How Uber and Lyft quietly fund worker groups to pump the brakes on drivers organizing


The debate over whether Uber and Lyft drivers want to preserve their "flexibility and independence" as independent contractors or unionize and fight for better pay and benefits depends on which group of workers you ask. In Massachusetts, two coalitions with differing funders have released dueling ballot initiatives that aim to determine the rights of rideshare drivers.

One initiative, sponsored by a political committee called Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers, seeks to limit rideshare workers to independent contractor status in exchange for limited benefits. The group is backed by the gig companies themselves and has received significant funding from them. The campaign is led by individuals like Charles Clemons Muhammad, who views Uber and Lyft as "family" and opposes unionization. Advocates argue that this initiative is an attempt to block drivers from receiving essential labor protections.

On the other hand, a coalition called Drivers Demand Justice, which includes gig workers, nonprofits, and unions such as the 32BJ SEIU and Machinists unions, is proposing a ballot initiative that would grant rideshare drivers the right to unionize. They claim to truly represent the drivers and believe that joining a union would enable them to advocate for necessary changes in the industry.

The issue of benefits versus flexibility is often framed as a trade-off, but labor law professor Veena Dubal argues that this is a false choice. Employment status does not inherently dictate a lack of flexibility. Dubal was an opponent of Proposition 22, a similar gig-company-backed ballot initiative in California. She states that the portrayal of employment status as a threat to flexibility in marketing campaigns is misleading.

Both initiatives are vying for support from Massachusetts voters, and the battle between them is heavily influenced by the vast amounts of money spent by the tech platforms. The Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers initiative spent $43 million on its previous failed ballot initiative, and the funding for its current campaign is not yet known. This financial advantage poses a challenge to the rival Drivers Demand Justice coalition and its efforts to give rideshare drivers the right to unionize.

Supporters of unionization argue that if the companies genuinely wanted to provide substantial benefits, they would have done so in the past decade of their operations. They believe that joining a union would give workers the ability to advocate for necessary changes in the industry. One driver who supports unionization, Prisell Polanco, experienced the sudden deactivation of his Uber account and found support among other drivers facing similar issues. He believes that many of the protesters advocating for unionization are full-time drivers, whereas those who support the companies are often part-timers or retirees seeking additional income.

However, the battle over these issues through the ballot process raises concerns about misinformation. Some worry that the outcome will be determined by which side has the most financial resources to sway public opinion through marketing campaigns. Polanco urges voters to consider which group of drivers is in greater need of help, emphasizing that they lack rights, protection, and job security.

In summary, the debate in Massachusetts centers around whether rideshare drivers should maintain their independent contractor status or unionize for better pay and benefits. The two opposing ballot initiatives, one backed by big companies and the other by a coalition of gig workers and unions, present differing perspectives. The outcome will depend on how Massachusetts voters perceive the drivers' needs and the influence of the significant financial resources involved.   

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