Should app-based workers get to form a union? Lawmakers get an earful over it

Bay State lawmakers sat through hours of at times emotional testimony Tuesday, as lawyers and advocates wrangled over several proposed ballot questions that would reclassify app-based workers.

At issue is whether app-based drivers working through services like Uber, Lyft, or DoorDash should be classified as independent contractors or employees with the right to unionize.

If that sounds like a familiar argument, that’s because it is.

A push to codify into state that the app-based relationship is a contract position was made with industry backing in 2022, only to have the entire question thrown out by the state’s highest court as too complex for the ballot.

This year, drivers pushing for the right to unionize have joined the fight with their own petition, which they hope to place before voters this November. Supporters of the move told lawmakers those workers currently lack the protections guaranteed under state law for people who do the kind and amount of work that they do.

“These corporations use a business model across the world that is based on openly violating employment and social welfare laws, shielding themselves from liability to consumers, avoiding responsibility to the communities whose roads the companies need to operate, and dodging taxes – leaving businesses that play by the rules and taxpayers subsidizing their scheme,” Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Chrissy Lynch said.

Proponents of keeping app-based workers under an independent contractor model are backing five different versions of essentially the same ballot question — one opponent suggested this is their “shotgun” attempt to get one of them past legal challenges — each of which would maintain the independent contractor status of app-based workers and provide them with additional protections, though not the full time employee protections guaranteed by state law.

Industry backers and many drivers told the committee that any other classification would strip workers of the freedom they currently enjoy to set their own hours and the pace at which they work.

“Changing the way this industry works will have extremely negative consequences for our region,” Jordan Hart, the executive director of the Holyoke Chamber of Commerce said. “Let’s be very clear, if this industry is upended, and drivers can no longer be independent contractors, there will be major changes and this will drastically impact many members of our community.”

Some speakers warned that the large tech companies behind the apps would use their financial position to leverage the public against the decisions of their representatives, as they apparently did in November of 2020, when Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and other corporations spent about $225 million pushing voters in California to pass a ballot initiative that classified their workers as independent contractors, known as Prop 22.

It hasn’t worked out well for workers, according to Lorena Gonzalez, Chief Officer of the California Labor Federation.

“Big tech companies should not be able to buy their own labor laws. There is nothing unique about rideshare drivers that justifies carving them out of the employment protections all other workers enjoy. If corporations can strip away workers’ rights simply by using an app, what’s to stop every employer from shifting to this model? If we care about the future of workers we have to reject corporate bullying to drive a race to the bottom. Workers deserve better,” she said.

The Fiscal Alliance Foundation submitted written testimony to the committee urging them to reject the push to allow contract workers to unionize. Not only would the ballot question stand at odds with federal law on how unions are formed, the question itself violates the state’s constitution, which bars ballot questions from dealing with too many subjects — just like 2022’s ballot question.

“At 32 pages long, the text of this question is long, complex, and blatantly combines four distinct policies into one ballot question. A reasonable person could have a differing opinion on any four of these various aspects of the question, which is what Article 48 is there to prevent. Voters should not feel like they have to vote for a ballot question to get policy ‘A’, even though they oppose policy ‘B’,” they wrote.

The Fiscal Foundation is also in the midst of a legal challenge against the question, with arguments before the Supreme Judicial Court set to begin in the coming weeks.

First Assistant Attorney General Pat Moore, speaking on behalf of Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell’s office, said that if the push to call app-based workers employees succeeds, then the AG’s office will go after companies like Uber and Lyft for all of the missed benefits owed to drivers.

“There are responsibilities when a company is an employer and when the drivers are employees. There are minimum compensation benefits, there are mileage reimbursement benefits, there are penalties attendant to not following those laws,” Moore said. “Should there be a declaration that the drivers are employees, those benefits should have accrued to the drivers going back as far as the law will allow us with attendant penalties. The numbers associated with those are quite large, and it will be the commonwealth’s intent, with the AG acting on its behalf, to recover those.”

Herald wire service contributed.

Cindy Reyes, SEIU staff from CA, listens as the Joint Committee on Initiative Petitions hears testimony on proposals which would impact how app based workers are classified under state law. (Nancy Lane/Boston Herald)
Cindy Reyes, SEIU staff from CA, listens as the Joint Committee on Initiative Petitions hears testimony on proposals which would impact how app based workers are classified under state law. (Nancy Lane/Boston Herald)

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