri Murphy, a Lyft driver and organizer with Gig Workers Rising. We also speak with Veena Dubal, professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, who says measures like Prop 22 pose “extreme danger” to American workers. “If this spreads past California, we are headed for an even worse situation of inequality than we are already experiencing,” Dubal says.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we look now at how ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft scored a major victory against worker rights in the election with the passage of Prop 22 in California, and how they’re now pushing similar measures in other states.
During the campaign to pass Prop 22, Uber and Lyft spent a record-setting $205 million to bombard voters and their own workers with misleading advertisements and messages that promised minimum wage, healthcare and protections that are typically consistent with a full-time job. One ad appropriated the words of the legendary poet Maya Angelou as it showed images of Black and Brown workers getting ready for their morning drive to pick up passengers.
MAYA ANGELOU: Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
AMY GOODMAN: One survey of California voters who voted yes to Prop 22 showed 40% thought they were supporting gig workers’ ability to earn a living wage. But the measure will actually stop gig workers from being eligible for job protections and prevent them from accessing the benefits of being on the payroll, such as contributions for Social Security and Medicare benefits and overtime pay. Prop 22 overrides AB 5, a major labor law passed in California in 2019 that extended employee classification to gig workers. Now critics worry the proposition could have dire implications for labor rights across the country.
The proposition was also backed by DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates, which Uber now owns. It was also pushed by Tony West, the brother-in-law of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who is Uber’s chief legal officer.
For more, we go to California. In Oakland, we’re joined by Cherri Murphy. She is a Lyft driver and organizer with Gig Workers Rising. She wrote a piece for The Guardian headlined “Uber bought itself a law. Here’s why that’s dangerous for struggling drivers like me.”
And Veena Dubal joins us, professor of law at University of California, Hastings, who writes extensively about the gig economy and says, during the campaign for Prop 22, she was one of many critics subjected to online and offline attacks, including a massive Public Records Act request for her emails and text messages from one of the campaign’s PR firms.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Cherri Murphy, let’s begin with you. You’re a Lyft driver for a few years. This was billed as a way to bring financial security to people like you. Is it financial security that you’re in fact getting, or do you feel that this is subverting your ability to make a living and be secure?
CHERRI MURPHY: Amy, thanks for having me.
As you mentioned, along with Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash and Postmates, these app companies spent more than over $200 million, some say $220 million — the most spent in any ballot campaign in U.S. history — to purchase Proposition 22 in California. And with its passage, the law will now exempt drivers like me from basic wage and labor protections afforded to most workers in the state, in the middle of a pandemic and recession. And because of that, we will be afforded no paid sick leave, no family leave, no workmen’s compensation, no unemployment insurance, no overtime, and no protective equipment in the middle of a pandemic. Most of the drivers are communities of color. Fifty-six percent of them are immigrants. No protection from discrimination based on immigration status or historical traits to race.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Cherri Murphy, what’s your response to what these companies are constantly promoting in their advertisements, that these kinds of jobs offer a freedom and flexibility that normal workers would not be able to have, a way to realize your economic dreams?
CHERRI MURPHY: So, these billion-dollar corporations can afford to provide workers flexibility and benefits, like I mentioned, unemployment insurance. And there is nothing in the law that is taking away the drivers’ flexibility. But during the campaign, it was a major threat from these companies, because they know that it scared drivers. We had a UC Berkeley economics professor, in fact, say that these companies would still need the type of flexibility considering. And there’s nothing flexible about cutting wages and healthcares for workers or weakening safety regulations or chipping away workers’ rights, or even putting drivers and riders at risk. These companies fought hard and ruthlessly to get here.
In your show, you mentioned that in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, these companies included various platitudes about their commitment to racial justice in the Black community. And many of us know that their lip service was in support of Black lives, and complete of hollow words by well-paid public relations teams and absent of any real change. And we rejected these attempts, because we know that racial justice is economic justice, and we saw this as an attempt to dodge their responsibility for the exploitation of Black and Brown workers every day. Many of us know that this fight is not only about police killings and terror, but it’s about every institution that exploits and abuses Black and Brown people. And when it comes to Lyft and Uber and their corporate cronies, they’re experts.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to, if possible, bring in Veena Dubal, the professor of law at the University of California, Hastings. I wanted to ask you about the role of these corporate Democrats with some of these key gig economy firms. I think of, for instance, David Plouffe, who used to be one of Obama’s closest friends and aides, who first went to work for Uber, then eventually left Uber and went to work for Mark Zuckerberg’s charity. You also had Anthony Foxx, the former Obama secretary of transportation, who became a top official at Lyft. There’s Matthew Wing, who was a spokesman for Andrew Cuomo, who also became the spokesman for Uber. All of these corporate Democrats’ top aides going to work for these firms in the gig economy.
