with Aaron Schaffer

A battle is brewing over a White House-backed bill that would have wide-ranging consequences for workers’ ability to organize across the tech industry.

Tech companies, trade groups and industry-funded coalitions are ramping up their criticism of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would change decades-old labor laws to strengthen unions, create new penalties for companies that violate labor laws and expand collective bargaining rights for hundreds of thousands of workers. Critically for Silicon Valley, the bill would pave the way for gig workers at companies such as Uber, DoorDash and others to organize by giving these workers currently classified as contractors the status of employees for the purposes of union organizing.

“We strongly oppose the PRO Act—a sweeping and unnecessary proposal that would upend employer/employee relations and damage American competitiveness,” said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, a trade association representing major tech companies. 

The bill has already passed the House, and President Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure and climate plan called for passage of it.

Union leaders, liberal Democrats and worker advocacy groups view the bill as a chance to stand up for tech workers after a series of crippling blows.

Recent drives to advance worker rights within tech giants have faltered, and advocates for the Pro Act say that underscores the problems with labor laws in today's workforce. They argue a recent union drive at Amazon's Bessmer, Ala., warehouse underscores the need for tougher labor laws. The company won the vote by more than a 2-1 margin, even after Biden supported the unionization efforts and organizers poured significant resources into the drive. 

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“All of the tactics that Amazon and other companies have been doing for so long to stop workers from organizing on the job really came to light in Bessemer,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) in an interview. “It was a really perfect example, an unfortunate and terrible but also perfect example, of why the Pro Act is so necessary.”

Labor organizers argue if there were tougher penalties for companies aiming to intimidate organizing workers, they might have won the Alabama union drive. Their accusations come as the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which sought to represent the Amazon workers in Alabama, challenges the election's results, claiming the company used illegal tactics to mislead and intimidate workers. Amazon has pushed back against those claims. 

Liz Shuler, the AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer, said in an interview she has “no doubt” the union push would have been successful if the Pro Act were in place because it might have deterred Amazon from allegedly intimidating workers. 

“Right now if Amazon breaks the law, it's like a slap on the wrist," Shuler said. “There's really no downside to breaking the law time and time again to intimidate people. … The Pro Act would reverse course on that.” 

The legislation is also widely seen as the next front in the years-long battle over gig-worker classification.

Many of the same worker advocates and drivers who fought for Uber, Lyft and other workers to be classified as employees are advocating for passage of the Pro Act. Cherri Murphy, a 53-year-old former rideshare driver who fought for California drivers to be classified as employees, views passing the Pro Act as an extension of that battle. She said continuing to classify workers as contractors has created a “caste system," where drivers have few protections like paid sick leave and minimum wage.

She said tech companies' victory in passing Proposition 22, a ballot measure classifying all gig workers in California as independent contractors, “still hurts,” but is motivating her to push for legislation at the federal level to strengthen drivers' rights.

We will continue to organize, organize, organize,” she told me in an interview. “We’re committed more than ever.”

Tech companies also are funneling resources into fighting the Pro Act, seeking to paint the legislation as a federal copy of California’s AB5, which was overturned by the Proposition 22 ballot initiative. 

“The U.S. Senate shouldn't adopt the same bad policy rejected by California workers and voters alike, especially during an economic downturn when these earning opportunities are needed more than ever,” said Whitney Brennan, a spokeswoman for the App-Based Work Alliance, a coalition of independent contractors backed by Doordash, Instacart, Lyft, Postmates and Uber.

The coalition is also publicizing the stories of app-based workers who say they like the flexibility of contract work.

Corporations are arguing that a pandemic isn’t the time to pass stricter labor laws. They’re running an aggressive campaign to portray the legislation as bad for business and potentially harmful for jobs.

“As the economy slowly gets back on its feet from the pandemic, Uber believes governments should focus on expanding work opportunities, not eliminating them,” Danielle Burr, head of Uber federal affairs, said in a statement. “The PRO Act misses that mark. We look forward to working with Congress and the Administration to advance a model that combines the flexibility of independent work with access to portable benefits.”

It remains to be seen if moderate Senate Democrats embrace the legislation. 

The White House has called for Congress to send the Pro Act to Biden's desk to ensure unions play a key role in rebuilding the economy after the pandemic. 

“As America works to recover from the devastating challenges of deadly pandemic, an economic crisis, and reckoning on race that reveals deep disparities, we need to summon a new wave of worker power to create an economy that works for everyone,” the White House said in a statement last month. 

But some Senate Democrats continue to have concerns about the legislation, including Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a former venture capitalist very active on tech policy. He said in a recent interview that he had not yet endorsed the bill because there were “certain components of the legislation that do make me pause.” However, he generally supports workers' right to organize. 

The stakes are high for organized labor, which sees the tech industry as the next frontier. 

There's been a growing surge of worker activism at major tech companies, ranging from contractors like Uber drivers to top engineers walking out of Google. Shuler, of the AFL-CIO, says the tech sector is not that different than other economic sectors with unions. 

