Gathered on the grassy steps of Yerba Buena Park and out in front of the St. Regis Hotel, members of the unions Unite Here Local 2 and SEIU Local 87 chanted slogans and spoke to all who would listen on Monday, Sept. 7 — Labor Day.
Janitors, housekeeping staff, food concessionaires, and waiters shouted above the din of honking horns, and a megaphone-touting Shahid Buttar, championing various causes. The workers demanded better pay and benefits, decried descrimination in the workplace, and urged voters to reject Proposition 22.
Those who have never been represented by a union (currently only about 10 percent of American workers are) might wonder why members of Unite Here or the SEIU would be invested in the fate of ride-share drivers. After all, the gig workers who would be directly impacted by the passage of Prop 22 aren’t a part of any union. If they were, they certainly wouldn’t be considered hospitality workers or custodial staff — the two sectors represented by the respective labor organizations.
But members of a majority of major unions statewide say that if Prop 22 passes, it will change what work looks like for thousands of Californians, gig workers and union employees alike.
“Our bargaining power will be weakened by these people not having a say about their work” says Nafis Griffis, a banquet waiter and member of Unite Here Local 2. “If we lose this Proposition 22, it’s like losing some soldiers,” he says, describing the fight for labor as a kind of war.
In short, laborers like Griffis see Prop 22 as a serious threat to organized labor and workers’ rights everywhere. And they are turning out in the streets to make their voices heard.
Proposition 22, which secured a spot on this year’s state ballot thanks to a huge push from gig economy companies, aims to ensure gig workers remain independent contractors (as they are currently classified) instead of employees.
The initiative was proposed on Dec. 9, 2019 by Davis White, Brian McGuigan, and Keith Yandell — the director of public affairs at Uber, the director of public affairs at Lyft, and the chief business and legal officer at Doordash, respectively.
Major supporters include the Republican Party of California, several state-wide police unions, and corporations like Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Instacart, and Doordash. Prominent figures supporting the opposition campaign include the California Democratic Party, Presidential nominee Joe Biden and Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the ACLU of Southern California, and a majority of the state’s major labor unions. The initiative would override Assembly Bill 5, signed in September 2019, which required gig companies to reclassify their workers as employees instead of independent contractors.
Painting a rosy picture of the benefits of Prop 22, the firms behind it say it will provide workers with greater benefits than they currently have — like guaranteed minimum earnings and healthcare — while allowing them to maintain flexible schedules. Presenting an ominous warning of the consequences of Prop 22’s failure, the companies claim that up to 90 percent of app-based jobs would disappear, and that prices for consumers would surge if voters reject the proposition.
Critics, however, say that the proposition is an attempt by companies like Uber, Lyft, Doordash, Postmates, and Instacart to bypass the government and write their own labor laws. The gig companies will certainly save money by keeping gig workers classified as independent contractors. That’s because the gig companies do not have to pay into the workers’ compensation or unemployment insurance systems for the independent contractors they employ. Furthermore, while Prop. 22 would require companies to pay gig workers the equivalent of an hourly wage, it would not require them to pay these employees for the time in between trips, while drivers refresh their apps, sanitize their car, or stop for gas — despite many of these tasks being necessary to do the job. Uber, for example, began encouraging drivers to take up extra routine car cleanings as a coronavirus safety measure this year.
Geoff Vetter, a representative for the Yes on 22 campaign, says that this is necessary to avoid nefarious drivers collecting pay for hours they don’t actually work. “If all on-app time was compensated, many people would choose to simply turn on their apps and stay online without accepting a trip and doing work, and companies would have to force drivers to accept specific rides or deliveries,” thus “putting them on a path of set shifts, specific workdays and rigid schedules,” he says.
However, New York City became the first city in the country to require gig drivers be paid a minimum wage in 2018, and drivers still have full control over when they work — instead of forcing regular schedules, Uber instead limits the amount of drivers who can be on the app at any one time to control supply and demand.
Anand Singh, president of Unite Here Local 2, says threats from gig companies that workers will lose their flexible schedules are a red herring: “When they start making arguments about taking away flexibility, the fact of the matter is they’re advocating for a race to the bottom and for working people to have little to no means to organize and to have any real rights on the job.”
