On November 3, as Americans voted in record numbers to deny President Donald Trump a second term in office, Californians overwhelmingly approved Proposition 22, a ballot initiative that exempts app-based gig companies like Uber and Lyft from the obligation to classify rideshare and delivery drivers as employees. The impact of the measure, which in effect creates a new employment category—the contract gig worker—has already been profound. In January, Vons, Pavilions, and other subsidiaries of the grocery chain Albertsons announced plans to lay off and replace their full-time delivery staff with subcontractors from apps like DoorDash.
This development is, from one perspective, just the latest in a long line of defeats for the labor movement. But the Prop 22 episode is also an instructive tale about the tectonic shift undergone by American liberalism—and the Democratic Party—since the 1980s.
Executives and owners regard Prop 22 as an obvious win: By replacing their workforces with third-party contractors, they’ll see labor costs go down and profit margins go up. Workers, however, will find no silver lining. Full-time jobs will disappear, and fired employees who take jobs with DoorDash or a similar company will face much harsher working conditions, without overtime pay, sick leave, protections against workplace discrimination, the ability to form a union, or eligibility for state unemployment insurance. Thanks to various newly created loopholes and exemptions, researchers at UC Berkeley have estimated that some gig drivers will end up making as little as $5.64 an hour—roughly equivalent in value to the minimum wage during the presidency of Harry Truman when adjusted for inflation.