Gig companies have been stuck this week in their quest to upend traditional classifications of workers.
On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled against companies like Uber and Lyft that backed a ballot initiative that, if passed, would have classified so-called “gig workers” as independent contractors rather than employees. In its unanimous decision, the court criticized the unconstitutional proposal for being based on “vaguely worded provisions”.
Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other companies would have spent $17.8 million ($25) to support the proposal. If passed, the ballot initiative would have resulted in about 200,000 Massachusetts drivers being labeled as independent contractors. Opponents of the proposal feared that the categorization would strip these workers of benefits and other workplace protections. Gig companies, for their part, said requiring their workers to be recognized as employees would increase costs, which they would potentially have to pass on to their users.
Yet despite the companies spending millions, the proposal appears to have failed, in large part, because it was extremely poorly drafted. According to the Boston Globe, the court said the petitions contents “several subjects which are unrelated”, which amounts to a violation of the constitution of Massachusetts. Lawmakers, judges and lawyers would have had to scratch their heads to figure out the real meaning of the proposal. The court too would have focused on a section of the proposal that would have said the drivers were ‘not an employee or agent’, which could have prevented workers from taking legal action against their employer in the event of an accident or crime.
“Where even lawyers and judges cannot be sure of the meaning of the impugned provisions, it would be unfaithful to [the Constitution] to allow the petition to be presented to voters,” Judge Scott L. Kafker said in his decision according to the Globe.
The Massachusetts is Not For Sale Coalition, a group of labor activists and ardent opponents of the proposed ballot initiative, applauded the court’s decision.
“Millions of Massachusetts drivers, passengers and taxpayers can rest easier knowing that this unconstitutional attempt by Big Tech CEOs to manipulate Massachusetts law has been struck down by the Supreme Judicial Court.” Massachusetts Is Not For Sale campaign manager Wes McEnany said in a statement. “The ballot question was framed not only as an attempt to curtail the rights of drivers, but would also have endangered the rights of passengers and the public. The ballot question would have enabled these companies to avoid their most basic responsibilities. to provide a safe and reliable transportation service.
Uber and Lyft did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment. Flexibility and Benefits for Drivers in Massachusetts, a group lobbying for the proposal, told Gizmodo in an email that the proposal would have passed had it been allowed to go to a vote.
“A clear majority of Massachusetts voters and rideshare and delivery drivers both supported and would have passed this ballot issue into law,” said Flexibility & Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers. “This is exactly why opponents have used lawsuits to subvert the democratic process and deprive voters of the right to make their own decision. The future of these services and the drivers who gain from them is now in jeopardy, and we hope that the legislator will stand with the 80% of drivers who want flexibility and remain independent contractors while having access to new advantages. .
The Massachusetts strike marks a blow to gig companies and comes just under a year after a judge struck down a similar California initiative as unconstitutional. That case revolved around Prop 22, a highly controversial 2020 ballot initiative backed by Uber and Lyft that would have exempted gig workers from state labor laws. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch ruled the proposal was unconstitutional because it restricted “the power of a future legislature to define app-based drivers as workers.”
On-demand companies have rise in power efforts in recent years to anchor their business models in state governments. These companies are currently trying to reach agreements in New York and Washington State, and have even reportedly been in talks with large unions such as the Service Employees International Union and Teamsters.
The Massachusetts court’s outright rejection suggests that companies like Uber and Lyft may be forced to reckon with stronger opposition than previously thought.