On gig economy ballot question, both sides are brawl-in

Early dust-ups are clear sign of the bruising battle to come 

THERE WILL BE plenty of time for battling over the substance of the looming ballot question on gig workers. For now, the two sides are getting warmed up by hurling charges and countercharges at each other over process issues and legalisms, an early sign of just how intense the fight is likely to get. 

Looking to replicate a ballot question victory in California last November, bankrolled with more than $200 million in spending, gig economy companies led by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart have set their sights on Massachusetts, where they hope to pass a similar question that would legally define gig workers as independent contractors, not traditional employees. A coalition of labor groups has formed to fight the question.

What’s clear already is that this will be a no-holds-barred brawl. 

Earlier this month, opponents of the ballot effort fired off a complaint to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance charging that backers violated campaign finance rules by raising and spending money on their effort before formally establishing and registering a campaign committee with the state. Backers said the complaint leveled “false claims” based on “willful misunderstanding of Massachusetts campaign finance laws.” 

On Tuesday, supporters of the ballot question (dubbed the Coalition for Independent Work, not to be the confused with the opposing group, the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights) filed a complaint with the state campaign finance office lobbing the same charge back at opponents — of raising and spending money before filing initial paperwork with the state. 

The skirmishes have the feel of the old Mad magazine feature “Spy vs. Spy,” in which dueling operatives engaged in a back and forth of comical moves trying to trip each other up. 

In their latest move, opponents are now hoping to kill the whole thing right out of the gate: They’ve asked Attorney General Maura Healey to rule that the question is not eligible to appear on next year’s statewide ballot because it violates a provision of the state constitution that bans questions with elements that are not sufficiently related to each other. They say a provision of the ballot question that would protect tech companies from liability exposure is too unrelated to its main focus on worker classification. Proponents say the complaint doesn’t “hold up to scrutiny.” 

Three years ago, the Supreme Judicial Court knocked a proposed new tax on high-earners off the ballot because the justices said it failed the “relatedness” requirement. 

Before any potential litigation could ensue on the gig economy question, it’s up to Healey to initially certify that a question is suitable for the ballot. As it happens, she is also suing Uber and Lyft, alleging that they have been improperly classifying their drivers in Massachusetts as independent contractors rather than employees. 

“Uber and Lyft have built their billion-dollar businesses while denying their drivers basic employee protections and benefits for years,” Healey said in announcing her lawsuit against them last July. “This business model is unfair and exploitative.”

Meet the Author

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.

Massachusetts has one of the strongest laws defining workers as employees, which is one reason why it’s now ground zero in the national gig economy worker battle. 

In an example of the unusual dual role AGs can find themselves in, Healey the outspoken advocate on the issue now has to play ref when it comes to making a critical call in the unfolding battle.