From MassLive, Chris Lisinski reports on measures that were brought to the Massachusetts Attorney General for review/approval before they can become ballot questions for 2024. Among other issues, the status of drivers for rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft may be on the ballot next year. Chris writes:
After years of debate but little action, voters might get not one but two different chances to weigh in on major workplace issues for drivers on platforms like Uber and Lyft.
An industry-backed group working with some drivers filed nine versions of a ballot question that would define app-based drivers as independent contractors under state law while extending them some new benefits, like an earnings floor 20 percent higher than minimum wage.
At the same time, 32BJ SEIU — which opposes the company-backed question — and other Uber and Lyft drivers submitted their own measure that would give drivers the ability to unionize, pitching it as a way to counter a “broken dynamic.”
It could become a confusing situation for voters if both questions advance all the way to the ballot.
And in another massive wrinkle, Uber and Lyft are staring down litigation from Massachusetts prosecutors alleging that their current practice of classifying drivers as contractors instead of employees violates the state’s wage and hour laws to boost profit. Now-Gov. Maura Healey sued the companies in July 2020, and the slow-moving case is expected to go to trial in May 2024, according to an official in the attorney general’s office.
The unionization ballot question is a narrower version of legislation that 32BJ SEIU, an influential labor group, continues to push on Beacon Hill.
It would allow drivers for on-demand ride platforms like Uber and Lyft the ability to select a union via a card check process, then collectively bargain over topics such as minimum wages, benefits and working conditions.
Roxana Rivera, the union’s head, said Massachusetts would become the first state in the nation to give app-based drivers not covered by the National Labor Relations Act the ability to organize.
Rivera said drivers have dealt with shrinking pay for years, often face “unfair deactivations without due process” and bear significant vehicle upkeep costs themselves.
“We believe that the only way in which to lift these jobs out of poverty and to basically put some power back into the workers’ hands is that they actually have the right to collective bargaining, just as many workers do in Massachusetts,” she said in an interview.
32BJ SEIU still views the broader legislation (H 1099 / S 666) pending before the Financial Services Committee as the best option but wanted to “keep every tool available,” Rivera said.
The independent contractor measure from the Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers coalition reflects a second pass at the question after the Supreme Judicial Court in 2022 tossed an earlier version because it improperly combined multiple topics.
Organizers say they filed nine options for a new version to address the commingling issues that justices saw last year.
“We heard loud and clear that the SJC had concerns about relatedness, and we know that trial lawyers and labor will once again try to use legal loopholes to deny voters the chance to weigh in on this important issue,” Conor Yunits, a spokesperson for the ballot campaign, said in a statement. “We have provided the Attorney General’s office with a number of options for certification that should address these concerns and ensure that voters have an opportunity to make their voices heard.”
The companies and drivers who agree argue that workers on the platforms prefer independent contractor status and the flexibility it offers to being dubbed official employees.
At a Boston Common event kicking off the company-backed ballot question campaign redux, attendees held signs reading “drivers want to remain independent” and “flexibility and benefits.”
“I have no interest in other employment-based transportation jobs because they will mean I couldn’t take my children to school or further my education,” said Pierre-Louis, a Lyft driver who is studying criminal justice. “The labor[-supported] bills will only put me further away from my goals.”
During the 2021-2022 cycle, four gig economy giants — Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart — together contributed $43.5 million to the ballot question committee, according to state campaign finance records. Some of that money consisted of in-kind donations labeled “pro-rated staff support time and expenses” from the companies, and about $2.4 million from Instacart is labeled a “loan repayment.”
The new version of the committee has not yet reported any political fundraising or spending.