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Drivers Sue Uber Over Pressure to Back Gig Worker Measure (2)

Oct. 22, 2020, 7:27 PM; Updated: Oct. 22, 2020, 10:13 PM

Uber drivers say the company unlawfully pressured them to support a ballot initiative that would make gig workers independent contractors, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in San Francisco Superior Court by a proposed class of California drivers.

The suit alleges Uber used a coercive campaign of misinformation to exert pressure on drivers to advocate and vote for the passage of Proposition 22, which would overturn a California law that makes it difficult for the gig companies to be classified as contractors.

If the workers were classified as employees, they would be entitled to overtime, minimum wage and other benefits. According to the complaint Uber, Lyft and other gig economy giants invested nearly $200 million into the campaign “Yes on 22.”

The drivers in the lawsuit say they were faced with a “barrage of misinformation” about the ballot initiative through pop-ups on the Uber app, which made misleading representations about driver benefits under Proposition 22 including regarding accident insurance, earnings guarantees, scheduling, and anti-discrimination protections.

One such pop-up only provides the opportunity for drivers to select “Yes on Prop. 22" or “OK,” to exit, which pressures drivers to accept Uber’s political stance, the complaint alleges.

“What Uber is doing here that really crosses the line is the way they are soliciting drivers to support Prop 22,” said David Lowe, attorney with Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe in San Francisco. “They are using the app they control to ask drivers to weigh in, and at the same time telling drivers you’ll have to reapply for your job. They’ll know who toed the line and who didn’t.”

He said his firm also filed charges with the state labor agency against Lyft, Instacart and other gig companies involved in the Prop 22 campaign.

“This is an absurd lawsuit, without merit, filed solely for press attention and without regard for the facts,” Uber spokesman Matt Kallman said. “It can’t distract from the truth: that the vast majority of drivers support Prop 22 and have for months because they know it will improve their lives and protect the way they prefer to work.”

The proposed class action claims the company is attempting to direct the political activities of its California drivers with respect to Proposition 22, and threatening their discharge to coerce them to follow a particular political course of action, in direct violation of state law.

Uber allegedly asked drivers to support the campaign by submitting video messages backing its political position, and pressured them to respond to surveys stating their support for the initiative. Because Uber can track survey responses and video content, it’s uniquely positioned to reward or punish drivers who don’t answer in the manner the company has implicitly demanded, the suit says.

Class members were warned that if Proposition 22 wasn’t enacted 70% of drivers would lose their jobs, and at times the company threatened to cease all operations in the state, the complaint alleges. And because drivers could reasonably believe they will be deactivated from the platform or denied favorable ride matches if they don’t express explicit support, the data collected about driver support and used for promotion is skewed and misleading.

Uber and other gig companies have been successful in keeping cases out of court through arbitration clauses signed by the workers. Lowe said the plaintiffs in this case opted out of the agreements, and the nonprofits wouldn’t be subject to the agreements.

Causes of Action: California Labor Code, Private Attorneys General Act, Unfair Competition Law.

Relief: The lawsuit seeks to prevent Uber from using information regarding drivers’ position on Proposition 22 obtained while monitoring responses, and from presenting false information to drivers through the app.

Class size: More than 200,000 drivers in California.

The case is Valdez v. Uber Techs., Inc., Cal. Super. Ct., No. CGC 20 587266, 10/22/20.

(Updates with additional details and comment from plaintiffs' lawyer.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Maeve Allsup in San Francisco at mallsup@bloomberglaw.com; Erin Mulvaney in Washington at emulvaney@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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