Biden’s Top Labor Advisor Helped Uber Gut Workers’ Rights

Seth Harris laid the critical groundwork for Proposition 22, a California ballot initiative that allowed gig companies to escape classifying workers as employees.
March 3, 2021, 5:57pm
Biden's Top Labor Advisor Helped Uber Gut Worker's Rights
Alex Wong / Staff
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

Seth Harris was quietly hired for a key labor policy position in the White House, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday. Harris was President Obama’s former acting and deputy secretary of labor, but in recent years, he’s become well known for something else entirely: laying the groundwork for gig companies like Uber to undermine workers’ rights. 

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According to Bloomberg, Harris’ title is deputy assistant to the president for labor and the economy, and he will help to shape the administration’s approach to unions and workers’ rights. This is no doubt concerning to labor watchers, because Harris’s academic work pushed the core concepts that would eventually coalesce into Proposition 22, the 2020 California ballot measure written by app-based gig labor companies to preserve the exploitation of workers by misclassifying them as independent contractors rather than employees.

Years before Proposition 22 ultimately passed, Harris helped give the companies ammunition to ramp up their assault on US labor law. Harris co-authored a 2015 study formalizing the "independent worker" federal category, which avoids making gig workers actual employees while providing a minimum level of benefits. 

According to Max Moran writing for The American Prospect, the study's goal was described as "not to improve the gig worker's lot, but to 'enhance the efficiency of the operation of the labor market.'" To achieve that goal, the independent worker category would bar workers from overtime, minimum wage, and unemployment benefits, but give them the right to collectively bargain as well as access to civil rights protections. 

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Today, that idea is  the foundation for Uber’s nationwide campaign to continue misclassifying gig workers, and a key weapon in its negotiations with unions to codify union representation without employment. 

One less-talked-about but equally important part of Harris' life is his time at the employer-side BigLaw firm Dentons and at his own private firm, where his website (now taken down) advertised his "relationships with people and institutions that matter in Washington" as well as an ability to "talk with them about his clients’ needs, and build coalitions and networks that produce results."

From 2014 to 2017, Harris worked at the Dentons to advise corporations how to essentially bypass labor laws. It was there that he co-authored the study that helped inspire Uber and its coalition to bypass labor laws. His firm helped Walmart fight union and NLRB disputes, a restaurant association kill a tipped worker minimum-wage law, and executives fight accusations of white collar crime.

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At his private law firm, David Dayen wrote in The American Prospect that Harris "promised to 'deliver for his clients' with services that sound like but are not specifically lobbying" when it came to “federal regulatory process representation, policy intelligence gathering and analysis, government relations, strategic advising, and political strategy and advising.”

"You're putting someone whose work at Dentons was essentially direct union busting or helping firms to develop union busting techniques or preventing and ending tipped minimum wage,” Moran told Motherboard. “A person who was paid to help employers kill labor power, you're then going to turn around and trust this person to counsel the President on labor issues.” 

“Under any circumstances, that is an insanely one-sided method of getting your advice,” he added. “It's especially egregious under a president who has been trying to promote himself as the most pro-union, pro-labor president in modern history."

Just this week, Biden released a video throwing his support behind the Amazon warehouse union drive, saying that unions "put power in the hands of workers" and denouncing employer attempts to intimidate or deter workers from voting for a union.

"You should all remember the National Labor Relations Act didn't just say that unions are allowed to exist, it said that we should encourage unions,” the President said in the video. “So let me be really clear: it's not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even more clear: it's not up to an employer to decide that either. The choice to join a union is up to the workers—full stop.”

On the one hand we have Biden’s words and rhetoric, and on the other we have personnel choices like Harris which throw into question whether or not Biden will be the labor champion he promised to be.

"We should hope that his actual advisors and people he's trusting to counsel him and carry out actions on labor policy would follow this same line,” Moran added. “But if you're going to pick the guy who came up with the idea that became Prop 22 to be to be your direct adviser on labor issues, then that's ridiculous and you can't possibly be putting your money where your mouth is."