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Uber Lyft protest

Lyft driver Al Aloudi speaks to demonstrators during a March 25, 2019 San Francisco protest against the company's paycuts and its announcement that it is going public on Friday. (Photo: Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Lyft Makes Largest Donation in Massachusetts History to Keep Drivers Down

The more than $14 million went to a coalition fighting to stop ride-hailing and delivery companies from having to classify their drivers as employees.

Brett Wilkins

As Massachusetts becomes the latest battleground state in the fight for gig worker rights, advocates on Wednesday accused Lyft of attempting to purchase a law by giving over $14 million to a committee pushing a ballot initiative to prevent app-based drivers from being classified as employees.

"Remember when gig corporations bought a law in California for $200 million? They're at it again––this time, in Massachusetts."

The Boston Globe reports Lyft gave $14.4 million to Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers, a coalition established to fund an upcoming state ballot measure to keep ride-hailing and delivery app drivers classified as independent contractors. Such a policy would free companies like Lyft from having to pay a minimum wage or provide certain workplace rights, protections, and benefits that employees receive.

Records reveal that most of Lyft's investment came in a single $13 million December contribution—by far the biggest ever recorded by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

"Big Tech is trying to buy an election," tweeted Jerry Berger, a professor at Boston University's College of Communications. "The Legislature has the ability to prevent it. IF they act. Always a big IF."

Zephyr Teachout—a professor at the Fordham University School of Law in New York City and author of Break 'Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom From Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money—denounced Lyft, Uber, and DoorDash for "spending millions to make sure they can profit without responsibility."

While proponents of the Lyft-backed measure—which has also received more than $1 million in funding from each Uber, DoorDash, and Instacart—argue that it would protect driver flexibility and confer benefits including healthcare stipends and paid sick time, labor advocates counter that gig workers should already receive such rights under existing laws.

"Big Tech is trying to buy an election. The Legislature has the ability to prevent it. IF they act. Always a big IF."

In July 2020, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, sued Uber and Lyft for classifying drivers as contractors, alleging violations of state wage and labor laws while accusing the companies of getting a "free ride" and having "profited greatly" from "systematically" denying drivers "basic workplace protections and benefits."

Lyft's largesse has allowed Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers to hire some of the state's best political consultants, including the Dewey Square Group, described by the Globe as "a public affairs firm with deep roots in Democratic politics," and Conan Harris & Associates, which was founded by the husband of U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who has argued that app-based drivers are "misclassified" as contractors, and "need benefits and full labor protections."

Opponents of the upcoming Massachusetts ballot measure are devising creative ways to try to overcome their tremendous funding disadvantage.

Bloomberg reports Massachusetts Drivers United is selling 50 $200 non-fungible tokens (NFTs) which let buyers play a game of whack-a-mole against a giant rat named Big Gig that tunnels under a map of the United States, popping up in states with proposed anti-driver legislation.

"We're using technology to fight back," Massachusetts Drivers United executive director Henry De Groot explained. "Uber, Lyft, and their peers have used technology to circumvent labor laws and deny app workers basic protections and benefits. We invite the crypto community to wage a campaign against the billionaires who control Big Gig."

The Massachusetts fight closely mirrors California's battle over Proposition 22, which was approved by voters in November 2020 and exempts app-based driver companies from classifying their workers as employees.

Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash spent a combined $160 million in support of the measure—more than 10 times the amount spent by opponents—making it the most expensive ballot initiative in California history. The companies also pressed drivers to vote for Prop 22, while prominent critics of the bill faced intense harassment.

Last August, a California judge ruled Prop 22 unconstitutional, finding that the law "appears only to protect the economic interest of the network companies in having a divided, ununionized workforce."

Although the California Labor Federation hailed the decision as "a major and deserved win for drivers and gig workers," the ruling was appealed, and Golden State drivers remain classified as contractors.

As was the case with Prop 22 in California, some Massachusetts observers reacted to Lyft's mega-donation with calls for systemic reform. Kevin Connor, chief of staff to state Sen. Harriette Chandler (D-1st Worcester), tweeted that "there should be donor limits on MA ballot initiatives campaigns."

The nonpartisan advocacy group We the People Massachusetts called for a more sweeping solution.

"We need the #WeThePeopleAmendment to overturn Citizens United and other SCOTUS decisions that have gutted campaign finance regs and have made 'buying a loophole' in our laws possible," the group asserted, referring to a constitutional amendment introduced by U.S. House Democrats to end the controversial 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed unlimited corporate political contributions.

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