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The Technology 202: Uber, Lyft drivers vow to continue fight for unions despite company pushback

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With Cat Zakrzewski

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Uber and Lyft drivers seeking to form unions hailed a new California law requiring gig economy workers to be classified as employees as a crucial victory. But their plans are in limbo as the companies vow to fight the law. 

The drivers are gearing up for a fresh battle with the ride-hailing companies, which are seeking to convince California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to exempt them from having to comply with Assembly Bill 5. 

“We have heard from the industry that they're not going to follow the law, so we have quite a few fights ahead,” says Nicole Moore, a driver and organizer with Rideshare Drivers United. “We are committed to basic employment rights, a basic wage. We can’t count on anything from [Uber and Lyft]." 

Workers' groups argue that while AB5 offers basic protections, collective bargaining is the best way to tackle key issues such as falling wages and a lack of transparency from the company over changes to the app that impact their work. 

“The main obstacle is they wouldn't be able to bargain over pay without a union,” says Alex Rosenblat, a research lead at Data and Society who has spent years studying ride-hail drivers.

But Uber and Lyft are insisting workers don't actually need to be employees to have bargaining rights. They are proposing to Newsom's office an alternative plan that would include paying drivers a $21 minimum wage for every hour spent driving or picking up a passenger, providing them access to benefits paid for by the company, and the ability to collectively bargain over wages as independent contractors — through a yet-to-be-established state-run board. 

“We agree with Gov. Newsom that California still has an opportunity to support the overwhelming majority of rideshare drivers who want a thoughtful solution that balances flexibility with earnings guarantees and protections,” Adrian Durbin, director of communications for Lyft, said in a statement. “We are confident that with his leadership we can reach a historic agreement.” 

But the groups reject these ideas, insisting that workers can have full bargaining rights and protections only when they are considered employees. “They're just talking about denying drivers basic rights. They're touting 'portable benefits' when employee status gives workers many of those benefits already,” Moore tells me. “They're creating a third category of workers who won't get the basic labor protections of employment.” 

The resurgent conflict between the drivers and companies could have national implications for the future of gig economy workers. Gig economy workers have already become a flash point in the 2020 elections. Candidates including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg have supported the idea of industry-wide bargaining and called for an end to the misclassification of gig workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers as independent contractors.

Drivers' protests so far have caught candidates' attention, and the groundswell of calls for unions could keep the pressure on California politicians to stick to their guns. Rideshare Drivers United, which formed in Los Angeles last year as an independent association of ride-hail drivers and has more than 5,000 members, isn't alone in seeking to bring drivers together for collective bargaining. The Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters, and the Amalgamated Transit Union have all been approached by drivers seeking to organize.

“Our main focus is not just to build our numbers, our main focus is to assist these people that have never been in a union, to organize them and show them how it is to have a livable wage and benefits,” Art Aguilar, California conference board chair of the Amalgamated Transit Union, tells me. 

He dismissed efforts from the companies to undo the law as “fighting the inevitable.” “All they're doing is delaying them having to pay up for these employees that they need to recognize,” Aguilar says.

Yet Uber and Lyft, alongside delivery start-up DoorDash, have vowed to go through with a $90 million campaign for a ballot measure to challenge the law if they can't stop it from going into effect before Jan. 1. “If necessary we are prepared to take this issue to the voters to preserve the freedom and access drivers and passengers want,” Durbin said. 

Some critics of unions for ride-hailing drivers have dismissed the idea that such a dispersed workforce can organize. But Rideshare Drivers United has been able to use social media and its own app to organize drivers who aren’t normally in the same physical space and have no traditional way to meet. 

And some Uber drivers have already filed a class-action lawsuit against the company for misclassifying them as independent contractors after the law passed and are asking the court to require the company to immediately classify them as employees.

Drivers such as Moore say they have a reason to be skeptical that Uber and Lyft's proposed compromise will provide the same protections as employee status. 

First, they say there are already big problems with the companies' alternative proposal for drivers in California. The $21 an hour minimum wage Uber and Lyft offered as a compromise covers only time picking up and driving passengers — which the groups say only represents a fraction of the time spent behind the wheel for drivers.

And the drivers are looking cautiously at what happened when New York City stepped in to regulate the companies' treatment and pay of gig workers. Since New York City passed a law last year mandating a minimum wage of a little over $17 an hour for ride-hail drivers, the companies have limited drivers' access to the apps during slow periods. The companies argue they did this to comply with the law, but drivers, who protested in New York last week, say it's a violation of the rules and a way to shift costs to drivers.

