MA High Court Delivers Win for Gig Drivers, Dumps Ballots Aimed to Enshrine Exploitation into Law

Voters shouldn’t get to choose whether drivers have rights because those rights are protected by law.

OO n Tuesday afternoon, Stephen Levine was having lunch when he heard his phone ping telling him about the ballots, and he “jumped for joy.”

This is a battle drivers have been waging for years. This past Tuesday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court sided with a coalition of drivers in their lawsuit challenging two ballot initiatives sponsored by Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare and delivery companies — 21–11 and 21–12 — that were poised to gut workers’ rights in the state.

The companies were trying to buy new law, just like they did with Prop 22 in California two years ago. Lyft alone donated $14.4 million to a committee supporting the Massachusetts ballot measure that would classify its drivers as contractors instead of employees, stripping drivers of vital rights and a liveable wage.

And now? The initiative will be removed from the fall ballot, and will not go to the voters in 2022. “It is a hugely important victory for these workers,” says Jon Miller, Public Right Project’s Chief Program Officer. “Massachusetts has some of the strongest regulations on who qualifies as an employee in the country. Holding that line is essential to protecting workers everywhere.”

Levine, a driver, organizer, and activist, first began organizing in MA when the Prop 22 fight was going down in CA. He echoes Miller’s sentiment about the importance of this win:

“It sends a powerful message to Uber and Lyft, GrubHub, Door Dash and Instacart — the 5 biggest out there — it tells them we’re not going to take it anymore.

We’re not going to fall for your games. And we’re sick of the exploitation. It’s time for some payback and now the law is on our side.”

But, Levine warns, this is just the first victory the drivers need; another piece of the workers’ rights puzzle comes in a case brought by the state two years ago when Attorney General Healey sued Uber and Lyft to properly classify their workers as employees. That case remains pending and could mean millions of dollars in wages and benefits for these workers in the future.

“The ballot question was one thing, the misclassification is another story altogether,” said Levine.

“Right now we’re at a starvation wage of 56 cents per mile and Uber and Lyft charge 66 cents per mile — the difference is what we actually make. And that works out to about $4.82 an hour. I have five kids!

How am I supposed to be able to afford raising them and put them through school? We should have a living that’s respectable and honorable.”

Levine says one of the problems he and other organizers are up against is the ever-cresting wave of misinformation; drivers don’t understand their rights or what being an independent contractor actually entails. When asked, they often talk about the “flexibility and freedom element,” says Levine, when in actuality, “it’s mind-blowing how little control we actually have.”

Levine says a lot of his organizing work focuses on empowering the drivers, presenting them with evidence, with the facts of the lawsuits, and letting them know there’s help and people fighting for their cause — lawyers and drivers alike.

The first step towards justice, says Levine, “is learning about what’s going on. It’s easy to cloud the mind and judgment of an individual who doesn’t know the difference between a real independent contractor and an employee.”

“If these companies think they’re that smart, that they get around the law in some way shape or form, we have to put a stop to it,” says Levine. “Otherwise it’s going to look like the 1920s — people are going to take up arms and take to the street. People bled for this, they died for this.”

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