Uber, Lyft, and other gig economy giants won big late Tuesday night in California as Californians overwhelmingly voted to pass Proposition 22, a ballot measure that exempts Uber and other gig economy companies from providing basic labor protections for their workers.
Despite this blow to the labor movement, it’s particularly notable that voters in San Francisco County—the hometown of Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash, and Postmates—rejected Prop 22 harder than any other part of California. Nearly 60 percent of San Francisco residents voted no on Prop 22, and voters in four other San Francisco Bay Area counties struck down the ballot measure—signaling that the gig economy's most powerful opposition is in its own backyard.
Proposition 22 enshrines a new third category of low-wage, low-rights worker that could serve as a model for the rest of the country and world. The law ensures that gig workers have no access to state-mandated healthcare, sick leave, minimum wage pay, and face significant barriers to unionization.
At least part of San Francisco's rejection of Prop 22 should be attributed to the city's tendency to vote to the left of the rest of the state. At the same time, a growing and formidable movement of militant gig workers should receive a lot of the credit. For several years, San Francisco and the greater Silicon Valley has been ground zero for an unprecedented wave of tech worker organizing and activism, led by Google engineers, Facebook cafeteria workers, and Salesforce employees. Now, a coalition of gig worker organizations has a powerful base that includes local politicians, labor unions, academics, tech workers and even Uber engineers united to challenge Uber and Lyft's independent contractor labor model.
The repudiation of Prop 22 by voters who live in San Francisco and Silicon Valley suggests that this coalition of activists, drivers, and labor organizers have created a powerful voting bloc where they have spent the most time organizing, and could serve as a model for similar efforts to gain support for gig workers' rights elsewhere in the country.
Despite the ballot measure's passage, this coalition says they aren't done fighting for basic labor protections and rights for gig workers.
"The future for us drivers now that Prop 22 has won is that we’re going to make darn sure Uber gives us the healthcare and that we're paid a living wage," Alan Franklin, a 70-year-old Lyft driver in Oakland, California and an organizer with We Drive Progress, told Motherboard. "We’re going to proceed as a collective group with lawsuits to force them to treat us like all American workers deserve to be treated."
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the most powerful grassroots groups heading this movement are Gig Workers Rising, the Gig Workers Collective, and We Drive Progress. Organizers and leaders within some of these groups say that in San Francisco, where Uber and other gig economy apps first launched and have influenced daily life for more than a decade, there's a greater public awareness of the ethical issues impacting gig workers. For example, in 2017, when an estimated 200,000 Uber users deleted the app, as part of a nationwide campaign known as #DeleteUber, the boycott's longest-lasting impacts were in San Francisco.
The results of Prop 22 show that the backlash to Uber and Lyft on their home turf has only swelled and gained visibility since 2017. Drivers condemning Uber and Lyft for their labor practices staged a handful of protests against Prop 22 outside Uber's corporate headquarters in downtown San Francisco. In a highly-publicized June protest, drivers caravanned and rallied outside the $16 million San Francisco estate of Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, holding signs that read "A THIEF LIVES HERE." Meanwhile, the strongest chorus of politicians condemning Prop 22 came from San Francisco and greater Silicon Valley. The movement against Prop 22 gained endorsements from the mayor of Oakland and nine of San Francisco's 11 county supervisors. During the pandemic, the board pushed to offer gig workers more protections during the pandemic. Supervisor Matt Haney, one of the city's most influential politicians, called Prop 22, "the most expensive self-interested ballot measure in US history" and "an awful perversion of democracy."
While Prop 22 has pushed the treatment of gig workers into the spotlight, the results of the vote show that public awareness about Uber and Lyft's labor practices still hasn't spread to the same degree around California (and likely the rest of the country) as San Francisco. In the lead-up to the election, Uber, Lyft, and other gig economy companies spent $206 million on the Yes on Prop 22 campaign that paid for mailers and digital, radio, and in-app ads that apparently succeeded in presenting the rideshare companies as pro-worker, pro-democracy, and anti-racist. This created an unfair playing field as Uber used its app to push popups and propaganda to California riders for free. On Tuesday, Uber turned two of its greenlight hubs in Los Angeles into polling stations for gig workers and other members of the public. Gig workers who organized against Prop 22 say that many Californians' primary source of info about labor rights for Uber and Lyft drivers has been the ads paid for by gig economy companies.
"A lot of California voters we called said 'okay I was confused. I thought voting yes was supporting drivers,'" said Nicole Moore, a Lyft driver in Los Angeles and organizer at Rideshare Drivers United. "Voters were deceived by advertising from Uber and Lyft that convinced them that Prop 22 was social justice."
Going forward, gig workers will face an uphill battle in the fight for basic rights and benefits. Modifying Prop 22, for example, is extremely unlikely as it would require a seven-eighths vote by California legislators. That said, the labor movement that has organized to challenge gig economy companies, particularly in Silicon Valley, is stronger, bigger, and better organized than it has ever been.