Uber Drivers Sue, Claim Company Pressured Them to Support Prop 22

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

A small group of drivers are suing Uber over repetitive in-app messages from the company about Proposition 22, a ballot initiative it would very much like them to support. Considering the deluge of political messages you’re undoubtedly getting on your own cellular device, you’re probably sympathetic to their plight. There are few things more annoying than being constantly reminded about an election nobody seems capable of shutting up about — especially when they can’t seem to get your name right.

But Uber likely crossed a line with its employees. While political action campaigns can inundate you with the most obnoxious and misleading election information, your employer isn’t supposed to. These drivers are claiming Uber violated their employment rights by trying to get them to support a ballot measure it has a vested interest in every time they checked their mobile device to hunt for a fare.

We’ve covered the matter extensively but it really comes down to Assembly Bill 5 nuking California’s gig economy. Advocates claim that independent contractors are being taken advantage of and need to be reclassified as employees (with the legal benefits and protections that come with) while decorators suggest AB5 will force employers into a corner and leave the state with far fewer jobs. Frankly, they both seem spot on in their individual assessments of the situation — making a simple solution exceedingly difficult to come by.

Prop 22 exists to grant special exemptions to certain companies running app-based driving/delivery services and is backed by firms like DoorDash, Instacart, Lyft, Postmates, and Uber. In fact, gig economy companies have spent nearly $200 million on a campaign to convince voters that their industry will die without it. Californians have been seeing everything from televised ads to those obnoxious texts. Uber even has an add run on the app whenever customers decide it’s time to hail a ride. However, drivers are said to be getting unique variants of their own, which isn’t supposed to happen.

According to the Washington Post, the suing drivers filed their paperwork in San Francisco Superior Court on Thursday — asking for $260 million in penalties over rights violations. But they’re not exactly unbiased employees just hoping to get a fair shake in an industry that undervalues them. Several of the involved drivers are actively campaigning against Prop 22 and heavily involved in labor organizing.

From the Post story:

Uber’s threats and constant barrage of Prop 22 propaganda on an app the drivers must use to do their work have one purpose: to coerce the drivers to support Uber’s political battle to strip them of workplace protections,” David Lowe, partner at Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe and an attorney for the drivers, said in a statement.

The battle over Proposition 22 has heated up the last few months as Uber and the other gig economy companies have poured nearly $200 million into the ballot measure campaign, making it the most expensive in California history. The campaign has inundated voters with mailers, text messages, phone calls and advertisements. The companies say their businesses will be battered if forced to classify gig workers as employees.

The No on Proposition 22 side, backed by labor groups and unions, has contributed more than $15 million to its campaign. It says drivers deserve to be classified as employees and get benefits, like minimum wage, health care and sick leave.

Claimants are alleging that Uber engaged in illegal political coercion by issuing repeated warnings to drivers about the consequences if Prop 22 fails to pass this November. Those included everything from positive messaging about Prop 22 to reminders that the ride-hailing giant might have to abandon the entire state. For a time, Uber was even issuing messages that effectively forced drivers to voice some form of approval of the ballot measure before they could close out of the app. Uber has since explained that it has removed most of those messages but did not deny that drivers are still seeing messaging requesting they vote yes on Prop 22.

“This is an absurd lawsuit, without merit, filed solely for press attention and without regard for the facts,” Uber spokesman Noah Edwardsen said. “It can’t distract from the truth: that the vast majority of drivers support Prop 22 and have for months because they know it will improve their lives and protect the way they prefer to work.”

Uber has maintained that the vast majority of drivers (nearly 75 percent) will vote to support Prop 22. But the lawsuit has claimed this is a false statistic or the direct result of it having coerced employees. It also claims that the company monitored survey results and gave preferential treatment to the drivers that most vocally supported the ballot measure. Drivers are seeking a fairly massive payout (most of which would go to the government with workers receiving a smaller slice) and for Uber to immediately halt using its driver-scheduling app for political messaging.

Uber isn’t the only company getting into trouble for this type of stuff either. Last week, Instacart asked workers to place pro-Proposition 22 stickers in customers’ orders at at least one location and DoorDash has been providing free pro-Proposition 22 food delivery bags that workers are obligated to carry to customers.

Since the Supreme Court opted to protected the speech of corporations as if they were people in 2010 (derp), companies have had a lot more leeway to try and push staff to support their own political goals. But all of the above may be in violation of the First Amendment and almost certainly skirts a few state-based labor laws designed to keep firms from mobilizing employees for political gain.

[Image: Jonathan Weiss/Shutterstock]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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3 of 13 comments
  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Oct 26, 2020

    I feel bad for Uber drivers...they are at the mercy of an algorithm, which will always seek the lowest reimbursement to them....treating them as employees (which they are) is fair, but the whole Uber business model is cheating...ignore local regulations....ignore taxi licensing....push all the costs on the driver, including acquisiton. Screwing the employees isn't a bug, it's a feature. Is anyone surprised anti-prop propaganda is pushed on this app ?

    • Arthur Dailey Arthur Dailey on Oct 27, 2020

      Uber often 'set up' in cities with a disregard for existing rules, or regulations regarding their operational requirements, insurance requirements, licensing requirements and employment laws. Other 'app' services followed suit. Sometimes when the courts found against these 'app/technology providers' they closed shop and moved out. For example Foodora pulling out of Canada. The misclassification of workers is a common occurrence. Employers use this 'dodge' to avoid paying in Ontario required contributions to employment insurance, canada pension plan, employers health tax, and workers compensation premiums, plus any overtime, paid public holidays or vacation pay. If the worker is deemed to be an 'independent contractor' then they also do not receive termination or severance pay. All adding up to a very tidy sum for the 'employer'. Unfortunately for the workers not only do they often find themselves unable to collect E.I. when they are out of work, unable to collect WSIB if injured on the job, and with a reduced pension when they 'retire'. They also have to make 'lump sum' tax payments as their employer is not making tax contributions on their behalf.

  • Flipper35 Flipper35 on Oct 27, 2020

    Since the driver decides which fare to take they are more akin to a PRN position than a full time employee. For them to be independent contractors they should be able to "negotiate" the percent they receive of each fare. I don't care for Uber and have never used them for anything, but in this case I do not see the drivers as regular full time employees. That said, Uber does everything in its power to cheat everyone.

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