On Oct. 22, two Uber drivers and labor rights advocacy organizations Worksafe and the Chinese Progressive Association sued Uber, seeking class-action status on behalf of all of the company’s California drivers, alleging that the rideshare company’s messaging supporting Proposition 22 in the driver’s app violates California labor laws barring coerced political engagement among employees.
Drivers are getting Yes on 22 messages every time they log into the system, and they have been encouraged to submit Yes on 22 videos to the campaign, the lawsuit says.
“Since at least 1915, California has prohibited employers from pressuring, coercing, or otherwise interfering with their employees’ right to engage in, or refrain from engaging in, political activities,” it states. “Uber has taken advantage of their raw economic power and its exclusive control over communications through its driver-scheduling app by wrongfully pressuring its drivers to actively support Proposition 22.”
Specifically, the complaint alleges that Uber’s messaging implies that drivers must support Prop 22 or risk possible termination, referring to Uber’s previous threats of leaving California, cutting up to 70 percent of their driver workforce, and loss of flexible schedule for drivers, should the ballot proposition not pass on November 3.
The complaint names solicited surveys from Uber to its drivers polling driver support of Prop 22, and a pop-up screen in the driver app stating “Yes on 22” followed by buttons reading “Yes on 22” and “Okay” respectively, as evidence of messaging intended to coerce drivers to support Prop 22.
The suit says that the absence of a “no” option on that screen is strong evidence that Uber is coercing a “yes” response from drivers, violating state labor laws.
Hector Castellanos, one of the drivers who is a plaintiff in this lawsuit, said how this specific screen made him feel that Uber was pressuring him to vote Yes on Prop 22, even though he opposes it, and that not expressing support would threaten his job.
“They are trying to push me to vote ‘yes’ on Prop 22. This is unfair, how they are sending all of these pop-ups on my [Uber drivers’] app and emails…they say you should vote yes because otherwise you could lose your job because it’s just going to leave 20 to 30 percent of the drivers, you’re going to lose flexibility. I feel threatened by this company,” said Castellanos. “It has been so hard when I pick up a passenger and then there is a pop-up [message] saying ‘Yes on 22’ and there is no option that says ‘no’.”
The complaint also alleges that Uber has provided misleading information to drivers to influence their opinions on Prop 22. Specifically, the compliant names drivers’ guaranteed wage under Prop 22, which Uber claims is equal to 120 percent of the minimum wage, yet, they allege that Uber intentionally withholds the fact that drivers are only receive this rate during time that they are driving with a passenger in the car, leading to a substantially lower rate of pay per hour.
David Lowe, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, said that Uber’s comments threatening layoffs of most of its California-based drivers constitute a clear threat of termination should drivers vote no, and therefore a clear violation of state labor laws.
“The language of the statute doesn’t require the company to come out and say explicitly ‘you’re gonna be fired’, it says that you can’t use the threat of a loss of employment, which is exactly what Uber is doing,” said Lowe. “Uber is saying ‘if Prop 22 fails, 70 to 80 percent of you are going to lose your jobs’. [California] Labor Code section 1102 says you can’t use the threat of a loss of employment as an attempt to coerce someone to engage in a particular political course of action.”
Lowe also said that Uber’s messages to drivers through its app, which he says solicit drivers’ support for Prop 22, are a clear violation of state labor laws because those messages are a policy which is intended to influence how drivers will vote on Prop 22.
“[Labor Code] section 1101 says you can’t have a policy that ‘tends to direct’ political activity of workers. And Uber is putting very coercive messages on the app that the drivers are required to access on a regular basis throughout the day and including in those messages requests to provide support for Prop 22, misleading information about the benefits of Prop 22, all of this is part of a policy intended to direct the employees to do what they are requesting them to do, which is to support Prop 22,” said Lowe.
The plaintiffs seek injunctive relief for workers for pay periods during which companies violated state labor laws by sending these political messages to drivers, relief that could total millions of dollars, as well as an injunction that would order Uber to cease sending political messages to its drivers urging their support for Prop 22.
“The court has the power to issue an injunction more quickly that [a trial], so that is something that we are seriously looking at. We would like to get an order that requires Uber to stop the coercive tactics that are at the center of this lawsuit,” said Lowe.
Lowe also explained that although it is unlikely that they will receive a jury trial before Prop 22 is voted on, the plaintiffs have other reasons for bringing this lawsuit so close to the election, namely to bring public awareness to Uber’s “coercive” tactics in sending messages about Prop 22 to its drivers as well as seeking a declaration that Uber’s tactics are illegal as a to prevent other companies from possibly adopting similar methods of sending messages to workers urging political support that would benefit the company and threatening retaliation otherwise.
“Even after November 3, that [declaration] will still be important to send a message to Uber and to other companies that they cannot engage in these tactics in the future, because these are unlawful tactics in California,” said Lowe.
Stephen Knight, executive director at Worksafe, an Oakland organization that advocates for worker safety and one of the plaintiffs in the complaint, said in an email statement that the groups stands with drivers in this case because Uber’s messaging to drivers is misleading, intimidating, and affects drivers’ safety.
“Safety at work is a huge issue for gig drivers right now, as you can imagine. Worksafe is all about supporting greater power and information for workers; without that, workers cannot be safe at work. These companies are using their outsized power and control over information to intimidate and influence their vulnerable workforce. That’s not just wrong, it’s illegal,” said Knight.
Uber has not responded to requests for comment on the lawsuit as of press time.