Fighting to stave off a bill that could force them to treat their workers as employees, Uber and Lyft last week deployed an unusual weapon: a promise of extra pay to drivers willing to lobby on their behalf.
The ride-hailing companies recruited drivers to rally outside the state Capitol on Tuesday in advance of a Senate labor hearing on the bill, Assembly Bill 5. The rally was seeking changes that would allow drivers to continue working as independent contractors while being afforded some of the protections typically reserved for employees.
Drivers who attended the rally were offered and are expected to receive $25 to $100 within five days of gathering in Sacramento to cover “travel, parking, and time,” according to an email The Times obtained. The email was sent to drivers from the I’m Independent Coalition, a group funded by the California Chamber of Commerce, along with a long list of professional associations, trade groups and on-demand companies. The coalition has been working closely alongside Uber and Lyft to call for changes to AB 5 and helped organize the Tuesday rally.
“We want to thank you again for taking time to attend the State Capitol Rally on July 9,” the email read. “Your voice had an impact and the Legislature heard loud and clear that you want to keep your flexibility and control over your work! Please expect a driver credit in the next five business days for your travel, parking, and time.”
The coalition confirmed it paid gig workers — including Uber and Lyft drivers — to cover the costs of travel and expenses for the day and said the amount paid varied but did not exceed $100.
In addition to what the coalition offered drivers, Uber sent drivers an in-app notification offering them a $15 lunch voucher and inviting them, their family “and anyone you know who also has a stake in maintaining driver flexibility” to the rally to talk “about the issues.” Separately, a Lyft spokesperson said the company offered $25 to drivers to cover parking, if needed.
The coalition estimated that 500 people attended the rally on Tuesday.
Driver groups and union members who rallied in support of the bill on Wednesday had some of their costs offset as well. Unions and union-affiliated driver groups like Gig Workers Rising provided free transportation from San Francisco and Los Angeles, though at least one independent driver group, Los Angeles-based Rideshare Drivers United, self-funded a van rental. The California Labor Federation, which represents 1,200 unions across the state, served breakfast and lunch. Union staff who organized the rally and helped drivers and other gig workers lobby legislators were paid for their work, according to the California Labor Federation.
A battle for the support of drivers, many of whom are divided on the subject of employee classification, has been playing out in recent weeks. Both Uber and Lyft have used the reach they have through their apps to connect with California drivers on the issue, even sending in-app petitions for drivers to sign and send to legislators asking them to “protect” their flexibility. At a June rally outside of Uber’s offices shortly after receiving the petition, some drivers said they felt tricked into signing the petition because it was served to them as an in-app notification.
By using the app, as well as covering the costs of parking and time, the companies are able to circumvent some of the challenges drivers and driver groups typically face when attempting to mobilize and protest. Given the fragmented nature of the workplace and a lack of a central space where drivers can meet and organize, it’s difficult to replicate the organizing muscle Uber and Lyft have through their apps. Drivers also have to consider missing out on earnings during a protest, and even the cost of parking for its duration: A bus that ferried pro-AB 5 drivers from Oakland to Sacramento on Wednesday was delayed more than an hour as drivers struggled to find free all-day spots.
For companies to ask their workers to engage in political activity on their behalf can be fraught. Ken Jacobs, the chairman of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, said that it is a “worrying trend.”
“While it is always good for people to engage in the legislative process, the power relationship inherent in employment raises concerns about coercion,” Jacobs said. “That is, do workers believe they will gain an advantage on the job for participating, or fear retaliation if they don’t? It is especially worrisome in the context of employer threats over what actions they will take if the AB 5 passes.”
The Senate committee on Labor, Public Employment, and Retirement ultimately voted to allow AB 5, written by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), to advance to the appropriations committee and then to the Senate floor.