While much of the conversation about the 2020 election is focused on the top of the ticket, in California, a down-ballot proposition may hold undue influence on the future of the economy. The measure, Proposition 22, will determine if gig workers like Uber drivers are employees of the companies they work for or independent contractors.
As one might expect, the companies that would be on the hook for extending basic benefits to their workers are fighting hard to protect the status quo. Reports indicate that nearly $200 million has been spent by companies like Uber, Lyft, and Instacart to flood Californians with mailers, flyers, and advertisements, all urging them to vote "Yes" on Prop 22. More money is pouring in every day as these firms pull out all the stops to push their initiative to the finish line. And while the companies are drastically outspending their opposition, which is funded largely by unions and workers’ rights groups, they have other tools for delivering their message that no amount of spending can match: their own platforms. That messaging is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by drivers, who are accusing Uber of illegal political coercion.
Uber drivers in California who spoke to Mic said that the app that they count on to make a living has become inundated with information that they believe is tantamount to propaganda, all advocating against a law that would grant them benefits typically provided to full-time employees. "I’m bombarded daily with 'Yes On 22' throughout the Uber app, messages, notifications, and emails," Ricardo Valladares, a California-based Uber driver, tells Mic. Other drivers expressed similar concerns, noting that Uber has essentially been flooding their inboxes with information pushing for "Yes" votes on Proposition 22. Riders receive the information, too, with messages encouraging them to “support drivers” by voting yes appearing in the app.
"Every time I log in, one of their pop up messages is there," Dom Smith, an Uber driver in the Bay Area, tells Mic.
Konstantine Anthony, a long-time Uber driver and candidate for city council in Burbank, California, tells Mic that upon opening the app, drivers are given a full-screen message that reads "Yes on Prop 22: Drivers deserve better." The message warns that "a no vote would mean far fewer jobs and less flexibility for app-based workers." Drivers then have to click through six different screens, each delivering a doomsday-like message about what the Uber driving experience would be like if Proposition 22 fails. The company threatens that the number of opportunities will be limited for drivers and flexibility would disappear because as employees, the drivers would have to work more regimented shifts.
Anthony provided screenshots of these messages, which he said were populated and popped up as soon as he opened the app. The same screenshots were documented in the lawsuit filed against Uber, along with a collection of other screenshots described to Mic by Uber drivers.
When asked about the messages that greeted Anthony and other drivers when they open the app, Uber tells Mic that it is "false" that the message appears every time the driver opens the app. According to a spokesperson for the company, "Drivers in California are not shown pop-ups related to Prop 22 before accepting a ride request or when going online. They are occasionally shown a message in the app but only when they are going offline at the app exit screen, but this does not happen every time they go offline, only some of the time."
Smith confirms to Mic that while he receives other messages in-app, the message Uber provides when users go offline doesn't come up every time. He says he gets it "about every other time." But, according to Smith, "this is the one that bothers me the most."
"It says, you know, find the real information about Prop 22, and then it'll have a button confirming 'Yes,' in your support of Prop 22. Or it'll give you a no, but they'll disguise it as an 'okay.'" Smith believes that the reason Uber has proposed the question this way is because "They're looking to build metrics on their side on how drivers feel." Smith says that he force-closes the app every time the screen pops up to avoid giving Uber any information about his vote. "That's none of their business," he says.
In a screenshot provided to Mic by Uber, the log out message claims that 72 percent of drivers and delivery people have committed to voting "Yes" on Proposition 22.
This 72 percent support figure appears to be the result of what an Uber spokesperson called an in-app survey, which the company says is no longer in the app “to avoid confusion.” A prior version of this screen has been documented by drivers. The prompt told drivers that voting yes on Prop 22 would "provide guaranteed earnings and a healthcare stipend," a reference to a half-baked "benefits fund" that the company proposed earlier this year that would set aside money so that some drivers could receive paid time off or supplement their healthcare costs.
On this screen, drivers could either select "Yes on Prop 22" or click "Okay." According to drivers, selecting "Okay" would result in the screen popping up regularly, as often as every time a driver requested a ride. Selecting "Yes on Prop 22" would make the menu disappear, allowing drivers to get to work faster. However, it also would inform riders that the driver supports Proposition 22.
"I talked to drivers who've done this," Anthony tells Mic. "They would get tired of clicking, they just want to get to work, so they would click the 'Yes' option. And once they've done that, now, every rider who hails them gets a pop-up screen on the app saying 'Your driver is voting yes on Prop 22, will you support them?'"
Uber describes these experiences as a conflation of a couple of different screens that it has put in the app but has since been replaced. According to the company, there is no message that would pop up before every ride, nor every time a driver would goes offline.
Regardless of the regularity with which these messages would appear, Uber's information blitz appears to be effective. Valladares tells Mic that his passengers are often confused when they see the "No on Prop 22" information that he has on his vehicle. "They believe that 'Yes' on Prop 22 actually helps drivers," he says. Smith says he has had similar experiences because most of the information that riders have been exposed to comes from Uber directly.
Even drivers are susceptible to this information. "For a lot of drivers, English is a second language," Anthony says. "they're immigrants, they don't understand American propaganda." He also said some respond to Uber's in-app prompts by voicing their support for Proposition 22 because they fear that they will be deactivated otherwise. "It's an industry ripe for a disinformation campaign," Anthony says.
This creates an uphill battle for the drivers and other workers who oppose Proposition 22, as the companies they work for have effectively turned them into messengers for a ballot initiative that would restrict their access to employment benefits. Uber tells riders that drivers support Proposition 22, while companies like DoorDash are now making workers deliver food in bags that encourage people to vote "Yes" on the ballot measure. Regardless of the worker's real views on the proposition, they have become part of the well-oiled propaganda machine that is working against their interests.
Many of these gig workers are worried that these well-funded efforts from companies like Uber are starting to work. "To our dismay, Uber is doing a fantastic job on their information blitz," Valladares says. Despite this, he plans to continue to inform his riders at every opportunity where he stands on Proposition 22 and what the measure means to him and other drivers.
Likewise, Smith continues to tell riders why he's voting against the measure, but he says that at this point, the fight isn't fair. "They have a platform to share their idea. But we can't do the same thing on that platform," he says. "If I wanted to pass out information or flyers or something as I go through the day, that's a no-no. If they find out about something like that they'll deactivate me on some other baseless grounds."
Uber says that this type of retribution isn't something that drivers should be worried about. "The conversation about Proposition 22 should be about what gig workers actually want, a spokesperson for Uber says. "That’s why we are encouraging everyone who uses Uber or Uber Eats to ask their driver or delivery person how they really feel about Prop 22."
The company also publicly responded to the lawsuit accusing Uber of trying to coerce drivers and riders into voting a certain way by stating, "This is an absurd lawsuit, without merit, filed solely for press attention and without regard for the facts. It can’t distract from the truth: that the vast majority of drivers support Prop 22."
But it's clear that the company has a significant advantage when it comes to delivering the message. While Uber drivers opposing Proposition 22 can get the word out to one rider at a time, Uber is able to blanket every user with information encouraging them to vote in favor of the proposition. The company says these in-app ads are included in its "in-kind contributions," but it's far more effective than TV or online advertising where a countering message has an equal chance of reaching a viewer. In its own app, Uber and other companies have created a nearly impenetrable information silo. It just might win them the vote, at the expense of their own workers.