California ruling on gig workers latest flashpoint in Mass. debate

Judge says voter-approved law backed by tech companies is unconstitutional

IT’S EITHER much ado about nothing, or a “major blow” to Uber, Lyft, and other tech companies looking to have their drivers considered independent contractors, not employees. 

They agree about little else, so it was hardly surprising that the two sides in an already contentious 2022 Massachusetts ballot question fight had decidedly different takes on the significance of a California court ruling issued on Friday that struck down a voter-approved state law similar to one the tech companies hope Massachusetts voters will approve on next year’s state ballot. 

An Alameda County superior court judge ruled that the California law, known as Proposition 22, is unconstitutional and unenforceable. Judge Frank Roesch said the law, which was passed by California voters last November and classifies drivers for app-based companies as independent contractors, violates the state constitution because it usurps powers given exclusively to the legislature to regulate workers’ compensation issues. He also ruled that it failed to meet the requirement that all elements of a ballot question be closely related because it included language aimed at preventing drivers from unionizing.

“A prohibition on legislation authorizing collective bargaining by app-based drivers does not promote the right to work as an independent contractor, nor does it protect work flexibility, nor does it provide minimum workplace safety and pay standards for those workers,” Roesch wrote in his decision. “It appears only to protect the economic interest of the network companies in having a divided, ununionized workforce, which is not a stated goal of the legislation.”

“This decision is a major blow to the Uber/Big Tech campaign to avoid paying taxes, avoid paying workers fairly, and escape liability to customers,” said Mike Firestone, director of the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights, a union-backed effort to defeat the proposed Massachusetts ballot question, in a statement.

The Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, the group funded by Uber, Lyft, and other app companies that is leading the campaign to pass the new law in Massachusetts, said the ruling has no effect on the effort here to have app drivers classified as independent contractors. 

“The lower court ruling in California has no impact on the proposed ballot question in Massachusetts, which drivers support by a margin of 7:1,” said Conor Yunits, a spokesman for the coalition, in a statement. “The two states have different constitutions, and the provisions of Prop 22 that the lower court took issue with are not part of the Massachusetts proposal.”

Yunits said the Massachusetts constitution does not have the provisions on workers’ compensation that appear in the California constitution. He said the proposed ballot question also does not include a provision of the California law ruled unconstitutional that requires approval by seven-eights of the legislature of any amendment to the law.

Uber was critical of the California ruling and said it would appeal. 

Like the California law, the Massachusetts ballot question would provide some benefits for app-based drivers but classify them as independent contractors and largely cut them off from the full range of benefits and protections employees have under state wage and labor laws. 

Shannon Liss-Riordan, a Boston attorney who has filed suits on behalf of drivers against the app companies in Massachusetts and California, called the California court decision a “fantastic ruling.” Although the specific bases for the judge’s ruling don’t apply in Massachusetts, Liss-Riordan said the constitutions of both states share language requiring a ballot question to address a single issue. 

“There’s a similar principle that applies in both California and Massachusetts that you can’t try to cram too much into a ballot measure, and that’s what the question in Massachusetts does,” said Liss-Riordan, who is working with the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights. “It’s trying to do multiple unrelated things.” 

Last week, the ballot question opponents asked Attorney General Maura Healey to rule that the measure cannot appear on the ballot because it includes unrelated provisions. They say a provision of the ballot question that would protect tech companies from liability exposure is not sufficiently related to its main focus on worker classification. 

Healey said in a radio appearance today on GBH that her office will issue a ruling on the issue “in relatively short order.” 

Her office’s role in certifying ballot questions puts Healey in the position of ruling on an issue that she’s staked out strong views on. Healey filed suit last year against Uber and Lyft arguing that they were treating drivers as independent contractors in violation of state wage and hour laws. 

“Uber and Lyft have built their billion-dollar businesses while denying their drivers basic employee protections and benefits for years,” Healey said in a statement when the suit was filed. “This business model is unfair and exploitative.”

Not only has the AG taken a strong stand on the gig worker issue, Firestone, the director of the labor-backed effort to defeat the Massachusetts ballot question, formerly served as Healey’s chief of staff. 

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

But Healey said in her radio appearance on Monday that her lawsuit and her office’s imminent ruling on the ballot question are being handled completely separately. 

“For me it’s really important to stand up for drivers and protect their economic rights and wellbeing,” Healey said about the lawsuit. As for the ruling on whether the measure being pushed by the app companies can appear on the 2022 state ballot, she said the “personal policy views of myself or anyone in office play absolutely no role in the certification decision.”