“Workers' innate desire to come together and have their voices be more powerful as a collective is something that is universal,” she said. “I think Amazon is just the beginning, not only on the warehouse side of the business." 

Our top tabs

A trove of comments from the now-defunct TheDonald.win reveal violent online chatter ahead of the Capitol attacks. 

Discussions on TheDonald.win reveal the precision and pragmatism of the advance planning for the insurrection, Craig Timberg reports. The forum reportedly received more than a million visits at its peak in December, though its owner shut the site down after Jan. 6.

Nonpartisan research group Advance Democracy provided The Washington Post with a report with archived comments from the site. Users talked about how to bring guns into Washington and discussed what kind of zip ties would most effectively detain members of Congress who voted to certify Biden's election. 

“Get ready to occupy the Capitol Building,” a user wrote Dec. 27. “Find the tunnels. Arrest the worst traitors We need over a million angry people; at least 100k armed. Let them try to hurt us as civilians. Their support will collapse overnight.”

Democratic lawmakers pressed the Justice Department for information on algorithms used by law enforcement.

The letter by the eight Democrats, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), demands details from Attorney General Merrick Garland about the software, which predicts where crimes are likely to occur and who is likely to commit them. 

Privacy and racial justice groups have said there is little evidence the software even works, with critics noting the technology could disproportionately affect communities of color. In the letter, the lawmakers press Garland for answers — due by the end of May — on Justice Department funding for the technologies at the federal, state and local level. They also questioned their legality and demanded details about how the software is used. 

House Republican staffers are floating potential changes to Section 230. 

In a memorandum, they proposed a series of ways that lawmakers could change the foundational Internet law, including barring tech companies from banning users based on their political affiliation or views. They said the changes should only apply to large tech firms, with more than $1 billion a year in revenue. 

They also believe tech companies should have to “implement and maintain” reasonable content moderation systems to address illegal content or harassment of people under the age of 18. 

The memorandum signals Republicans plan to make protecting children online a key policy priority, as they want to strengthen a decades-old children's privacy law. 

The memo was swiftly criticized by industry group Netchoice, which called it “a retreat from conservative values” that “puts key principles such as free enterprise and limited government at risk, all while harming key tools conservatives use to reach American voters.”

Rant and rave

The solutions offered in the memorandum were criticized by Jennifer Huddleston, the director of technology and innovation policy at the center-right-leaning American Action Forum:

Joseph Jerome, the consumer advocacy group Common Sense Media's director for platform accountability and state advocacy:

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Google pledged to provide 250,000 coronavirus vaccines to countries in need.

The company also committing is an additional $250 million in advertising grants to governments and organizations to share information about the vaccines, it said in a blog post. About $2.5 million in grant funding will go to three organizations working with community-based organizations to serve Black, Latino and rural communities through pop-up vaccination sites and other efforts.

Trending

Mentions

  • The Klein/Johnson Group registered to lobby for Cisco Systems effective March 1. Four lobbyists are registered to work on the account, including co-founders Matthew Johnson and Israel Klein. They plan to lobby on 5G policy and a bill to bolster U.S. tech leadership.
  • Silvio Savarese, a former associate professor of computer science at Stanford University, has joined Salesforce as an executive vice president and the chief scientist of Salesforce Research.
  • Avenue Solutions registered to lobby for Psiphon, which makes a tool that allows users to circumvent online censorship and securely access the Internet, effective March 15. Amy Tejral, a founding partner at the firm, and vice president Jordan LaCrosse plan to lobby on global Internet freedom issues.
  • Greystone Global Strategies registered to lobby for Techmet, a mining investment firm that, according to Reuters, counts the U.S. government as its largest investor. Chris Beatty, the firm’s founder, is the sole registered lobbyist on the account and plans to lobby on “critical mineral supply chains.”

Daybook

  • Kevin Walsh, the Government Accountability Office’s IT and cybersecurity director, and two government agencies’ chief information officers testify on IT acquisition before a House Oversight and Reform Committee panel on Friday at 9 a.m. 
  • Cecilia Muñoz, the director of former president Barack Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, speaks at a New America CA event on gig workers on April 19 at 1 p.m.
  • The House Agriculture Committee holds a hearing on rural broadband access on April 20 at 10 a.m.
  • Acting Federal Trade Commission chairwoman Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and the FTC’s three commissioners testify before the Senate Commerce Committee on April 20 at 10 a.m.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee holds a nomination hearing for tech critic Lina Khan, Biden’s pick to join the Federal Trade Commission, and Bill Nelson, a former senator represented Florida and who Biden chose to lead NASA, on April 21 at 10 a.m.
  • A House Energy and Commerce Committee panel holds a hearing on securing U.S. wireless network technology on April 21 at 10:30 a.m.
  • A Senate Judiciary Committee panel holds a hearing on app stores on April 21 at 2:30 p.m. 

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