Whether organizing on the virtual shop floor, fighting in court, or pushing for legislative remedies, labor is refusing to go down without a fight.
After hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to pass Proposition 22 this November, we’re beginning to see its impact play out. The results so far are validating the fears of the law’s critics: there are concerns among gig workers directly impacted by the measure, and delivery drivers who are classified as employees are afraid that their jobs will be replaced by DoorDash.
“Prop 22 looks like a mortal threat for organized labor, one that will quickly proliferate nationwide if nothing is done to stop it,” Alexander Sammon wrote in a piece for The American Prospect. “That’s happening even faster than some alarmed labor advocates and grassroots organizers feared.”
The measure passed near the end of a year that radically changed the delivery landscape. “Prop 22 and the pandemic were twin accelerators on the use of third party delivery,” said Jim Araby, Director of Strategic Campaigns for UFCW-5 (United Food & Commercial Workers). As retailers rushed to expand delivery options, he said, apps like Instacart and DoorDash “exploded in market share because they came to grocery stores without an existing eCommerce platform and said ‘we can do that for you.’”
Retailers that once had minimal delivery presence have beefed up offerings during the pandemic. Pharmacies have turned to third-party platforms to staff and operate prescription delivery services. Some companies even aspire to bring gig work inside the store. Jyve is a startup that brings gig work to stocking retail shelves, promising to give “brands and retailers the strength and flexibility to make product available in the right places at the right time in the store.”
The Trump administration also gave gig work companies a lift when his administration rolled out a last minute rule change allowing firms to avoid class-action lawsuits over the misclassification of employees as independent contractors.
While they face many headwinds, workers, unions, and other organizations are fighting back in an effort to protect those classified as employees while improving working conditions for gig workers. Whether that’s organizing on the virtual shop floor, fighting in court, or pushing for legislative remedies, labor is refusing to go down without a fight.
Tyler Breisacher is a DoorDash worker in San Francisco, and a member of Gig Workers Rising, a group organizing gig workers for better labor conditions. Breisacher got involved in organizing as news of the pandemic was breaking. “I was noticing more and more that these companies really weren’t doing much for us,” he said. “Lyft got a lot of flack for selling hand sanitizer to workers instead of giving it to them for free.”
What do gig workers want from companies like DoorDash and Uber? Some of the big things are obvious: healthcare, benefits, stability. But other issues are more specific to the jobs gig workers do, like compensation for time worked in between orders, or increased control over the types of jobs workers accept.
“Bikers want to refuse orders with drinks in them because they’ll spill. Instead of counting against your acceptance rating, you should be able to put in what the type of orders you do and don’t want to do are,” said Breisacher.
From Breisacher’s perspective, advocates for Prop 22 misled the public and left out drivers. “I’d love for the companies to work with us and ask us what we want,” he said. “Instead they just spent $200 million and pushed through exactly what they want.”
Organizing gives workers a seat at the table to demand better. “We can elect great people to office, but if we don’t have power in the workplace, if we can’t impact businesses at the shop floor level, we’re never going to get out of this,” said Araby.
In California, organizing has already helped employed drivers to avoid replacement by gig workers. Bay Area Safeway drivers approved their first union contract in early January, just as Safeway announced it was replacing all non-union drivers with DoorDash contractors. Union drivers were spared from the layoffs.
Beyond ground level organizing, unions and workers are also challenging Prop 22 in court. Last week, individual gig workers joined the SEIU in a lawsuit challenging the measure’s constitutionality. “With Prop 22, they’re not just ignoring our health and safety — they’re discarding our state’s constitution,” said Saori Okawa, one of the individual plaintiffs.
Among other issues, the lawsuit challenges provisions in the law that require a seven eighths majority vote of the legislature to amend the law. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a fierce critic of Prop 22, said in a statement that Prop 22 “stripped the Legislature of its power to step in and improve working conditions. The State Supreme Court should have an opportunity to weigh in on whether corporations can use the initiative process to write their own laws with artificial barriers designed to block elected representatives from doing their job.”
Federal legislation provides organizers an opportunity to go over the top of state law, creating protections for workers that would supersede Prop 22 rules. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, passed by House Democrats in 2019, provides a framework for what that might look like. In addition to enhancing striker protections and banning right to work laws, the PRO Act would change the legal criteria for classifying employees and contractors, making them more worker friendly.
The PRO Act is a major prize for organized labor and political allies. “We need a Workers First Agenda that starts with passing the PRO Act for worker empowerment,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, in a statement announcing the recently formed House Labor Caucus’s support for the bill.
Unless action is taken by the courts or the federal government, Prop 22 provides a picture of what labor laws may soon look like across the country. Just days after its passage, CNBC reported that Uber and Lyft are planning campaigns emulating Prop 22’s success in states across the country.
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