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Opinion: Company-driven passing of CA Proposition 22 harms workers, democracy

The passage of Prop 22 isn’t just a blow to the rights of workers, it’s a disheartening example of the power of money in politics. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Andrew Raychawdhuri

Nov. 20, 2020 6:17 p.m.

The election is finally over for most people.

And, in California, it’s time to start dealing with the repercussions of the ballot measures that did and did not pass.

One of the most consequential and prominent campaigns this cycle was the effort to pass Proposition 22, a measure spearheaded by ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft to bypass a previous labor law requiring them to classify their workers as employees.

When it came to this proposition, Uber and Lyft didn’t only succeed with their efforts. The race wasn’t even close.

Results show that Californians largely approved of this measure, a rather unsurprising find given the more than $200 million spent by companies to convince them.

However, the passage of Proposition 22 doesn’t just harm workers who now lack the safety net that comes with being classified as employees rather than independent contractors. It harms democracy itself in California.

The result of this proposition is a perfect illustration of how large wealthy special interest groups can overturn laws and draft their own through the proposition system without pushback. The effects of this power run deep and for Bruins, Proposition 22 not only changes the future of work, but highlights the trouble with trying to address any problem that clashes with the interests of power-hungry corporations.

California’s proposition system has allowed citizens to shape policy in a way that, at least on the surface, appears democratic. However, Proposition 22 dealt a serious blow to that notion.

“The initial referendum and the recall, which are all a package, were all intended as mechanisms to allow the public to override the influence of special interests in Sacramento,” said Jim Newton, a lecturer of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. “What is paradoxical about that is that over time, they really have, in some ways, become a tool for special interests to evade the legislature.”

This is certainly the case with Proposition 22, which has allowed companies to circumvent AB-5, a law passed by the California legislature that required companies to classify their workers as employees. With the passage of this proposition, companies have exempted themselves from these rules and essentially barred legislators from altering the new status quo.

However, Californians elect legislators to enact policy, not wealthy companies with the means to create and buy any law they want.

Not only is the success of Proposition 22 a sign of a democracy with more than a few cracks, but this measure will cause genuine hardships for the workers who prop up the companies that advocated for it.

Proposition 22 promises drivers pay equal to 120% of the minimum wage. But a report by the UC Berkeley Labor Center estimates that after considering the potential loopholes in the measure, the pay guarantee is equivalent to only $5.64 an hour. This is because the guarantee only applies when drivers are engaged with passengers, which amounts to about 67% of their working time. This figure is significantly less than the current minimum wage in California of $13.00 an hour for those who work for a company with at least 26 employees.

 

Saba Waheed, the research director at the UCLA Labor Center, said that Proposition 22 has essentially created an exception for these companies when it comes to classifying their workers.

“For ride-hail and delivery drivers specifically, it carved them out of AB-5 so (companies) would not have to classify their drivers anymore as employees, which basically means, things like employee benefits, time-off, overtime benefits, unemployment benefits, employee-sponsored health care, all of that is gone,” Waheed said.

Drivers need these benefits to stay safe and healthy. With a pandemic raging and the health risks drivers face at an all-time high, losing these benefits is catastrophic.

And UCLA students are not unfamiliar with this attack on workers’ rights. The University of California has employed similar methods when it comes to student workers to avoid offering certain benefits and protections.

Unfortunately, Proposition 22 is not the first time that companies have subverted democracy, and is certainly not the first time that workers have been a casualty of a system that gives large companies an outsized influence on policy decisions.

But it should be the last time this happens.

“To me, it kind of confirms my fears that electoralism and passing these propositions can definitely be dangerous,” said Lex Von Klark, a second-year political science and labor studies student. “If we are to get those kind of progressive reforms in other areas around climate change and that sort of thing, I think we need to be willing and able to really focus in on one issue and pursue it.”

It is impossible to discount the agency that voters have when they vote on propositions. Proposition 22 would have failed without the votes from over 58% of the electorate.

But at the same time, it is hard to discount the effect that a multimillion-dollar campaign has on voters and the way that money influences the judgments they make about a ballot measure. It’s time the proposition system gets back to its roots of providing a check on special interests.

After all, companies cannot take advantage of the system alone. California voters hold the power.

It is now up to them to wield it.

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Andrew Raychawdhuri | Opinion columnist
Raychawdhuri is an Opinion columnist.
Raychawdhuri is an Opinion columnist.
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