Just four weeks before Christmas in 2018, rideshare drivers in Massaschuesttes woke up to startling news: Uber had slashed their rates by nearly 50%. For drivers who relied on the app to pay their bills, it was a huge shift—and one they had no say in.
“Drivers felt burnt, like we were being taken advantage of,” Felipe Martinez, a rideshare driver and founding member of Boston Independent Drivers Guild, explained.
The platform’s actions inspired drivers to come together, where they found other similar struggles—and not just about pay. One of the main things drivers liked about gig platforms was a sense of being able to set their own hours. But, in talking to each other, they realized that they weren’t controlling their work: an algorithm was.
Drivers assumed they were picking up the closest ride, but they weren’t. The algorithm is optimized to make the most money for the platform. Rideshare drivers aren’t paid when they’re driving, so the longer they’re kept waiting, the less money they’re making.
“We came to the conclusion that the algorithm is cheating us,” Martinez said. “These are just games to make the most money for Uber and keep the drivers idle.”
Rideshare drivers in Massachusetts are now facing more attacks on their livelihoods: Tech companies like Uber, Lyft, and others are investing millions into propositions and bills to limit workers’ rights. This includes getting HB 1234 on the November ballot, which, if passed, would classify the over 200,000 rideshare drivers in the state—disproportionally from communities of color with lower incomes—as independent contractors.
If tech companies are successful, Felipe and his fellow drivers will not be entitled to basic rights, like minimum pay, the ability to form a union, and unemployment benefits.
Lyft already dumped $13 million into making sure they win—the largest one-time politician contribution in the state’s history. Many believe that Lyft, Uber, and other platforms are trying to buy legislation to ensure they never have to classify drivers and other gig workers as employees, all while running slick public campaigns claiming that drivers want “flexibility.”
But, drivers and those campaigning against the changes, including labor unions, community groups, and social and racial justice organizations, are clear that the issue isn’t about flexibility. Instead, they say that these tech giants may be breaking existing labor law and want to write their own rules.
A lawsuit filed by the state’s attorney general in 2020 targets the platforms, highlighting that rideshare drivers are, in fact, employees and should be compensated as such based on the state’s labor test.
Workers’ rights advocates say it’s a war of tech domination and money, framed as racial and social justice. They say that if passed, the changes would create a new underclass of workers, similar to farm and domestic workers, who are excluded from labor law and highly exploited.
“We’re majority people of color and immigrants, and these companies are hiding behind flexibility—but it’s really just old fashioned labor law,” said D. Beth Griffith, a rideshare driver and the executive director of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild.
The parallels are noticeable: the number of people doing gig work grew by around 12% as families lost jobs due to the pandemic. About 35% of workers in the U.S. are now part of the gig economy. The majority of these workers are BIPOC.
These demographics are increasing in the workforce, but they’re not growing in power or stability. Many drivers are working 80 hours a week but living in poverty, relying on Medicaid and food stamps to survive, while others sleep in their cars.
“These companies need to follow the law,” Griffith said. “We’re sick of exploitation.”
Drivers also need other changes, like increases in compensation, due process, policies to address sexual harassment and racism, and procedures to dispute deactivations.
The fight mirrors a similar law, Proposition 22, which was passed in California in 2020 before being ruled unconstitutional by the Alameda Superior Court of California in September 2021. A coalition that includes companies such as Lyft, Uber, and DoorDash is now appealing the ruling. The same tech companies poured over $200 million dollars into getting the law passed. California’s Assembly Bill 5 would have classified rideshare drivers as employees, and the state attorney general and drivers had filed more than 5,000 wages claims for billions of dollars. At the same time, tech companies dumped millions into writing their own legislation and campaigned around the same notion of racial justice and flexibility.
“They created a permanent Black and brown underclass of workers there,” Griffith said.
“They have total control of what you’re actually being paid,” said Nicole Moore, a rideshare driver in California who is on the organizing committee of Rideshare Drivers United. “Real flexibility is consistent with labor law … It went so south in California because [the company’s messages] were dressed up in clothing of social justice.”
Tech giants are hoping to recreate their California win in Massachusetts—and the potential risks are real. After Proposition 22 passed, supermarket union workers were fired, and there’s a proposed ballot measure in California that could strip rights from health care workers, like nurses, on apps.
“If they find a way to write their own laws, it’s going to hurt every single worker,” Griffith said.
Getting the bills to the public faces hurdles. The ballot propositions need to be approved for the ballot and passed by voters. Both would reclassify these workers, but HB 1234 also includes a provision for portable retirement benefits. Decisions on if both will move forward will be made in the coming months, all with the court case looming in the background. On the other side, drivers have introduced a Driver’s Bill of Rights.
This isn’t the only fight tech companies have launched: a parallel bill is also moving ahead in Washington state that offers limited benefits but codifies gig workers as independent contractors, preempting companies from regulation. And while they invest millions into writing their own bills, these companies are also not paying taxes and stripping millions from communities.
“These bills are undermining what is already a low bar: basic labor rights. Why make it lower than that for a workforce that’s majority people of color?” Moore asked. “They’re creating a third category workforce that’s increasing institutional racism at a time when people are demanding racial equity. This is not racial equity.”