When California voters chose alliance with giant corporations over worker rights in their Prop 22 votes, they may have stopped one of the most important attempts to gain a hold of this economy before it eats us all up. The risk is that is going to blow up the entire system of labor law. Unions are trying to make a deal here, but it’s going to be another blow that weakens them and thus the role of workers in American life.
In the long history of American companies seeking to cleave workers from workplace laws, Uber is an outlier. Despite almost a decade of lousy press and scandal after scandal, the service remains broadly popular. Its simple interface and large network—facilitated by billions of dollars in venture funding and shielded from legal reckoning by forced arbitration—have made it a cherished convenience, a cultural touchstone, and the most ubiquitous new verb since “Googled.” By the time most regulators began to seriously worry about the effects of the Uber model, the company had the public support and the money to defy them.
Like Harold with his purple crayon, Uber sketched a reality it wanted to inhabit, and Americans are living in it. When local laws have stood in the company’s way, states have stepped in to override them. Uber and Lyft say they’re just tech platforms, not transportation companies that employ drivers, even as they tell city officials that their drivers’ names should be treated as confidential trade secrets because disclosure would make them easier for other companies to poach.
Now Uber, after successfully reshaping culture and politics to accommodate its business model, is bending unions, too. Labor groups have to take seriously the prospect that if they don’t come to the table, the companies will write the laws themselves, as they did with Prop 22. Favorable results for the companies in Washington, D.C., California, or New York—where the state budget due to pass by April 1 is one vehicle for compromise—could lead all sorts of other businesses to edge their way out of traditional employment.
Derrick Neal was at home on his couch when managers on a conference call informed him and other delivery employees that Vons, the Albertsons subsidiary, was eliminating their jobs. “They basically said, ‘We know this sucks,’ ” recalls Neal, who’d just learned that he was losing his apartment because his landlord was selling it. At the moment, he’s mostly sleeping in his car. He says he feels that Albertsons has betrayed him and hasn’t promised anything about finding him another position, but he’s not psyched about applying for the DoorDash version of his old job, either. “There’s nobody backing you,” he says.