In an unexpected win for gig workers, a California judge on Friday evening found the controversial 2020 ballot measure known as Proposition 22 unconstitutional on the grounds that it is unenforceable. The ruling mounts a victory for gig workers whom the law exempted from state labor laws and a setback for companies like Uber and Lyft.
Judge Frank Roesch of the Alameda County Superior Court wrote that Prop 22 is unconstitutional “because it limits the power of a future legislature to define app-based drivers as workers subject to workers’ compensation law.”
Created by a cadre of gig companies including Uber, Lyft, and Doordash, Prop 22 rolled back California worker protections that would have required these companies to classify independent contractors, such as drivers and delivery workers, as employees, thus guaranteeing them basic worker protections like paid sick days, minimum wage, and unemployment benefits (all of which would have been extremely useful during a deadly pandemic). These companies reportedly spent more than $200 million to push the measure, which passed with 58% support late last year.
The passage of Prop 22 laid the groundwork for legislatures to pass similar laws in states across the country. As such, labor groups around the U.S. cheered Friday’s ruling.
Bob Schoonover, President of SEIU California State Council—one of the parties that brought the legal challenge—said in a statement emailed to Gizmodo that companies like Uber and Lyft “ tried to boost their profits by undermining democracy and the state constitution.” Schoonover’s organization marshals legal efforts on behalf of the Service Employees International Union. “For two years, drivers have been saying that democracy cannot be bought. And today’s decision shows they were right.”
The ruling offers some hope for labor organizations gearing up for Prop 22 replicas in other states, where gig companies have already started courting political allies and overtly pushing for new ballot measures. (Soon after the passage of the ballot measure, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told investors that he’d like to expand Prop 22-like legislation “across the U.S. and the world.”) “This decision is a major blow to the Uber/Big Tech campaign to avoid paying taxes, avoid paying workers fairly, and escape liability to customers,” Mike Firestone, director of the Massachusetts branch of the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights, said in a statement. “As we fight their $100 million copycat lobbying campaign to create a permanent underclass of workers in Massachusetts, we stand with the working people of California.”
Shona Clarkson, the lead organizer with Gig Workers Rising, echoed Firestone’s sentiments, calling Prop 22 an “illegal corporate power grab.”
“Prop 22 has always been an illegal corporate power grab that not only stole the wages, benefits and rights owed to gig workers but also ended the regulating power of our elected officials, allowing a handful of rogue corporations to continue to act above the law. Prop 22 is not just harmful for gig workers—it is also dangerous for our democracy. This fight is not over until all gig workers receive the living wages, benefits and voice on the job they have earned.”
In a statement emailed to Gizmodo, Uber painted the judge’s decision as a subversion of voters’ will while vowing to appeal the ruling.
“This ruling ignores the will of the overwhelming majority of California voters and defies both logic and the law. You don’t have to take our word for it: California’s Attorney General strongly defended Prop 22’s constitutionality in this very case,” an Uber spokesperson said. “We will appeal and we expect to win. Meanwhile, Prop 22 remains in effect, including all of the protections and benefits it provides independent workers across the state.”
Asked for comment, Lyft directed Gizmodo to a statement made by the pro-Prop 22 group Protect App-Based Drivers & Services Coalition (PADS), formerly known as the Yes on Prop 22 Coalition, whose spokesperson also said the group planned to appeal the decision.
“We believe the judge made a serious error by ignoring a century’s worth of case law requiring the courts to guard the voters’ right of initiative. This outrageous decision is an affront to the overwhelming majority of California voters who passed Prop 22,” said Geoff Vetter, a spokesperson for PADS. “We will file an immediate appeal and are confident the Appellate Court will uphold Prop 22. Importantly, this Superior Court ruling is not binding and will be immediately stayed upon our appeal. All of the provisions of Prop 22 will remain in effect until the appeal process is complete.”
In an emailed statement, Doordash bluntly stated that it refuses to recognize the ruling. “It will not stand,” the company said. “Prop 22 remains in full effect, and workers across California will continue to enjoy the independence and protections they want.”
Roesch’s ruling stems from a case filed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and a group of independent contractors in February. Prior to that case, the California Supreme Court tossed a lawsuit filed by those parties on the grounds that it be filed in a lower court.
Despite the impending appeals, workers’ rights organizations are counting Friday’s ruling as a victory over corporations that use their war chests to crush gig workers.
“Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash try to buy the market with monopoly practices, and they tried to buy our democracy with their $200 million campaign of lies for Prop 22,” Erik Forman, co-founder of New York-based group The Drivers Cooperative and creator of driver-owed Uber competitor Coop Ride, said in an email. “But they can’t buy the truth: all workers must have equal rights. Period.”
Read Judge Roesch’s full ruling below: