Last week I traveled up to Sacramento to testify in favor of AB 1727 – a bill in California that would give independent contractors the right to collectively bargain. It was introduced by California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat representing the 80th Assembly District (South San Diego).
Although there’s been some media coverage for this bill, I hadn’t even heard of it until a staff member from Ms. Gonzalez’s office reached out to me. In short, the bill would allow for independent contractors, that operate through a mobile platform, to organize and collectively bargain with their employer. The bill would cover a lot of different industries but in my estimation, Uber drivers would be the largest group of workers affected.
You can read more about the specifics of the bill here:
- LA Times: Organizing bill aims to provide safety net for workers in ‘gig’ economy
- Sacramento Bee: Sharing right to organize with gig economy workers
My Take On The Bill
I was a bit skeptical of this bill at first because I didn’t really know what it was about. But after reading the text and thinking about its potential impact, I was more than happy to lend my support in favor of the bill.
We all know about the good parts (flexibility and freedom) about driving for Uber, but there are also a whole host of problems and issues that drivers face on a daily basis. Anyone who’s been on the road for a few days or even those just going through the sign-up process can attest to that.
And whether it’s dealing with customer service or having rates cut, working conditions could always be better. This bill would aim to help drivers collectively bargain for the things that matter most to them.
Why Did I Want To Testify?
Ever since I started driving for Uber and covering this industry, I’ve found that there’s a HUGE disconnect between what it’s like to actually be a driver and the people in charge. Whether it’s the executives at these companies or the people making policy and passing rideshare laws, a lot of them just don’t understand what it’s like to be a driver.
Anytime I’m involved in discussions with people who have the power to institute change, my goal is to bridge the gap between them and the hundreds of thousands of drivers out there. Obviously if you talk to an individual driver, or even a handful of drivers, they may not be an accurate representation of the driver population. But when you start talking to hundreds of drivers a week and thousands of drivers a month like I do (from all over the country and all different walks of life), you start to understand what matters most to drivers. It also helps when you know what they’re searching for, what they’re reading and what they’re clicking on 🙂
I paid for this trip on my own, but in addition to wanting to represent drivers, I was also curious about the political process in general. Politics (especially at a local level) is something I know absolutely nothing about, and as someone who is always trying to learn new things, this seemed like a great opportunity to do so.
Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment
First up for the bill was the Committee on Labor and Employment. The way it works is that any time an Assembly member introduces a new bill, it is heard by various Committees (made up of other assembly members) on areas that the bill would affect. Obviously this was a big labor bill, so it headed to the Labor and Employment Committee on Wednesday April 20th at 1:30 pm.
I arrived to the Capitol building a little early and eventually found my way to the Assemblywoman’s office. I was one of two witnesses that would testify in favor of the bill, the other was Richard McCracken, a labor lawyer out of San Francisco.
We all headed up to the committee room, but we actually had to wait outside for a couple hours before we finally got our turn to go in. The process didn’t seem super efficient to me as there were no less than 20-30 people standing around outside for the entirety of the hearing.
The committee was made up of 7 members, but since they all sit on other committees and had their own bills to take to committee, they were never all in the room at the same time from what I could tell. It seemed like a lot of wasted time to be frank – sort of the epitome of government bureaucracy. Not that some big companies are much better, but it definitely wasn’t run like an efficient business.
I was definitely impressed with how Ms. Gonzalez handled herself and her bills. She seemed knowledgeable and passionate about the issues she was bringing forth – some of the other representatives I observed seemed like they were just reading off note cards that their assistants had prepared.
Once it was finally our turn, I was given 3 minutes to speak in favor of the bill. There’s no audio/video of my testimony but here were my talking points:
- I have driven for Uber and Lyft for over 2 years, and I also run a blog and podcast that reaches hundreds of thousands of drivers a month.
- The reason I’m here to testify is because I think a lot of policy discussions don’t take into account what it’s actually like to be a driver and what drivers want.
- Even though drivers come from diverse backgrounds, I think AB 1727 is something that would benefit nearly every driver in my audience in some capacity.
- This bill doesn’t solve every issue that drivers face but it is a step in the right direction.
- There are real issues that drivers care about, like when Uber cuts rates, that drivers should have a say in.
- There are real asymmetries in information and power (h/t Alex Rosenblat) that shouldn’t exist if this were a true marketplace.
- I think the current setup has worked out well for drivers, but it’s worked out even better for the companies themselves. Drivers should have a formal setting where they could air their concerns and have them listened to.
I wanted to provide as authentic testimony as possible, so although I prepared these talking points, I didn’t follow them exactly since I just went based off of memory. I think it went pretty well though and, of the two jokes I made, one got a few chuckles 🙂
After our testimony, the opposition was given a chance to testify and there were lots of trade groups representing various businesses that were opposed to the bill. The biggest opponent was the Chamber of Commerce, which is basically a lobbying organization for big businesses/industries.
It was kind of funny to watch every single bill come to the floor and the same woman from the COC would be the first to speak against it. You can see that there were quite a large number of groups opposed to the bill.
The thing that really stood out to me during this part of the hearing and that also made me a little sad was how little representation workers have in these types of proceedings. Big businesses pay millions of dollars to organizations like the COC to represent them, and I’m sure they donate lots of money to various political campaigns. You can see from the list above that they’re doing a pretty damn good job representing them.
But drivers don’t have any formal type of representation. This part of the proceeding only reinforced my position on this specific bill. I was actually the only person in the audience who was a worker in any of the industries that this bill would affect, yet there were dozens of people on the other side. Doesn’t really seem like a fair fight.
By the end of AB 1727’s hearing, there were only two committee members still there, so they didn’t have enough to vote. The vote would happen at the end of the day and at this point, things weren’t looking that great in my estimation.
The Bill Was Approved But…
Despite all that opposition, the bill ended up passing 5-2 along party lines (Democrats voting aye, Republicans voting no) and was scheduled to go to the Judiciary Committee the next day. So I guess that shows how little I know about this process, because I didn’t think it was going to make it out of committee.
But it turned out that there were some potential legal issues raised about the bill, and Ms. Gonzalez decided to pull it until they could explore them further. I sort of got the impression that the point of this bill was really to get the conversation going on this issue and that it will likely return next year. Ultimately, it was a good experience for me personally and I’m glad I was able to represent drivers in this matter.
Here’s a good wrap-up of what happened with the bill if you’d like to read more.
The thing I liked about this bill is that it didn’t address the employee vs. independent contractor issue at all. It took the approach that the courts are going to take years to figure that one out but in the mean time, what do we do for the current situation?
Note: This hearing took place the day before the Uber Employee Misclassification Lawsuit Settlement was announced.
Drivers are currently being classified as independent contractors but companies like Uber definitely have employee-like control over certain aspects of the work and there are some real challenges that workers are facing.
It’s actually currently illegal for IC’s to organize under the letter of the law, and this bill aimed to give drivers the ability to do that and seek formal representation. There are some items like minimum wage and health insurance that full-time drivers probably care more about than part-time drivers, but there are also lots of things that every driver cares about and could be bargained for under this bill. Things like rate cuts, number of drivers in a given market and working conditions are things we all care about. So while it may be a challenge for drivers to agree on everything, there is certainly enough overlap and common ground that could be improved by a bill like this.
Drivers, what do you think about my experience testifying in Sacramento on behalf of worker’s rights? Does this sound like a bill you would come out to support?
-Harry @ RSG