There's also a complex question of how the new California law intersects with the Trump administration's previous decisions on gig workers. The Trump administration released a memo in May saying that ride-hailing drivers are not employees, and therefore aren't protected by the National Labor Relations Act, the federal law that allows employees to unionize.

So, some labor experts are saying there needs to be even more action than AB5 to make the issue crystal clear: potentially through a new law explicitly granting the drivers the right to bargain as employees. 

“It's something that the governor might need to address,” Rosenblat says. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the number of drivers in Rideshare Drivers United. There are roughly 100,000 drivers in just Los Angeles. 


BITS: Facebook revealed that it has suspended “tens of thousands” of apps that may have mishandled users’ personal data as a part of an ongoing investigation into app developers on its platform after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The disclosure raises new questions about the tech giant's privacy practices at the same time U.S. regulators are probing its business practices, my colleagues Tony Romm and Drew Harwell report.

The disclosure also raises concerns that apps on its platforms exploited user data more extensively than Facebook initially portrayed. Facebook's update on the investigation coincided with the unveiling of court documents by the Massachusetts attorney general showing that Facebook had disclosed at least 2,000 of the apps exhibited behaviors that “may suggest data misuse.”

Facebook has not revealed the names of the apps suspended, and said that only a few of the apps investigated were banned for inappropriately sharing user data.

 “This is not necessarily an indication that these apps were posing a threat to people. Many were not live but were still in their testing phase when we suspended them,” Ime Archibong, vice president of product partnerships, wrote in a blog post. “It is not unusual for developers to have multiple test apps that never get rolled out.” 

NIBBLES: A group of WeWork board members want to oust CEO Adam Neumann following reports of his erratic behavior and an announcement that the company would push its effort to go public until October, the Wall Street Journal's Maureen Farrell, Liz Hoffman, Eliot Brown and David Benoit report. The board could meet as soon as this week to discuss a new role for Neumann that would remove him from his executive leadership position, they report.

Among the concerns facing WeWork investors are the company's massive cash burn, which has the company on track to spend its cash on hand by sometime next year, the Wall Street Journal reports. Softbank Group, the company's largest investor, is represented among those hoping that removing Neumann could give the IPO a fresh start. The Journal was unable to determine how all of the board directors planned on voting.

BITS: Several major music festivals, including Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits, promised to not use facial recognition software on crowds. The commitments come in response to a campaign from the privacy rights group Fight for the Future, which called on festivals to not use the software, which is becoming increasingly common. 

“The companies that run major festivals should not be experimenting on music fans by scanning our faces and collecting our biometric information,” Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, said in a statement. “Festival organizers have a moral imperative to clearly commit to not using this invasive and racially biased technology on music fans.”

But the campaign still has a long way to go in achieving its goals. Big players such as South by Southwest and Coachella wouldn't commit to banning the technology. And while Live Nation, the biggest events promoter in the United States, has said it's not currently using the technology, it hasn't committed to not doing so in the future.


— News from the private sector:

Snap Detailed Facebook’s Aggressive Tactics in ‘Project Voldemort’ Dossier (The Wall Street Journal)

Inside Airbnb, Employees Eager for Big Payouts Pushed It to Go Public (The New York Times)

A ‘Grass Roots’ Campaign to Take Down Amazon Is Funded by Amazon’s Biggest Rivals (Wall Street Journal)

Google Will Listen to Your Conversations Again, But Ask First (Bloomberg)


— News from the public sector:

One Brother Stabbed the Other. The Journalist Who Wrote About It Paid a Price. (The New York Times)

U.S. Grants Apple 10 Exemptions from Tariffs on Chinese Imports (Wall Street Journal)

Lawmakers say Zuckerberg has agreed to 'cooperate' with antitrust probe (The Hill)

Uber sues New York City to overturn limits on drivers cruising without passengers (The Verge)

Secretive FBI demands for information go far beyond tech companies, new documents reveal (Craig Timberg and Devlin Barrett)


—  Tech news generating buzz around the Web:

'Sorry to This Man' Is the Perfect Meme for Right Now (Wired)

The War for Talent in the Age of Netflix (Wall Street Journal)


— Today:

— Coming soon:

  • The House Science Committee will host a hearing on “Online Imposters and Disinformation” Tuesday at 10 a.m.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee will host a hearing to “explore issues relating to competition in technology markets and the antitrust agencies’ efforts to root out anti-competitive conduct” on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m.
  • Amazon will host a media event to launch new hardware on Wednesday.
  • Toronto will host Elevate, a tech and innovation conference, September 20-26.