Why Every Lyft Driver Should Support Cal Prop 22

(And no, Lyft isn’t paying me!)

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PC: lyft.com

To my fellow Lyft drivers:

There’s a big to-do about California’s Prop 22 right now, as all of you know because of the constant messaging from Lyft. (Uber drivers and others, I’m sure you’ve experienced the same.) And as someone with a long-time interest in both politics and the tech sector, I was really interested by the arguments on both sides. So I did a little digging and wanted to share what I found.

The skinny? Prop 22, while imperfect, offers us the opportunity to keep our flexible jobs, with increased pay. It would likely need to be amended in the long term, but it is a start. The legislature’s alternative, AB5, would lay off millions of workers in the short term and reduce both flexibility and pay in the long term. And as far as I can tell, it’s either one or the other at this point. This train’s in motion.

You see, back in 2019 (about a million years ago) the California legislature passed a “state statute” which imposed a strict new interpretation on “independent contractors.” Basically, under the new law, you can’t repeat gigs with the same client too often or they legally become your “employer” and have to pay for your health insurance, grant you sick leave, etc. In the original law there were many exemptions, and a later statute added many more exemptions, so that the whole thing basically turned into a showdown between the government of California and the corporations of Lyft and Uber. They are, of course, fighting it out in the courts.

But rather deviously, Lyft and Uber have pursued another route in the war: drafting and propagating California Proposition 22. It all sounds like a plot hatched in a smoke-filled boardroom — corporations bypass the state legislature by appealing to uneducated public and brainwashing them with thousands of dollars in advertising. What Lyft and Uber are doing has an element of self interest, no doubt. That is capitalism. But if you look at the text of the proposition, it indicates that survival more than self interest is the main goal.

Prop 22 guarantees minimum wage for every hour you have the app turned on. It guarantees cash compensation for every mile driven and for health insurance if you drive more than 15–25 hours per week. It guarantees worker’s comp (vital when we’re on the roads all day) and offers some protections against discrimination and harassment. In the bargain, it also decreases tolerance for driver bad behavior, which is great for customers and all of us drivers who are keeping the rules.

Think about it. This will cost Lyft and Uber millions (billions?) of dollars per year. It’s clearly a compromise measure. Why? Because they’re also playing a separate corporate game. This played out in Austin before — when legislation forced Lyft and Uber to pull out temporarily, their place was filled immediately by new tech companies who played the same game of bottom-level prices in order to gain market share. Wages, quality of life, those things didn’t improve for drivers. It was the same job, just new bosses. Lyft and Uber lost money, but drivers didn’t benefit. Prop 22 offers an exit path from that merry-go-round.

And let’s not forget what we drivers love about this job — flexibility above all. If I have a job interview at 1pm, I can sign off and take the call. If a friend invites me to dinner, I don’t have to submit a time-off request or find someone to cover my shift. I can take another part-time job, go visit family for a week, or stop to eat lunch anytime during the day.

But there are other advantages. There is no overtime pay (something to keep pushing for!), but if bills are tight one month you can drive 12 hours a day and get through it. Very few jobs offer that kind of upward salary flexibility. I can also withdraw my accumulated paycheck at any point, for a small fee, if I need to pay a bill. And the hourly pay approaches something like minimum wage, which is hardly enough to live on in LA but no less than I made at Amazon.

So for me, ridesharing is a welcome respite from typical shift work.

But for many of the organizations I often support, like the California Democratic Party and the California Labor Federation, ridesharing and Prop 22 are attacks on the fundamentals of the social compact. Yet their alternative is unclear. AB5 threatens to make Lyft as unpleasant as shift work — in at 8, out at 5, 30 minutes for lunch and 10 minutes for bathroom breaks. Most of us are celebrating our independence from such restrictions. So while I have deep respect for these organizations, I respectfully ask them to find an alternative to Prop 22 which maintains flexibility and minimum wage guarantees, rather than simply telling us to vote “No” on the idea.

There is one element of Prop 22 which gives me some pause — it requires a 7/8 majority of the state legislature to amend it once it is passed. Even if Democrats have a significant majority in Sacramento, it rarely reaches those heights. Perhaps this 7/8 rule is necessary to preserve the measure from being changed by the legislature if it passes. Perhaps not. But one thing is sure — the people of California can always amend it in future statewide propositions, once we observe the pros and cons of the new system. Why not trust Californians with this experiment?

I don’t know if this is a fight we can win. Beating Joe Biden’s endorsed “No” policy in a deeply blue state in a polarized year is probably impossible. I’ll likely be scrambling for a job again come November, along with many of you. People are suspicious of Lyft and Uber, particularly the latter, which has been the source of some of the biggest corporate scandals of the century. They’re worried that the gig economy will be a permanent low-income trap. I understand those concerns.

But for us drivers, the decision is simple. AB5 was made for an economic system which no longer exists, where fathers worked 40 hours for good union pay while mothers stayed home and raised children. Most of us don’t live like that anymore, and even many who do are yearning for more freedom. Prop 22 is not perfect. But it guarantees continued flexibility, plus a minimum wage and some pocket money for gas and healthcare, free cash, which is way better than McDonald’s or Walmart or Amazon will give us. Because that’s where many of us will be applying if Prop 22 fails, while Lyft and every company like it completely overhaul their applications and slowly re-hire drivers one by one.

I don’t say this lightly. I worked for a think tank which promotes the interests of labor unions, and opposing them gives me pain. Yet, interestingly, even at that think tank our research focused not on rebuilding unions but on re-classifying and protecting workers in the new gig economy. Prop 22 at least tries to create a space for those of us who seek temporary on-demand flexibility — a “third way” between shift work and gig work. It’s not perfect. But it’s a good start. Let’s get behind it.

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’

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