Ballot face-off over gig workers looms
Attorney general will decide soon if questions make the 2024 ballot
TWO YEARS AGO, Massachusetts braced itself for what was expected to be the most expensive ballot measure campaign in the state’s history. That question, brought by ride-hailing companies to classify their gig workers as independent contractors, was kicked off the ballot by a ruling from the state’s highest court.
In just a few weeks, the state should know if the fight and the ad dollars will be back on the horizon. And this time, there could be ballot measures on both sides.
At the heart of the new dueling ballot measures, years of legislative efforts, and an ongoing lawsuit is a seemingly straightforward question: Are ride-hailing workers, who conduct pick-up and drop-off services through app-based platforms, more akin to ordinary employees under state law or more like independent contractors and therefore not guaranteed the benefits and protections of standard employment law?
This question could be resolved in a few ways, all on long timelines. A ride-share backed coalition and the state’s largest service workers union have submitted propositions for the 2024 ballot, awaiting certification from the attorney general’s office by September 6.
Last year, the Supreme Judicial Court tossed an earlier ballot measure trying to establish independent contractor status for app-based drivers. The court concluded that the question was impermissibly trying to do too many unrelated things – not only setting out certain benefits for ride-share workers in exchange for independent contractor status, but also including language related to accident liability and contract formation.
In giving the attorney general’s office an array of ballot measure options, all including the independent contractor language and certain guaranteed benefits, the coalition is hedging its bets and hoping that some version of the question clears the legal bar to appear on the ballot and survive the courts. “We want voters to be able to decide this issue,” said Conor Yunits, a spokesman for the coalition.
It may well be up against a ballot measure backed by the service workers union, submitted by Roxana Rivera, who leads SEIU 32BJ in Massachusetts. Her petition “giving transportation network drivers the option to form a union and bargain collectively” would do just that. Union advocates say the gig economy is structured to give the companies immense power over the individual drivers, and codifying a right to collective bargaining would give the drivers more standing to negotiate for better work conditions and pay.
Rivera’s petition language is pulled from one of several ongoing legislative efforts. But neither the ride-share coalition nor the union groups are waiting to see if bills mirroring the ballot language die on Beacon Hill.
“The commonwealth of Massachusetts recognizes that technological advancement has generated new “digital marketplaces” in the transportation sector, in which companies connect, through electronic media, customers seeking passenger transportation services to persons willing to supply that transportation service,” the Rivera ballot initiative and a current bill proposed by Sen. Jason Lewis read. “These persons often suffer poor pay, inadequate health coverage, and irregular or inadequate working hours.”
Rideshare drivers themselves are split on the question, proponents of the independent contractors classification argue. Many value their scheduling flexibility and fear a worker classification would inhibit their ability to work for multiple apps at once to supplement other income, the group says.The Commonwealth is set up for a busy 2024 on the matter. The attorney general’s office is still pursuing a lawsuit against Uber and Lyft, started by then-Attorney General Maura Healey. Healey, and her successor Andrea Campbell, argued that these companies were deliberately and incorrectly classifying their drivers as independent contractors.
One certainty looms – if the attorney general’s office okays an app-based worker ballot measure, the battle will be pricey. A California ballot campaign backed by similar coalitions that successfully classified ride-share gig workers there as independent contractors cost over $200 million, the most expensive ballot measure ever launched in the United States.