VEENA DUBAL: Yeah. It’s striking that the law that is probably the most dangerous law to workers that we’ve seen since Taft-Hartley, that it was architected and heralded by corporate Democrats and not Republicans. It is a far-right law. The way that it was passed was anti-democratic. It is extremely, extremely dangerous to the future, poses an extreme danger to American workers. And yet, you are exactly right that the people behind it, including Tony West, who is now being potentially considered for attorney general, were corporate Democrats.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk, Professor Dubal, about what you think was most misleading about this campaign? I mean, 58% of Californians voted — or, of those who voted, voted for it.
VEENA DUBAL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about it being used as a model. You see this as one of the most serious attacks on labor in all of your studying of labor law in the United States.
VEENA DUBAL: Yes. So, the reason that it is such a huge attack on labor is because it dismantles — it’s this corporate fantasy that they’ve been trying to accomplish for the past century. It dismantles all of the New Deal protections. Workers no longer have access to a minimum wage, to overtime compensation, to unemployment insurance, to workers’ compensation, to all the things that we know — you know, the very limited protections that working people have in the United States. Those are all completely gone. And these are the workers who most need those basic protections, as Cherri articulated. These are low-wage, mostly people of color workers.
During the campaign — and I should say, these $200 million, they were spent on a variety of things, but they were mostly spent on bombarding the California electorate, or the voters of California, with misleading advertising on YouTube, on Facebook, on Instagram, on — you know, even when you were searching on Google, sort of the ad that popped up — emails, in-app messages. I mean, just constant bombarding, bombardment of messaging, that was just inaccurate. In California, it is legal to be misleading in political advertisements.
And probably the most misleading thing that I saw was that the advertisements alleged that workers would be making a minimum wage. And that is the most important thing for your viewers and listeners to understand about Prop 22 and the danger that it poses, is that it takes away access to a time-based minimum wage, so people are no longer getting paid for all the time that they work. They are only getting paid when they have an assignment. So, all of the risks and liabilities traditionally associated with doing business are now on the workers themselves. Drivers like Cherri cannot, therefore, predict how much they will make in a given day or a given week. It is at the whim and whimsy of both demand and the corporations themselves.
And if that spreads to other sectors, we are going to face increasing inequality, increasing precarity, the growth of the contingent workforce. It is going to make it extremely, extremely difficult for working families to survive, to put food on the table. And, you know, as we all are anticipating, we may be facing a big economic depression in the coming years. And this is the absolute worst time for workers to not have access to just that very basic protection that we’ve come to understand is a limited right that Americans have, that’s just a time-based minimum wage.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Cherri, I’m wondering if you could talk about the experiences, especially during the pandemic, of Uber or Lyft drivers and others in the gig economy?
CHERRI MURPHY: Yeah, certainly. So, what I know is, is that my views of Lyft were shifting prior to COVID-19. The past three years, Lyft has been my primary source of income, and I’ve driven over 12,000 rides. And over the years, as the numbers of bonuses decreased while the demands to complete rides increased, making major cuts to take-home pay, it was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain a living. And signs of a good deal, with that so-called flexibility, became painfully clear. And my views of Lyft were shifting.
And so, COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have pulled back the curtain and showed Americans diseases for which there still is no vaccine. And I know about COVID-19. While we were seeking solace in our troubled land of Lyft and Uber, were nowhere to be found. Drivers attempted to secure masks, hand sanitizers, sick time off, unemployment insurance and other protective measures, and we found obstacles and lack of transparency processes. I couldn’t even find a place that was open at the time. So I know what it’s like to work for Lyft and Uber and these corporate greed app-based companies.
I’ve worked long hours with no guaranteed wage, no work breaks, no restroom facilities, no overtime, no protective equipment, no paid sick time. I know what it’s like to always have the looming threat of an accident with no coverage, or a deactivation based on retaliation or discrimination, with no protections, no remedies in place. I know what it’s like to be in the middle of a pandemic now, when you have your employer who’s denying you unemployment insurance in the middle of a pandemic. I know what it’s like to have your company threaten to shut down because they can’t get what they want. There are stories of drivers who have lost their lives in an effort to pay their bills. There are stories of drivers who were symptomatic of the virus but yet continued to drive for fear of financial ruin.
