The Future of Decent Work Depends on the Failure of Prop 22
If the Uber-backed ballot initiative passes, it may lay the groundwork for unrest not seen since the onset of the Industrial Revolution
In a moment absolutely overstuffed with events that all bear the weight of historic significance — the hard-right lurch of the Supreme Court, an election the president appears destined to lose and then contest, another surge in the deadly pandemic — it’s easy for California’s Prop 22 to get lost in the shuffle. But it could be as momentous as any of that. Its passage would mark a definitive milestone in the rise of algorithm-orchestrated jobs, and deliver a serious and possibly permanent blow to the future of decent work, not unlike the one dealt to workers at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Prop 22 aims to classify drivers and delivery workers for apps like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart as independent contractors rather than employees. It would exempt those companies from California’s new AB5 law, which grants full-time gig workers employee status and the rights — like a guaranteed minimum wage and worker’s comp benefits — that come along with it. The companies argue this is justified because they are technology companies running new marketplaces for work, not employers.
As a consolation, Prop 22 would create a tier of substandard benefits for such workers, like a small subsidy for purchasing health insurance and a wage guarantee for time spent driving (but not, importantly, for any time spent en route to other rides, or waiting for fares). These perks pale in comparison to the benefits the state requires employers provide for actual employees and crucially, the passage of Prop 22 would mean gig workers could not legally organize.
This is where the danger lies: Prop 22 would enshrine in California a new, substandard class of gig worker as not eligible for the kind of benefits currently held by employees earning even a minimum wage, at a time when inequality is on the rise, the economy is in shambles, and platform companies are poised to become an increasingly common source of income.
It has happened before. There is a precedent for entrepreneurs and executives, riding a wave of new…