The results of many elections—chiefly the presidential one—are still up in the air. But Tuesday night saw a sure, devastating blow to working people: California passed Proposition 22, meaning drivers with app-based companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash will be considered independent contractors and not employees. It’s also a preview of the coming climate fights that could pit people and the planet against Silicon Valley.
Prop 22 spurred widespread opposition from labor organizers and climate groups alike, who rightly said it would spell disaster for both workers’ rights and the planet. Despite this coalition’s valiant efforts, the ballot measure prevailed in part due to massive financial support by the companies who stand to benefit from it. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates, and Instacart shelled out a combined $204 million in support of it, making it the most expensive ballot measure in history.
When it comes to backing polluting policies, these app-based firms aren’t the first culprits that come to mind. The usual suspects are oil and gas giants and utilities, who have indeed been hard at work lobbying for other death cultish measures. Many Silicon Valley-backed companies have gone out of their way to tout their supposed green bonafides, like Lyft’s pledge to go carbon neutral. But Prop 22 shows that it’s not just old school fossil fuel companies who are willing to abandon workers or the planet. These shiny new firms will also do what it takes to protect their money at the Earth’s expense. These companies are formidable opponents. They’ve got billions of dollars at their disposal, and they’re savvy, too.
Prop 22 is expected to put more cars on the road, which is particularly concerning because a recent study found that Uber and Lyft were responsible for about half of San Francisco’s increase in congestion between 2010 and 2016. Transportation is also the largest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Allowing these companies to expand without giving workers’ the ability to organize is a huge obstacle to the fight for a just and carbon-free transit sector.
The climate plans rideshare and gig economy companies have put forward are far from sufficient to meet the scale of the crisis, a crisis that they will have a larger hand in making worse due to Prop 22. The plans do nothing about the apps’ wasteful business models, which depend on workers driving around aimlessly for miles while waiting to pick up customers. A recent report from Union of Concerned Scientists found that due to this, car trips from ride-hailing services create nearly 70% more climate pollution on average than the trips they displace. Switching to electric vehicles would help, but like fossil fuel firms attempts to offload the responsibility for climate action onto consumers, the apps’ pledges put the onus on their drivers to make the costly switch.
Climate organizers lost this fight against these gig work apps, but then it won’t be the last one to wage. These companies are becoming some of the most powerful in the country, and they’re using that power to lobby for more legislation and ballot measures that protect their interests. Measures similar to Prop 22 are already in the works in other states.
The climate movement will face an uphill battle to defeat these measures, but in some ways, it’s well-poised to take up the challenge. Thanks to the centrality of labor rights in the Green New Deal and some unions’ shift toward acceptance of climate policy, the overlap between climate and labor groups’ interests is clearer than ever.