Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Prop 22 Opponents Have a Bad Case of Sour Grapes

This week, Proposition 22 — a California ballot measure that allows certain gig workers to be exempt from the state’s AB 5 law — passed with 58 percent of the vote. Now, app-based drivers for gig companies including Uber and Lyft are able to retain their independent contractor status, instead of being reclassified as employees against their will.

But labor unions and their allies have a bad case of sour grapes over the ballot measure’s victory. A common theme from Gig Workers Rising — a union-backed front group that fought against Prop 22 — is that gig companies “hijacked the ballot measure system in CA by spending millions to mislead voters.” Labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who has filed numerous suits against gig companies, shared this complaint, claiming “gig businesses leveraged their financial might to buy an exemption [to AB 5].”

Her objection is perhaps a self-interested one. If Prop 22 failed, lawyers like Liss-Riordan could have continued targeting gig companies with lucrative lawsuits over the employment status of their contractors. Liss-Riordan and her firm have a history of going after Uber in particular, earning multi-million dollar fee payouts.

But let’s not forget the many elections labor unions themselves have tried and failed to buy. For starters, labor unions also spent big on “No on Prop 22,” either directly or through so-called “grassroots” front groups. The campaign itself raised more than $10 million, and its top contributors were the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), the Teamsters, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). As we recently reported, the UFCW was even funding Facebook ads for the Gig Workers Collective, yet another front group fighting the ballot measure. The union even hired two GWC staffers full-time to help their efforts.

In California, the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) has spent over $21 million on ballot initiatives since 2012. Unions who today cry foul about a “hijacked” system didn’t raise a peep as UHW President Dave Regan used the ballot box to wage his union’s personal battles.

Not that Regan was successful. In the 2012 and 2016 election cycles, not a single one of the union’s ballot measures ever took effect. This year, the union spent another $9 million on a measure to impose new regulatory requirements on kidney dialysis centers. The measure failed, and even the Los Angeles Times called out the union for “hijacking the initiative process for its organizing campaigns.”

If any election can simply be bought, then how can unions account for these abject failures? The SEIU-UHW’s record especially says more about voters’ ability to recognize misguided policies than the impact of political spending.

This isn’t unique to California. The same argument applies to the three most expensive congressional races in history, which all fell flat in this past election. Democratic candidates in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Iowa raised $200 million dollars to win Senate seats in these states. Despite the millions of dollars raised, Democrats were still unsuccessful in two states, and it appears that all three seats will go to Republicans by the time ballot counting is over.

In California, gig companies succeeded in passing Prop 22 not because of the money they spent, but because Californians recognized the ballot measure was a good idea that gave actual workers, not the government, control over how they earn a living. Gig workers, by a four to one margin, prefer their current status to becoming full-time employees.

Of course, opponents to Prop 22 will never give voters that much credit.

Categories: SEIUUFCWUncategorizedWorkers Center