Gig workers, labor activists, the NAACP New England chapter and other organizations are teaming up to fight Uber, Lyft and other gig-economy companies in Massachusetts. The group, The Coalition to Protect Workers' Rights, is anticipating a $100 million-plus ballot campaign from gig-economy companies seeking to classify gig workers as independent contractors.
Massachusetts has all the makings of a battle over gig workers: a law that clearly states under what circumstances employers can legally classify workers as independent contractors, a lawsuit from the state's attorney general alleging Uber and Lyft are breaking the law, a bill in the Senate that would give gig-economy companies what they want and two coalitions on either side of the aisle contemplating a potential ballot measure that would put the issue in front of voters.
"We know the way to beat these big tech companies with their endless money is to organize early and to make sure that we're driving an affirmative agenda on this and not allowing the companies to set the terms of the debate," Mike Firestone, director for the Coalition to Protect Workers' Rights, told Protocol. "So that's why we're organizing now, even though they haven't even filed their language."
Firestone said he watched what happened "very carefully" in California, where gig-economy companies spent about $224 million to pass a ballot measure that legally classified gig workers as independent contractors. He said he also paid attention when Uber and Lyft said they would work to bring similar outcomes to other states.
The Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, whose members include Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and others, is on the opposite side of The Coalition to Protect Workers' Rights. The Uber and Lyft-backed coalition has not yet decided whether it will try to put an initiative on the ballot, but it has until August 4 to file the paperwork, Conor Yunits, a spokesperson for the coalition, told Protocol.
"We are in support of any legislative solution that ultimately allows gig workers to remain independent contractors but also grants them new benefits protections," Yunits said.
The legal landscape
Massachusetts law, similar to what went into effect in California in 2020, applies a three-part ABC test to determine if a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. To legally classify a worker as an independent contractor, an employer must show the worker is free from control, does work outside of the employer's general scope of business and runs their own business doing similar work.
In July 2020, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed a lawsuit against Uber and Lyft alleging both companies are misclassifying their drivers as independent contractors. In the complaint, Healey argues Uber and Lyft drivers are not free from direction and control, provide a service that is at the core of each company's business and do not run their own ride-hailing businesses. Uber and Lyft filed to dismiss the case but a judge denied the motion in March.
"The Attorney General's lawsuit is without merit, as drivers who use Lyft's platform are independent contractors under well-settled law," a Lyft spokesperson wrote in a statement to Protocol. "The lawsuit's attempt to force drivers into becoming employees goes directly against what the vast majority say they want. 83% support a model that secures their independence plus provides them new benefits. That's why we are eager to collaborate with lawmakers on a legislative proposal currently before the Massachusetts Legislature that actually reflects the way drivers want to work."
That legislative proposal is bill H.1234 (not a typo). Currently in the state's Senate, the bill seeks to legally classify gig workers as independent contractors while simultaneously offering them a portable benefits account. The account would provide at least three choices for retirement accounts, as well as benefits such as income replacement and health insurance.
The legislation would require gig economy companies to contribute 4% of an eligible driver's earnings to a portable benefits account. Workers must earn at least $2,550 per quarter from app-based companies to be eligible for the proposed benefits.
"What the pandemic showed us very clearly is that work as we knew it has changed forever," Rep. Carlos González, a co-author of the bill, told Protocol. "You have a contractor relationship or an employee relationship, but there has to be something in between and that's the nature of what we're trying to get across with this bill."
But the coalition of labor groups and gig workers are working to ensure this bill doesn't become law. Beth Griffith, a gig worker, chair of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild and member of the Coalition for Workers' Rights, said it's important that this legislation doesn't pass.
"It would create a permanent underclass of drivers," she told Protocol.
As part of Prop. 22, companies provided health care stipends to eligible workers, wage minimums, accidental death insurance and more, but gig workers in California have said companies aren't delivering on what they promised. While Prop. 22 has not appeased everyone, Firestone said even the imperfect Prop. 22 is better than what's on the table in Massachusetts.
The bill "is like an even worse Prop. 22," Firestone said.
But the Coalition to Protect Workers' Rights isn't too concerned that H. 1234 will become law. Firestone noted how the bill only has a couple of sponsors and hasn't "attracted much enthusiasm from legislators in Massachusetts, in part because it's such a bad idea," he said.
The Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, however, sees H.1234 as a "good starting point for discussions," Yunits said.
"We feel very confident in the legislature's ability to deal with this issue here in Massachusetts and come up with the best outcome," he said.
An Uber spokesperson echoed the sentiment.
"We are confident that, unlike California, Massachusetts leaders will work together to ensure that drivers are able to gain new protections and benefits while keeping the flexibility they overwhelmingly want," the Uber spokesperson said.
In the event the state legislature does pass H. 1234, Yunits said the coalition is paying attention to the August 4 deadline to submit a ballot initiative.
"We're looking at the preliminary steps to get involved," he said.
That would not come as a surprise to Griffith and other labor activists, given what happened in California.
"They've realized they can just purchase laws," she said.
Firestone agreed. He said there is a 100% chance that companies will do this.
But if the coalition of gig-economy companies does file a ballot measure, Firestone and his coalition will be ready.
"We have organized to defend against a $100 million-plus effort by these companies to undermine workers' rights and civil rights on the ballot," he said, "Which we fully anticipate."