Time for Uber drivers to be employees?

Issue 143

Hey urbanists,

I hope all is well! I’m so excited watching the developments with employment status for gig workers, and it seems like workers may be on the cusp of finally winning in California, so I wrote a bit about it today.

In the links this week, I’m loving the Red Vienna piece, but worried about the restaurant spending piece. Aaron Gordon’s piece on Uber and Jump is great, but I’m not happy Facebook won’t fact-check climate denial. And have you been paying attention to what’s going on in Siberia? Yikes!

If you like this issue of the newsletter, or have liked a few, feel free to buy me a coffee.

Have a great week!

Paris Marx

Follow Paris and Radical Urbanist on Twitter.

It feels like the developments on whether Uber drivers and gig workers more generally in North America will finally be treated as employees are coming hard and fast these days.

The big focus is on California, where Assembly Bill 5 took effect on January 1, 2020 and was supposed to reclassify gig workers as employees, but the gig companies simply didn’t observe it and have kept arguing that drivers, delivery workers, and others are still independent contractors. That’s been particularly harmful during the pandemic, as it’s made it much more difficult for drivers to get unemployment and other benefits to stay afloat.

In response, the California Attorney General and attorneys for the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego sued Uber and Lyft last month for misclassifying workers. But since that might take some time to work out in the courts, the Attorney General is now filing “a preliminary injunction that would compel the ride-hailing companies to reclassify drivers as employees within weeks.” It will be exciting to see what comes of it.

Meanwhile, up north in Canada, things also seem to be progressing. In February, the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled that Foodora delivery couriers were dependent contractors and could form a union, but then the company left Canada on May 11. When their ballots were counted, the Board found 88% of couriers voted in favor of unionization.

But it’s not over yet. Canadian Uber drivers were also trying to sue over employment status, but ran into a clause in their employment contract that forced them to “arbitrate workplace complaints in the Netherlands.” However, this week the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the clause invalid, paving the way for a C$400-million class-action lawsuit by drivers. Amazon Canada is also facing a C$200 million class-action lawsuit from subcontracted delivery drivers who failed to “receive adequate compensation and job protections.” They argue that “despite the use of intermediaries, Amazon retains ‘effective control’ over those drivers and is their true employer.”

Ride-hailing and other gig services have had a huge impact on cities and workers over the past decade. They thrived by evading laws and regulations that applied to traditional companies in their sectors by claiming they were “tech” companies despite providing the same kind of services. Some governments and regulators are finally seeing the flaws in letting them get away with it. This is only the beginning.

Critical urbanism

Right-wing extremists, including a KKK leader, are using vehicles as weapons against Black Lives Matter protesters. 1.3 million people in the UK bought bikes during the lockdown, while US sales of bikes and accessories were up 75% in April to $1 billion. The pandemic did damage to Spanish municipalism, while reinforcing its central tenet of togetherness. Red Vienna put children at the center of its welfare state. US renters facing an “avalanche” of evictions. Light rail might be dead in Auckland, unless the upcoming election delivers a favorable government. Melbourne is putting speculators before the public interest with a new development. Venice wants to use the pandemic to rethink mass tourism. A JPMorgan study linked higher spending at restaurants to a faster spread of COVID-19. There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness, but the erosion of welfare-state support programs is producing more of the latter.

Tech dystopia

Aaron Gordon explains how Uber destroyed JUMP Bikes. Edward Ongweso Jr. argues abolishing the police also means abolishing Big Tech. Kevin Rogan critiques digital contact tracing. Julia Carrie Wong found Facebook didn’t just fail to contain QAnon; its algorithms actively spread it. New study finds ride-hailing services charge more for trips to poor and non-white neighborhoods. 90% of US gig drivers reported a decrease in income and less than half got support through the CARES Act, in large part because the companies classify them as contractors. Facebook is exempting climate denial from fact-checking. Apple is putting new privacy features in iOS and macOS. A tech company tracked the phones of US Black Lives Matter protesters. Microsoft is closing all retail stores. Google employees are demanding it stop selling software to police.

On Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to academics Banu Subramaniam and Debjani Bhattacharyya about how India’s government is implementing a technofascist agenda and using COVID-19 to surveil poor and Muslim people. In Horizons, I wrote about why Canada needs to place its telecom network under public ownership.

Climate crisis

Amazon’s carbon footprint rose 15% y/y. US is paying to clean up 100-year-old abandoned oil wells, and the cost will soar as more companies go under and don’t pay their own cleanup. Siberia is seeing a record heat wave with temperatures hitting 38ºC (100ºF). US demand for renewable energy hurting Indigenous people in Canada.