Uber Forced Drivers to Click on Political Ads Ahead of Vote on Gig Worker Rights

The messaging has raised concerns that Uber is abusing its platform to sway drivers and customers for whom the app might be a primary source of information about California's Proposition 22. 
October 21, 2020, 1:47pm
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Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Uber forced customers and drivers to click on political pop-up ads on its app in support of an upcoming California ballot initiative, known as Proposition 22, which would exempt gig economy companies from providing all of their workers with basic rights and workplace protections, such as overtime pay, sick days, and unemployment insurance.  

Before ordering a ride, California passengers had to click through two messages: "If Prop 22 fails to pass… Your price per ride could increase by 25-100%…..Your area might lose reliable rideshare service," one of them read. 

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On the other side of the app, drivers were forced to view a message that read, "Prop 22 is progress: Prop 22 will provide guaranteed earnings and a healthcare stipend," and were prompted to click a button that said "Yes on 22," which directed them to a series of explanations for why the proposition's failure would hurt their jobs. 

This in-app messaging, as well as the tv, digital, and radio ads that have been bankrolled by the companies, has raised concerns among labor activists and drivers that Uber is abusing its platform to sway drivers and customers for whom the app might be a primary source of information about Prop 22. 

This sort of messaging is par for the course for Uber, which has a long history of ignoring regulations, and then using its large customer base to fight against regulations when governments try to enforce them. In the past, it has done this by putting mass pop-up ads in the app, as it did with Prop 22.  

An Uber spokesperson said the company discontinued these pop-ups for customers on Monday, and toned down the messaging to drivers on October 7. The messaging now asks drivers to click to "Get the Facts" or close the pop up. An Uber spokesperson said that the messaging to drivers was only occasional and appeared when drivers closed the app. 

But Motherboard spoke to drivers who said they were still receiving the message prompting them to click "Yes on Prop 22" last week, and that the pop-up would appear when they opened the app, not when they closed it. 

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"Everytime I pick up a ride on Uber, there's a pop-up," said Hector Castellanos, a rideshare driver in California's Bay Area and an organizer with We Drive Progress. "I work for Lyft and Uber, so I'm switching all day long between the apps. I get around 30 passengers a day, around half from Uber, so I get that pop up around 15 times a day." 

If drivers clicked the "Yes on 22" button, it took them to a menu bar that displayed a series of explanations for why Prop 22's failure would hurt drivers. These reasons included: "driving jobs would be limited," "shifts would be scheduled," and "flexibility would be limited." If they clicked "okay," the pop-up would close. 

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If the ballot measure succeeds, Uber and other gig economy companies will be allowed to continue treating their workers as independent contractors. Certain workers who put in enough hours would be eligible for a few new benefits, including healthcare and disability subsidies. 

But if the proposition fails, rideshare companies will be required to provide even more protections and rights than those guaranteed by Proposition 22, including the right to join unions and negotiate their working conditions with the companies at the bargaining table. 

In the United States, employers frequently force workers to listen to their arguments about why they should not organize for better working conditions or form unions. This information is often shared in what are known as "captive audience meetings," compulsory meetings where management presents anti-union arguments as fact.  

Do you have a tip to share with us about Proposition 22? We’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch with the reporter Lauren Gurley at lauren.gurley@vice.com or on Signal 201-897-2109.

In the case of Proposition 22, gig economy companies have deployed a similar tactic by forcing workers to view messaging on their apps in order to do their jobs, and displaying propaganda as "facts." 

Drivers had the option to close the pop-up by clicking "okay," but many felt they were being inundated with the pop-up so many times throughout the day that they felt pressured to click "Yes on Prop 22." Drivers who clicked "yes on Prop 22" would have a banner displayed in the app for passengers who rode in their cars, notifying them that their driver supported the proposition.

Collectively, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and other gig economy companies have poured $186 million into Proposition 22—making it the costliest ballot initiative in California history.