‘Those in Power Won’t Give Up Willingly’: Veena Dubal and Meredith Whittaker on the Future of Organizing Under Prop 22

Workers can build solidarity and fight back against ‘anti-democratic, corporate law-making’

Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

This op-ed was co-authored by Veena Dubal.

alifornia voters, overwhelmed by a deluge of gig-company-sponsored misinformation over several months, voted in favor of Proposition 22, which eradicates basic labor protections for the state’s most vulnerable workers.

The law — a wholesale elimination of basic workers’ rights across an entire sector — has the potential to spread across the country and to other industries.

Authored and supported by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart, and Postmates, Prop 22 creates a third category of low-rights workers for “transportation network companies” and “delivery network companies.” The law ensures that these workers, who lack the independence of true independent contractors, have no access to a time-based wage floor, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, sick leave, or state-mandated health insurance. It also creates significant barriers to unionization. And just to be sure it sticks, the gig companies that authored Prop 22 made it nearly impossible to change, requiring a seven-eighths vote by the California legislature to modify it.

To get Prop 22 passed, gig companies — which have yet to turn a profit — spent a historic $205 million on their campaign, effectively creating a political template for future anti-democratic, corporate law-making. In near-constant television and internet ads, mailers, emails, and texts, the companies made claims about the proposition that were emphatically untrue — including that the proposition ensured that workers made a minimum wage. They also used their control over workers to force them into promoting the measure and appropriated “woke” signaling to conceal the nefarious ways in which the law eradicated protections for a primarily Black, Indigenous, and people of color and immigrant workforce. Uber, for its part, tied white-collar workers’ raises and promotions to their work in getting Prop 22 passed, resulting in at least one worker quitting in protest. Together, the companies even hired sleazy public relations firms to orchestrate harassment and threats against opponents and paid for misleading studies to undermine findings from independent research.

This corrupt campaign worked. $200 million is a lot of money, but it’s a lot less than the long-term prospect of paying a living wage to workers and being responsible to consumers for safety and accessibility. Their gamble paid off, for now.

Gutting worker protections in California is bad enough. But these companies aren’t stopping there. An ebullient November 4 press release from Lyft made clear that gig companies plan to use the California precedent to push this low-rights category nationally, calling Prop 22 “a groundbreaking step toward the creation of a ‘third way’ that recognizes independent workers in the U.S.” In coalition with companies like Amway and Kelly Services, they are already pushing for federal legislation to dismantle worker protections and lower the bar across a variety of industries.

It’s important to note that Prop 22 is in line with the alarming trend of hyper-inequality that has helped define this decade as massive corporations, many in the tech sector, rapidly consolidate power while those outside this minuscule elite bubble watch as their security and access to resources erode. By eradicating worker protections, lowering wages, and demanding extortionary fees from “partner businesses,” gig companies like DoorDash, Uber, and Lyft are increasing their hold over key sectors, undermining local businesses and livelihoods.

This was a vile victory and a grim precedent. So what’s there to be hopeful about?

First, we can examine the context from which Prop 22 emerged. As recently as 2015, it seemed unthinkable that gig workers could organize at all. But throughout the last five years, they have not only organized but done so on a global scale, defying many skeptics who saw their atomized and precarious working conditions as fundamental barriers to building worker power. Rideshare Drivers United led a global strike ahead of Uber’s IPO and staged regular pickets and actions in front of corporate gig company headquarters. Organizations like Gig Workers Collective led actions against Instacart and other gig delivery companies. And throughout, a major focus was upgrading workers’ status from “contractor” to “employee” and gaining the security and benefits that came with it.

That the treatment of workers is now top of mind in public discourse on the gig economy is thanks in large part to these organized workers. As Gig Workers Collective put it in their statement on November 4, “when GWC members first started to organize in 2016, gig companies were considered to be exciting startups. … It was hard to get anyone to understand that this was all at the expense of the worker.” The labor to change this narrative and cut through the technophilic hype that painted exploited workers as “entrepreneurs” and regressive business models as “innovation” has taken tremendous effort and faced significant resistance from these companies.

Beyond cutting through the facade of gig-company marketing, these workers have also focused demands and attention on a key site of tech industry power — proprietary algorithms and massive data collection used to calibrate worker pay and scheduling in ways designed to get as much out of workers while giving them as little as possible. Gig workers were some of the earliest populations subject to these opaque automated management systems. But — like Prop 22’s third category of low-rights worker s— the use of such infrastructure is poised to expand beyond gig work, especially as worker surveillance intensifies during Covid-19. Workers gaining control over the way these black-box systems shape their lives and livelihoods may seem far-fetched, but so did the possibility of organized gig workers in 2015. And these demands make a powerful claim to the very forces that are shaping lives and working conditions, laying the groundwork for a fight that gets to the heart of Big Tech’s power. These demands also situate gig workers within a broad and organic coalition, from Amazon warehouse workers protesting the algorithmic productivity rate that governs their work to communities pushing back against facial recognition to students rejecting surveillant and punitive online proctoring systems, all of them fighting for more control and autonomy in the face of centralized systems of surveillance and control.

Gig-worker organizing also won big. It’s what paved the way for California lawmakers to pass AB5 in 2019, a law that made it clear that gig workers were owed the same protections as low-wage workers in other sectors. This was an exceptional win that was again nearly unthinkable a year before it happened. It was AB5 and the worker power behind it that gig companies wrote Prop 22 to contest, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. Prop 22 may have passed, but this powerful worker organization hasn’t stopped.

Workers continue pushing lawmakers and advocates to find new pathways to contest these companies’ concentrated power and its reliance on exploitation. Scholars like Sanjukta Paul and Marshall Steinbaum, for example, have outlined antitrust remedies that wrest power and control from companies and give these back to workers, and as the appetite for Big Tech breakup gains steam, these are exactly the kinds of proposals we need to keep close at hand.

Just as worker power and organized pressure made a path for AB5 in California, it can do the same at a national level. Whoever the next president is, it’s our job to relentlessly pressure them to disavow Prop 22’s specious worker classifications in California and beyond. This won’t be easy. But a broad coalition of organized workers, scholars, and communities have already formed over the last years as people across diverse sectors recognize the increasing threat that monopolistic tech companies pose to our livelihoods and democracy. Prop 22 shows what organized workers have known for a long time: Those in power won’t give up willingly. Our job now is to build solidarity and fight to take it back.

Veena Dubal is a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings. Her research focuses on the intersection of law, technology, and precarious work.

Meredith Whittaker is the Minderoo Research Professor at New York University, and co-founder of the AI Now Institute. Her research focuses on corporate tech power and artificial intelligence.

Written by

Minderoo Research Professor, NYU; Co-founder, AI Now Institute; ex-Google Open Research. Examining corporate tech power and AI, and organizing with tech workers

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