Organized labor regroups in the battle against gig-economy giants

Irina Baranova

A coalition of labor groups pushing to make gig workers count as employees in Massachusetts has renamed their campaign and begun hiring staff that will try to fight some of the giants of the tech world on multiple fronts. But most gig workers in Massachusetts don’t want to become employees of the app-based tech companies they work for. Unless the labor groups can change their minds — and the minds of lawmakers and voters — with an aggressive campaign, Big Tech might very well get its way.

Organized labor in Massachusetts has its work cut out for it this year, combating multiple efforts by major gig-economy companies to exempt their workers from state labor laws. A bill in the Legislature and a ballot question that will be put to Massachusetts voters in November would affirm the companies’ legal right to count their workers as contractors, instead of protected employees.

Labor’s shift in strategy from a focus on workers to one vilifying their Big Tech opponents is shown in the campaign’s new name. What was once the “Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights” is now known as “Massachusetts Is Not For Sale.” It’s also building out a team for a regional strategy and working on local and national fundraising.

Two new notable hires have joined the labor coalition’s fight. Veteran SEIU strategist Wes McEnany is the group’s new campaign director, whose track record includes the massive legislative win which resulted in the $15 an hour minimum wage, and he’s worked to enroll tech workers in labor unions. The campaign has also brought on board senior consultant Wilnelia Rivera, one of the brains behind U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s upset win over incumbent Congressman Mike Capuano in 2018.

Rivera told GBH News the hiring of McEnany and herself is a recognition that the campaign will be a fight on multiple fronts and that the name change is in direct opposition to what labor sees as their opponents’ attempts to win over voters by spending millions on ads as the election approaches.

“This is what they’re doing, that they’re trying to buy us out, whether it’s at the Legislature, at the ballot box,” Rivera said.

The tech companies behind the ballot measure, including Lyft, Uber, Instacart and DoorDash, spent $200 million to pass a similar measure in California. Rivera said labor expects the companies to spend at least $60 million in Massachusetts. Lyft alone has already contributed $13 million to the Massachusetts effort.

While the Massachusetts AFL-CIO has bankrolled much of the effort to oppose the ballot question and legislation so far, the coalition also includes the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the NAACP New England Area Conference, the ACLU of Massachusetts and other organizations.

After Attorney General Maura Healey charged major app-based employers in 2020 with breaking state labor laws for not treating their drivers as employees eligible for wage protections and benefits, the tech industry responded with attempts to change the law. The bill sitting before the Legislature and the November ballot question would grant drivers benefits like earned sick time and paid leave while letting them remain independent contractors instead of legal employees.

“The opposition changed their name because they do not have drivers on their side, nor have they ever been interested in listening to what the vast majority of drivers want,” Conor Yunits, spokesperson for the tech-backed Flexibility & Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers Committee, told GBH News.

A recent survey of app-based delivery and ride-hailing drivers — sponsored by the industry-supported committee and conducted by Beacon Research — found 81% of drivers support the ballot question exempting them from the full extent of the state’s legal labor benefits for employees, while granting limited new benefits under continued independent contractor status.

There was even greater support for the ballot measure from women of color at 86%, all drivers of color at 83% and drivers with school-aged children at 87%. The survey found that 71% of drivers generally prefer to keep their independent contractor status over an employee model.

“The opposition is trying to suggest that drivers and voters don’t understand the issue. We are confident that voters will see through that condescension and stand with drivers to protect the flexibility and benefits they overwhelmingly want,” Yunits said.

Before the ballot question goes before voters, the Legislature could still weigh in on the matter and pass a law to settle the issue. The industry has pushed for legislation similar to California’s laws that grant exemptions from legal benefits for app-based workers. And then there’s Healey’s suit against the tech giants, which is still pending.

“We can’t ignore what’s happening in the Legislature or in the courts. But we also need to be able to prepare our ground game to be able to fight along the way, as well as preparing for a potential fight in the ballot,” Rivera said.

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