Uber and Lyft drivers in Massachusetts are fighting for the right to unionize


Estedys Novas says he drove for Uber Technologies Inc. for almost seven years — even while he was losing family members to COVID-19 — before he was banned from the app permanently in 2020 for reasons he doesn’t understand.

“Deactivated” and unable to get ride offers from the Uber
app, Novas is now driving for Lyft Inc.
only. That’s why for the past couple of weeks, he and several dozen drivers have rallied at Uber’s offices and at the statehouse for proposed legislation in Massachusetts that could be the first in the nation to give ride-hailing drivers the right to collectively bargain.

“We need the ability to negotiate” things like deactivations and better pay, Novas told MarketWatch.

The Rideshare Drivers Justice Bill, introduced in both the Massachusetts senate and assembly earlier this year, aims to give drivers improved pay and new benefits they don’t currently receive because Uber and Lyft consider them independent contractors. It also includes making the companies pay into the state’s unemployment-insurance system so drivers can get unemployment benefits when needed.

It is just one bill among a handful of others related to gig work introduced in the state during this legislative session. Another key piece of legislation presented in both chambers aims to enforce current Massachusetts labor law, and says app-based drivers and couriers “are already entitled to the same presumptions of employment” and deserve minimum wage and other benefits like all workers who are considered employees in the state.

Still another bill proposes to impose a 5-cent-per-ride fee to go toward a driver-disability fund, and to possibly limit the number of ride-hailing driver licenses allowed in the state in an effort to regulate driving standards.

Related: A driver spent $180,000 to start an Uber Black business. Then the company deactivated his account.

If any of the bills pass by the summer of 2024, they could set the stage for the next front in the battle over gig-worker classification, which has gone on for years. Massachusetts has some of the strongest labor laws in the nation, which is why gig companies tried, and failed, to put a measure on the state ballot last year that would have ensured gig workers in the state stayed independent contractors, according to one of the sponsors of the legislation aiming to protect gig workers.

“You have to understand this is the battleground,” said State Sen. Lydia Edwards, the author of SD 2186, or the EPA (Establishing Protections and Accountability) Act. “There’s a reason why Uber and Lyft are targeting Massachusetts, and it’s to weaken the laws here. They know if they can win here, they can win anywhere.”

Spokespeople for a coalition that represents Uber, Lyft and other gig companies in the state said the coalition opposes most of the legislation, citing the companies’ often-stated position that most drivers want “flexibility.”

‘Workers’ rights are non-negotiable’

Edwards’s bill, which is backed by the AFL-CIO, Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers, “makes sure that our laws are clear: that these workers are employees of Uber and Lyft,” she told MarketWatch.

Meanwhile, because the Rideshare Drivers Justice Bill does not call for drivers to be classified as employees, a couple of unions have officially opposed it. But State Sen. Jason Lewis, who introduced the senate version of the bill, told MarketWatch that about 30,000 ride-hailing drivers in his state “are completely at the mercy of rideshare companies.”

“It is unlikely, if not impossible, for these workers to organize under existing federal law,” Lewis said. “Because they don’t have that path, we need this law.”

Lewis added of his bill, also known as SD 1162: “I think there’s a misunderstanding today about whether it has any bearing at all on misclassification, and I’m saying it does not.”

The Teamsters oppose the bill by Lewis, and so does the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. The AFL-CIO, which helped draft the EPA Act, has not taken a position on Lewis’s bill.

“Instead of inventing new laws that compromise the legal rights of employees, government officials need to enforce the ones that we already have on the books,” Thomas Mari, the president of Teamsters Local 25, said in a statement earlier this year. “Workers’ rights are non-negotiable — there is no ‘third way’ on this issue.”

Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ and the International Association of Machinists, via the Massachusetts Independent Drivers Guild, are pushing for the legislation.

“As the courts continue to consider various issues with regard to regulations on the emerging industry, the Rideshare Drivers Justice Bill would immediately improve drivers’ standard of living and secure a process for them to organize,” the unions said in a joint statement this week.

But Veena Dubal, a law professor and gig-work expert who’s currently a fellow at Stanford University, pointed out that there is a pending lawsuit brought by Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey, a Democrat who was then the state’s attorney general, against Uber and Lyft over driver misclassification.

“My question to lawmakers and unions is: Why would you be willing to concede on behalf of a subordinated minority workforce while there is a lawsuit making its way through the courts?” Dubal said. She called the bill that would grant drivers collective-bargaining power but not employee status “compromise legislation … that is a less-evil version of Prop. 22.”

Uber and Lyft have been advocating a “third way,” like Proposition 22, the ballot measure they introduced and got passed in California that gives drivers a guaranteed wage based on engaged time, and some benefits they didn’t have before. (Prop. 22 was later struck down by a judge; a ruling on gig companies’ appeal of that decision is expected any day now.) Uber, Lyft and other gig companies tried to put a similar measure on the ballot in Massachusetts, but a court threw it out last year.

Uber and Lyft oppose the Rideshare Drivers Justice Bill; their vision of a third way does not include the right to unionize. When reached for comment about the legislation, both companies referred MarketWatch to the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work.

Evan White, a spokesperson for the coalition, said the bills “claim to represent the voices of rideshare and delivery drivers but it’s obvious those measures do not reflect the clearly stated needs and wishes of the vast majority of drivers across Massachusetts.” White said most drivers in the state want to remain independent contractors, but that the legislation’s proposals, even when they don’t explicitly call for drivers to be employees, are more consistent with giving drivers employee status.

“We are opposed to any legislation that would strip flexibility away from drivers,” added Conor Yunits, another spokesperson for the coalition.

‘We want to have a voice’

Francisco “Julin” Asencio said he drove for Uber for four years before his account was deactivated about three months ago, when the company told him he was getting kicked off the app because it received a customer complaint that he was driving under the influence, an allegation he denies. “This is my job,” he said. “I’m not going to drink on the job.”

So he drives only for Lyft now, and said he is two months behind on his rent and car payments. “On Lyft, you can drive a lot of hours but not make money,” said Asencio.

Like Novas, who was also deactivated because of unknown customer complaints, Asencio said he believes the legislation that would give drivers the right to collectively bargain could help: “We want to have a voice,” he said.

Carlos Soares, a board member with Massachusetts Drivers United and a driver for about six years, said he has read parts of both the Rideshare Drivers Justice Bill and the EPA Act. He wants the right to collectively bargain, he said, because drivers are considered independent contractors but have little control over their working conditions.

“The only control we have is when you turn the app on and turn it off,” Soares said, adding that he has been deactivated a couple of times as well.

As for the EPA Act, the bill that would reinforce that drivers should be treated as employees under the law, he said he agrees with some parts of it but thinks some drivers are uncomfortable with being considered employees because they think it would affect the flexibility of their schedules.

“When Uber and Lyft were trying to pass that bill here last year, they told drivers if you become employees you’re not going to have flexibility; you’re going to be on a schedule,” Soares said. “But that’s not true. You can be an employee and still have flexibility.”

The union backing the Rideshare Drivers Justice Bill also supports the EPA Act.

“The bill backed by the AFL-CIO in Massachusetts demonstrates the labor organization’s continued leadership in holding the app-based rideshare industry accountable,” said Roxana Rivera, the director of 32BJ SEIU in Massachusetts. “We are proud to support it as we also work hard to pass the Rideshare Drivers Justice bill.”




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