Massachusetts ballot question would give Uber and Lyft drivers right to form a union

Drivers for ride-hailing companies in Massachusetts are pushing ahead with what they describe as a first-of-its-kind ballot question that could win them union rights if approved by voters

BySTEVE LEBLANC Associated Press
July 10, 2024, 12:25 AM

BOSTON -- Drivers for ride-hailing companies in Massachusetts are pushing ahead with what they describe as a first-of-its-kind ballot question that could win them union rights if approved.

The push comes despite a landmark settlement last month guaranteeing that Uber and Lyft drivers will earn a minimum pay standard of $32.50 per hour in Massachusetts.

Supporters of the measure last week delivered the final batch of signatures needed to land a spot on the November ballot.

April Verrett, president of the Service Employees International Union, said the tens of thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers working in Massachusetts deserve the collective bargaining benefits of unions.

“This would be the first in the nation to establish a union for drivers in this way,” she said. The group is working on a similar effort in California.

Attorney General Andrea Campbell, who secured the settlement — which included what she described as “an unprecedented package of minimum wage, benefits and protections” — is also backing the ballot question.

“It’s a strong foundation that can and should be built upon,” Campbell, a Democrat, said of the settlement.

Verrett said labor laws in the country aren't written to take into consideration gig workers, something the ballot question would begin to remedy in Massachusetts if voters support the question — and drivers ultimately form a union.

“We fundamentally believe that workers are workers,” she said. “All workers deserve a union, a way to come together with their coworkers to have a say in their livelihood.”

Yolanda Rodriguez has driven for Lyft for about six years and says she’s convinced that having union rights would benefit her and other drivers.

The 33-year mother of three who lives in Malden, just outside Boston, said she begins most days at about 3 a.m., with many of her trips involving driving people to Logan International Airport.

Rodriguez said about a year ago her account was canceled when she was pregnant. She said she went for five months before it was restored and she could begin earning an income again.

“I don’t want that to happen to other women or men because there are often children behind the cancellations,” she said through a translator. “If I had a union, I would be able to turn to them and work with them.”

Under a policy Lyft announced earlier this year, the company said their goal is to make drivers feel supported and respected when a temporary hold is placed on a driver’s account during an investigation — including a streamlined, in-app button for drivers to appeal deactivation decisions.

But not everyone thinks the question goes far enough — if they support it at all.

Henry De Groot, 28, of Boston, has driven for both companies on and off for five years but says the ballot proposal question isn’t a fair deal.

“I’m 100 percent pro-union and I’m 100 percent opposed to the ballot question,” he said.

De Groot said the question doesn’t create a democratic system where all drivers have rights. He said no rights are included in the initiative beyond basic collective bargaining, including details on how dues are spent.

“You can’t have a regular union and not let workers have a vote,” he said. “There is no driver control over leadership. It’s about the basic democratic rights that other unions have. It’s a top-down organization.”

Kelly Cobb-Lemire, an organizer with Massachusetts Drivers United, which she describes as a grassroots, driver-led campaign, said other app-based workers including delivery drivers are left out of the ballot question.

“We’re fighting to ensure that both drivers and delivery workers have the right to form a union and are classified as workers,” she said. “We support democratic collective bargaining where every driver has a vote.”

She said her group is instead pushing lawmakers to approve a bill that would enshrine full employee rights for all app workers and include a path to unionization for everyone. She said the legislation also would mandate that drivers and delivery workers be paid at least the Massachusetts minimum wage for all working time.

The ballot question, if approved, would define “active drivers” as those who completed more than the median number of rides in the previous six months.

Once a union signs up 5% of active drivers in a bargaining unit, it would get a list of all eligible workers and block any other union from being recognized without an election.

If a union then signs up 25% of the eligible voters in a bargaining unit, it becomes the certified bargaining representative unless another union or a “no-union” group comes forward within the next seven days with signed cards from at least 25% of eligible voters, at which point there would be an election.

Backers of the question had been preparing to go up against a possible series of industry-backed ballot questions that intended to classify drivers as independent contractors.

But that threat evaporated after the settlement, which barred the companies from supporting all five proposed variations of their ballot question — meaning they won't proceed to the ballot.

In a statement after the settlement was announced, Lyft said the deal resolved a lawsuit that recently went to trial and avoided the need for the ballot initiative campaign this November.

Uber also released a statement at the time calling the agreement “an example of what independent, flexible work with dignity should look like in the 21st century.”

Under the agreement, drivers will earn one hour of sick day pay for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of 40 hours per year under the deal.

The two companies will also be required to pay a combined $175 million to the state to resolve allegations that the companies violated Massachusetts wage and hour laws, a substantial majority of which will be distributed to current and former drivers.

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This story corrects the spelling of the Service Employees International Union president's name. It is April Verrett, not April Verritt.