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

Brian Merchant


Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images

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 technologies, backing workers into a corner in an effort to maximize profits, stripping them of their right to a decent wage, and preventing them from organizing in a deeply precarious time. In fact, it’s been happening since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. To understand what it will look like when a society moves from a traditional mode of work to one that’s mediated by a novel technology operated by a new kind of owner, look at what happened when the factory system took root in England around the beginning of the 1800s.

I’ve spent the last couple years researching labor conditions, factories, and the nature of work in the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution for a book about the Luddites. The Luddites are the unfairly maligned movement that rose up in the midst of unsettlingly similar socioeconomic conditions as the ones we’re experiencing today. The early 19th century in England was a period of vast inequality, rapidly changing technology, a crippled economy, all overseen by a state that could not be moved to lend assistance to its growing poverty-stricken ranks. And to top it off, the Combination Acts had made it illegal to organize a trade union.

The men (and women) who would become Luddites were largely weavers, cloth finishers, and lacemakers. When improvements in technology allowed key parts of their work, or in some cases, all of it, to be automated, they staged a series of organized revolts and guerilla actions, smashing the machines that were automating away their livelihoods. What’s most deeply misunderstood about the Luddites is that there was little direct anger at the technology itself — they were angry at the exploitation they were suffering at the hands of the machine-owning class; bosses who were, in the midst of a crisis, taking the opportunity to increase automation, degrade working conditions, and increase their personal profits.

Many Luddites had worked all their lives at home with their families or in small shops with their peers, where they set their hours and schedules. Now, if they weren’t put out of work altogether, they were being forced to move into the factory — where they earned less, were treated poorly, and kept tethered to the whims of machines and the bosses that ran them. If they wanted to make enough money to get by, they had to cede control of their lives to the machines and their owners.

This is a transition a lot like we’re seeing unfold today. The gig platforms were rising long before the pandemic — in 2018, a Gallup report found that that there were 55 million people in the United States, or over 36% of all Americans, doing some gig work or “nontraditional” contract work. Now, that share has likely grown and could expand much further still in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, as the millions of people who’ve lost their traditional jobs turn to platform work to fill the gap.

In the 19th century, factory bosses used technology as a means to consolidate control over workers, to render them more efficient, and to more easily and uniformly capture the surplus value they created. The days were monotonous, the work was dangerous, and crucially, unionizing was not an option.

Gig work apps are in some ways the new factories.

In 1811, there were a series of bad harvests and a nationwide economic downturn due to trade restrictions stemming from Britain’s decades-long war with Napoleon. And meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution was gaining steam — lots of factory owners were buying new and extant machinery, and embarking on projects of mass manufacture for the first time. So: There was widespread inequality, accelerating technology adoption, and mass poverty. And because they could not organize to demand better conditions, the workers felt they had no options aside from accepting their lot — or rising up.

It is, in hindsight, little surprise violence erupted across England. Rise up they did — over the next couple of years, thousands of machines were broken, millions of dollars of damage done, scores of lives were lost, and Britain was forced to send more troops to occupy its Midlands, the hotbed of Luddite activity, than it did to fight Napoleon. It was the largest domestic occupation in the nation’s history, and it brought Britain to the brink.

Gig work apps are in some ways the new factories — they may seem flexible, at first glance, and allow you to work according to your own schedule. But the irony is that gig-work platforms are all about delivering the companies that run them an unprecedented amount of control. Uber decides how much you will make, which rides you are assigned, and where you will go. The apps may not lock you in a darkened room and force you to toil without bathroom breaks, but a raft of incentives, surge pricing, and algorithmically determined bonuses encourage you to lock yourself into the program all the more. To take a specified route, even to stop talking if the customer requests it. To leave the app on around the clock in case a choice fare pops up.

Some workers have already seen their livelihoods swallowed up by gig work — those who used to drive for private car services and taxi cabs especially — and some feel they have no choice but to keep driving. Others simply can’t find any other work — both groups are beholden to this new regime that Prop 22 threatens to make permanent.

As with the factory owners in the Industrial Revolution, it’s the platform companies that benefit from the shift to a mode of work where there are fewer benefits and more opportunities to control the workers. As I’ve written before, the Uber-Lyft business model depends on bottom-of-the-well wages and practices that look an awful lot like exploitation, especially when the work is done full time.

One byproduct of new technologies — in this case, the app-based hailing system that undergirds the gig-app companies — is that they create confusion; they allow profiteers to make arguments that nod to technological determinism; about the need to get with the times, the need for workers to adapt. Silicon Valley executives and the Industrial Revolution-era machine owning class alike knew this and used it to press their advantage. That being the case, the machinations of Prop 22 risk making permanent this arrangement — and leaving a class of struggling workers in thrall to the gig-app system, with no means of recourse to a continuously tweaked and updated set of algorithms. As Anna Wiener notes in the New Yorker, “the obvious endgame for these companies is monopoly,” which, if achieved, we can safely assume that the conditions for workers would only deteriorate further. Wages for drivers have already fallen an astonishing 50% from 2013 to 2017, as the platforms were flooded with a supply of new workers, according to a 2018 Morgan Stanley report.

Most of the conversation around Prop 22 has focused thus far on the companies pushing for its passage, which is understandable. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart, whose business models rely on dirt-cheap labor to get each one anywhere near viability — none, as of writing, are profitable — have poured a record-breaking $187.5 million into promoting Yes on 22. That’s more than has been spent in the history of California’s ballot initiative process. Pro-22 groups backed by Uber and Lyft have harassed a leading labor lawyer and mailed deceptive mailers extolling endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders-affiliated progressive groups that do not in fact exist. Gig-app companies forced their drivers to click they supported Yes on 22 before they could accept rides and showed Yes on 22 messages to riders. DoorDash even forced its delivery workers to make their deliveries in bags emblazoned with Yes on 22 slogans. Meanwhile, in its most indefensible passage, Prop 22 would require a 7/8ths legislative majority vote to overturn, which is completely unprecedented. (Some have required as much as a 2/3rds or 3/5ths, but never a 7/8ths majority). And the companies are essentially bending the truth about some facets of what AB5, the law they are attempting to circumvent, actually does — a key argument they make is that it would rob drivers of flexibility and force them to establish shift-based work. There is nothing in the law that would force them to do this.

There’s a reason that time and again, the proposition is described by experts as a “bellwether” — California is such a big market, and a historic leader in matters of labor law, that what happens here is likely to establish the expected norms nationwide. To that end, Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, has made the case for a nationwide program to establish meager benefits for gig workers and has appealed to the government to help pay for it. The endgame seems clear — create a permanent pool of poorly paid “flexible” workers to serve as grist for the platforms’ mill.

But while all this should underscore how desperate the companies are to overturn AB5 and to protect their ability to pay their workers substandard wages, we should also be aware of the trendlines and trajectories informing the moment into which this law would be inaugurated. A permanent, gig app-beholden underclass, made to serve at the pleasure of companies worth scores of billions of dollars, and sealed into this lower station at a moment rife with rising evictions, mass joblessness, and growing fears of unrest. If history is any guide, it will not end well.

As of this writing, the polls are tight. Prop 22 could go either way. For the sake of preserving a decent future for work — one where gig workers are not crystallized into a lower caste, inequality and the erosion of workers’ rights is not further exacerbated still — we should hope that it fails.

Update: An earlier version of this article misstated how much gig-app companies have paid to promote Prop 22. They have spent $187.5 million.



Brian Merchant

Senior editor, OneZero, books, futures, fiction. Author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, founder of Terraform @ Motherboard @ VICE.