Additionally, many critics have pointed out some of the proposed benefits in the proposition aren’t as sweet as they sound: for example, though gig companies would have to supply healthcare, they would only have to subsidise 82 percent of the average Covered California premium, and they would only offer that to employees who worked 25 hours of “engaged time” per week — that is, the time they are actually completing a trip, and not the time they are awaiting another fare or maintaining their vehicles.
The proposition also says that it guarantees drivers “120 percent of minimum wage,” though that, again, only counts for workers’ “engaged time.” Those short minutes when drivers are technically not “engaged,” but doing other tasks required for the job, add up — accounting for this difference, the UC Berkeley Labor Center estimated that drivers would, in reality, only be guaranteed $5.64 an hour. When asked about this study, Vetter raised a UC Riverside study, commissioned by Uber and Lyft, that argues drivers will likely make closer to $25-$27 an hour. Both research groups say the other is off base.
Then there is the matter of the $184 million in overall funding for Prop. 22 — $181 million of which came from the coffers of Uber, Lyft, Doordash, Postmates (which was recently acquired by Uber) and Instacart. On its current trajectory, the proposition is poised to set a record as the best-funded proposition in state history.
The No on 22 campaign, on the other hand, has only raised about $4.8 million. However, while the opposition’s war chest is small, its army of foot soldiers is growing.
A Dangerous Precedent
On Thursday, Oct. 15, at a No on 22 demonstration in San Francisco, picket signs featuring the logo of the Amalgamated Transit Union — which represents public transit workers in the U.S. and Canada — and a large semi truck trailer emblazoned with the word “Teamsters” could be seen on Market Street.
Union members critical of Prop 22 fear the proposition will embolden a generation of regulation-stifled gig company startups to recruit in full force, and shift labor demand and supply throughout large segments of California’s economy. That fear is amplified by the fact that Prop 22, like many propositions, would require a 7/8ths majority to be overruled — making the outcomes they fear effectively permanent if it passes. For these union members, Prop 22 doesn’t just determine the fate of gig drivers, but the fate of thousands of working class people in California for the foreseeable future.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty” says Jorge Benitez, a hotel banquet waiter and member of Unite Here Local 2 who is worried about what kind of precedent Prop 22 will set. “We’re finding out what is going to come next, so it’s very uncertain, but there is fear.”
Taking a look at the landscape, it’s easy to see why Benitez is concerned. Gig companies have already appeared in several sectors other than ridesharing and food delivery. For example, the San Francisco-based Pared is carving out a space for on-demand gig work in the restaurant industry, while another S.F. gig service, Instawork, is connecting employers across many industries with on-demand contractors. In a particularly sinister example, Civvl gig-ifies process server and eviction mover jobs, proudly proclaiming that it offers access to the “fastest growing money making gig due to COVID-19.”
Not having to pay for unemployment insurance, workers compensation, or sick leave makes companies serving as middlemen in a plethora of industries suddenly profitable. Recruiting gig workers from an app that deploys janitors throughout the city would likely be much less expensive for a hotel than paying their custodians as employees, with all the affiliated taxes and benefits, Singh explains — adding that he is wary of what may happen when Unite Here Local 2 renegotiates their contracts in 2023.
“Now, I think that we have the protection of a union contract, and the companies, the union hotels in San Francisco, are prohibited from outsourcing our work to third parties or to gig work. But, if non-union hotel companies can do that, it creates a huge competitive advantage to be non-union,” says Singh. “Again, it speeds up this race to the bottom — that you can eliminate rights for working people, you don’t have to pay for healthcare, you don’t have to pay for retirement, or pension, or vacation, or unemployment insurance, or any of the other fringe benefits, if we pay through an app a flat rate.”
This “race to the bottom” could affect non-union workers, as well, according to Griffis, the banquet waiter and Unite Here Local 2 member. He argues that non-union workers should be asking whether Proposition 22 could set a precedent for what the appropriate wages and benefits are for any worker in the state.
In this sense, he sees his union as advocating for the entire working class in their opposition to Prop 22. “It’s a power struggle,” he says — and he is interested in protecting the workers, not the bosses.