For Dems, a ballot question brouhaha 

THERE WILL BE no table after all at the Democratic State Convention promoting ride-share companies’ position on a hotly contested November ballot question. 

A brewing intra-party battle over plans by the campaign funded by the companies to have an informational table at Saturday’s gathering of Massachusetts Democrats in Worcester was starting to grab attention – and not exactly the kind of pre-convention buzz party pooh-bahs were looking for. But the showdown came to an end on Tuesday with word that Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers – the message-minded name of the ballot campaign bankrolled by Uber and Lyft – was pulling out on its own. 

The dustup started last week, when Jonathan Cohn, a Democratic State Committee member from Boston, began talking to fellow Dems who were not happy that the campaign was slated to have a table at the convention and had taken out an ad in the “call to the convention” booklet that had been sent to delegates. 

At the Mass Dems quadrennial issues convention last fall, the party adopted a platform plank opposing the anticipated ballot question, which would establish in state law that drivers for ride-share services and delivery sites like DoorDash are not company employees, but independent contractors. To Cohn, it made no sense for the party to allow a group to set up a table at its convention advocating a position directly at odds with the party’s official position on an issue. 

“The party made a big deal out of supporting Mass. Not For Sale,” Cohn said of the labor-backed coalition opposing the ballot question. “So it just seemed very off-putting to give space to the Uber and Lyft campaign.” He decried the fact that several Democratic-leaning consulting and strategy firms were working for the app companies’ campaign. 

The ride-share companies say drivers would lose the flexibility many of them enjoy if they are treated as regular employees. Labor unions and other activists say treating drivers as contractors is exploiting them and is simply a way to avoid all the responsibilities and obligations to workers of a standard employer. 

Gus Bickford, chairman of the state party, said it has long been the policy of the party to allow delegates to sponsor groups that want to pay for a table at the convention or take out an ad in the convention program. 

“If you read the first paragraph of the Massachusetts Democratic Party charter, we encourage debate. That’s the whole reason we took the position we did,” Bickford said of allowing a delegate to sponsor the ride-share companies’ table. 

Cohn said he’s all for robust debate, but insisted that shouldn’t necessarily mean an open-door approach to sanctioning efforts to push all viewpoints. 

“There’s value to having a broad tent,” he said. “But if you’ve already taken a position on something, you should actually fight for that position.” 

Cohn started circulating a petition over the weekend calling on Bickford to rescind the invitation to the ride-share companies to have a table at the convention. Among those signing on were both of the party’s candidates for governor, all five lieutenant governor hopefuls, the three candidates running for attorney general, and both state auditor candidates. 

“It is impossible for Mass Dems to fight for the rights of workers while also validating corporations’ scheme to strip workers of basic rights under the law. Moreover, it is confusing at best and hypocritical at worst for Mass Dems to run a paid advertisement for a special interest group it denounces in its party platform,” read the petition, which Cohn said drew nearly 500 signatures. “Would Mass Dems run an ad from an anti-vaxxer campaign or groups that want to get rid of the minimum wage or the right to abortion? Of course not. The decision to advertise for Big Tech corporations’ scheme to get rid of workers’ basic labor rights is just as objectionable as these other examples and should be reversed forthwith.”

Bickford refused to say whether there were groups the party would not allow to have a table at a convention, even if sponsored by a delegate. “I’m not going to speculate on that,” he said. 

Conor Yunits, a spokesman for the ride-share company campaign, voiced dismay at the turn of events, pointing to a poll the companies commissioned claiming drivers overwhelmingly favor contractor status. “More than 83 percent of drivers have said over and over again that they want to remain independent contractors, but politicians would rather tell them what’s good for them rather than listen to their voices. It’s disheartening to see this party shut the door on debate and the exchange of free ideas,” he said in a statement. 

But the party did not actually close the door to them. Bickford said the app-funded campaign emailed the party on Tuesday to say it was withdrawing and would not show up to staff a table in Worcester. 

They seem to “have read the room,” Cohn said of the less-than-welcoming reception the table would have received. 



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