AMY GOODMAN: Cherri , Prop 22 eliminates required sexual harassment training and Uber and Lyft to investigate customers’ and drivers’ harassment claims?
CHERRI MURPHY: Yes, it does. It eliminates required sexual harassment training, as well as the obligations on Uber and Lyft to investigate both customers’ and drivers’ harassment claims. And a lot of us know that there are at least 6,000 claims for 2017 and 2018 that went untouched. What’s even more disturbing, as Veena mentioned, is that these companies are promising to roll out this model nationwide, foretelling a grim future for gig workers across this country.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Veena Dubal, about this effort to roll it out nationwide, there has been discussion of trying to get a federal law passed. Could you talk about that?
VEENA DUBAL: Yeah, they have announced that they are ready and willing to take this really dangerous law to the federal level. They are already trying to replicate it in a number of states, including New York state. They have — rolling out advertisements, similarly misleading advertisements to the campaign in California. And, you know, over the past — since Lyft hit the streets of San Francisco in 2012, 2013, over the past seven years, almost a decade, they have — at the company’s behest, a number of bills have been written, and even introduced, to do exactly what Prop 22 does, which is create a substandard category of worker under the U.S. law.
And I think they think they have a blueprint now. They got this passed in California. And as we all know, what happens in California tends to spread all over the country and even the world. And so, I think that we are going to see a flood of misinformation in states and on the federal level about what gig work is, the kinds of benefits supposedly that it offers. We’re going to hear a lot of dishonest representations of what freedom and flexibility it offers and how people need this work.
And it’s so important for people to understand, for voters, for Americans to understand, that this law takes away all of the hard-won protections that workers have. We are at a point in technology and history where we should be expanding workers’ rights. And instead, this law has completely stripped them away.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Veena Dubal, in just 30 seconds, if you can explain what happened to you as you campaigned against Prop 22, the mass investigation that was done of you?
VEENA DUBAL: Yeah. I had extreme forms of harassment from the PR campaign, which is — again, this proposition, it passed as a result of disinformation and harassment. It was very Trumpian in that sense. I got massive text and email Public Records Act requests. I was constantly harassed online and offline. Someone put my home address up on Twitter. I was doxxed. It was a lot of misinformation on the right-wing blogosphere. It was really something. You know, they were scared of what I had to say. And I will continue to say it, because if this spreads past California, we are headed for an even worse situation of inequality than we are already experiencing.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Professor Dubal, we at Democracy Now! wanted to extend our deepest condolences to you on the loss of your brother, Sam Dubal —
VEENA DUBAL: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: — the University of Washington anthropology professor. He has been missing since early October, when he embarked on a solo 17-mile overnight hike on Mount Rainier in Washington state. Friends and family say he’ll be remembered for his deep commitment to antiracism in medicine. In late October, you tweeted a photo of your family, saying, quote, “We carry your prayers, thoughts & good wishes for Sam Dubal as we begin to grieve & celebrate his remarkable life & kind soul. After a thorough search, the outer limits of time for survivability have passed. Our deepest gratitude to all, including the brave searchers & community.” Your brother was an amazing researcher, antiracist academic. If you want to share a few final thoughts about your brother?
VEENA DUBAL: So kind of you. He would be so honored to have his name mentioned on Democracy Now! Sam was the kindest, most brilliant, most dedicated, ethical researcher, friend, community member, advocate that I have ever met in my life. He was — truly, truly had the spirit of social justice lit his life and lit his soul. He loved Democracy Now! He loved you, Amy Goodman and Juan González. And we miss him so, so very much. I will do everything I can, with every day of my life, to continue his spirit and to work in his memory, and that includes fighting this kind of economic injustice and inequality.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Veena, thanks again. And again, our condolences to everyone in your family.
VEENA DUBAL: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Veena Dubal, law professor at the University of California, Hastings, who writes about the gig economy, and Cherri Murphy, Lyft driver with Gig Workers Rising.
Well, next, we will continue to look at ballot initiatives around the country and the historic vote Friday by the House to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. We’ll be back in 30 seconds.