The future of work is not for sale

On Labor Day, savoring our victory over Big Tech

EVERY LABOR DAY working people celebrate the countless contributions the labor movement has made to improve the lives of working people. We reflect on the past and present to organize a better future for all.

Right now, working people are frustrated. Many are struggling to afford the basics, much less save for college or retirement. Amidst this, corporate special interests are lining their pockets off the backs of working people. In 2021, the CEO pay at S&P 500 companies rose 18.2 percent, faster than the US inflation rate of 7.1 percent. In contrast, US workers’ wages fell behind inflation, with worker wages rising only 4.7 percent in 2021. This is not “inflation.” It is “greedflation” — when companies take advantage of consumers by using their market dominance to increase prices and boost corporate profits. We’ve seen this with Uber surge pricing during times when people are most desperate for a ride, little of which goes to the actual drivers.

We need to use the power of organized labor to combat the power of organized greed. Today, organized greed has a new front in the future of work – using the veneer of technological innovation to justify the gutting of workers’ rights, and mantra of “flexibility” to attack the fundamental, hard won employment protections we celebrate every Labor Day.

In spring of 2021, AFL-CIO unions, civil rights organizations, community groups, and many more, formed the Massachusetts is Not For Sale Coalition to defend against the threat posed by Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash – the so-called Big Tech companies – and their scheme to buy massive loopholes to our state’s laws through a ballot campaign in response to Attorney General Maura Healey’s lawsuit against Uber and Lyft for breaking the Massachusetts’ employment laws that every responsible business in the Commonwealth follows.

The Big Tech companies shattered state campaign finance records, bombarding voters with a misinformation campaign, and pursuing a ballot initiative that would have legalized the misclassification of their workers and deprived both their employees and their customers of critical rights and benefits guaranteed to them under Massachusetts employment, anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws. Moreover, this Big Tech ballot initiative would have forced Massachusetts communities and taxpayers to take on the substantial social safety net costs of their exploitative business model. Had this law passed, it would have created a permanent second class of already marginalized workers. Many of the workers who would have been immediately impacted by Big Tech’s scam are from Black, brown, and immigrant communities.

Big Tech’s deceptive campaign claimed that workers could only have flexibility and freedom by abandoning their core employment rights and protections. Yet, nothing in Massachusetts law prohibits employers from offering flexible scheduling. Moreover, Massachusetts law requires all private employers to pay a guaranteed hourly minimum wage, ensure their workplaces are safe, free from discrimination, retaliation, sexual harassment, provide paid sick and family leave, and ensure their workers have access to workers compensation and unemployment insurance. Certainly, Big Tech, which includes some of the most innovative corporations in the world, should be able to adhere to our state’s legal standards protecting all workers. We know that companies like Uber believe that the law doesn’t apply to them. It falls to all of us to ensure that Big Tech is held to the same standards and obligations to which all other Massachusetts employers are subject.

We are thankful that in June 2022, our Supreme Judicial Court ruled unanimously that Big Tech’s ballot proposal was unconstitutional, largely because the court recognized that its provisions would lead voters to be “confused, misled, and deprived of a meaningful choice.” In Massachusetts we stopped them – for now. This fight is not over. We should fully expect that Big Tech will return, and that the consequences – if they are successful – will not be limited to their drivers.

In 2020, Big Tech shattered campaign spending records in California when it spent nearly $225 million dollars on a similar effort, Proposition 22, to eliminate employment protections, rights and benefits for its drivers. Immediately after Proposition 22 passed, unionized grocery store workers were replaced with app-based independent contractors, and the new law was ruled unconstitutional. Earlier this year a Prop-22 styled bill was filed in California that would have eliminated the employment rights, protections and benefits of many health care workers. This belies the true corrosive nature of Big Tech’s agenda. Its model can be exported to every industry, replacing stable, middle-class careers with un-benefitted, low- wage, app-based jobs with no real guarantee of job security or flexibility.

At the national level, Trump Republicans and their allies have filed HR 8442, called the “Worker Flexibility and Choice Act,” which would make Big Tech’s insidious  misclassification scheme federal law. Billion-dollar multinational corporations continue to show that they will use workplace innovations and new technology as a ruse to strip away the rights of their workers. Big Tech has unlimited resources, an army of lawyers, lobbyists and union-busting consultants, all working towards enriching themselves at the expense of workers, consumers, and communities.

We don’t yet know what Big Tech’s next move will be in Massachusetts, but we are confident it will involve misleading the public, favor their executives and shareholders, and seek to deprive the working people of Massachusetts of hard-won employment protections and benefits. The labor movement is ready to demonstrate again that organized people power can triumph over organized corporate greed.

Meet the Author
Labor Day is a holiday meant to celebrate the rights of working people. This year, we’re fighting to protect the freedoms that are central to the American dream.  As we reflect on this past year and what it means for the future of work, we recognize that there can be no conversation about the future of work without protecting and honoring the labor of those who do the work. Thanks to the Supreme Judicial Court’s 2022 ruling, Massachusetts has remained a state committed to protecting its workers, for which we can all be grateful.

Steven Tolman is president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.