15 Sep Episode 143 — PR and Prop 22: How Silicon Valley Uses Hollow “Anti-Racist” Posturing to Sell Its…
Citations Needed | September 15, 2021 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener-funded. But, Adam, this episode is the beginning, the season premiere, of Season Five of Citations Needed. So, welcome back, my friend, it is good to hear you again, and I think we have a great season ahead.
Adam: We do, we do. I always like when we come back we act like we’ve been gone forever.
Nima: I know. (Laughing.)
Adam: But as far as episodes go, there is, and don’t forget, as always, as we start this new season, please if you can go to Apple Podcast and rate and subscribe and like and give good feedback to us. It helps the show and we are not above groveling for that, so please do that, and as always, you can go to our Patreon and sign up there. We very much appreciate that as well. It helps keep these episodes free and keeps the show sustainable.
Nima: In June of 2020, Logan Green and John Zimmer, co-founders of the ride-request app Lyft, announced that they had launched quote-unquote “allyship dialogues“ and were committed to fighting quote-unquote “systemic racism” which they said is, quote, “deeply rooted in our society.” The same month, an Uber marketing campaign proudly recommended to quote-unquote “racists” that they should #deleteuber, as they were unwelcome customers of the company. At the same time, the food delivery service app DoorDash announced a series of initiatives to, quote, “support Black-owned restaurants,” end quote. Everywhere we turned last summer, as popular uprisings against police violence and white supremacy filled the streets, Silicon Valley gig app companies that rely on and profit from the labor of predominantly Black and brown workers, insisted they too were committed to fighting racial injustice.
Adam: But something curious was unfolding at the same time these multi-billion dollar companies paid lip service and made token donations to bail funds and civil rights groups: they were simultaneously pumping tens of millions of more dollars on pushing support for Proposition 22 — a ballot initiative in California — that would exempt app-based transportation and delivery companies — such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash — from a state law that required them to classify drivers as employees, permitting those companies to not provide essential benefits like healthcare, paid time off, and unemployment insurance.
Nima: With 78 percent of ride-hail app drivers in San Francisco being people of color and 55 percent of Uber drivers throughout California identifying as such, the law — Prop 22 — would overwhelmingly impact nonwhite, disproportionately immigrant communities.
Adam: Knowing this, and compelled by the broader corporate trend of exploiting the George Floyd protests for branding opportunities, companies like DoorDash, Uber, Lyft and other app-based employers rushed to present the diminishment of worker protections not as manifestly anti-Black and anti-brown anti-labor laws, but actually empowering to drivers of color.
Nima: Spending millions on advertising, a patchwork of large donations to community groups planting op-eds in Black and Hispanic press, and focus-grouped language about employee “freedom,” “independence,” “being your own boss,” “flexibility” and the general rise-and-grind framing, Super PACs alongside Bay Area and LA-based marketing firms aggressively targeted minority communities to back Prop 22, despite all independent analysis and labor organizations insisting it would be bad for workers of color.
Adam: On this week’s episode we will detail how this plan played out, and ultimately won, how corporations buy off organizations and adapt nonprofit speak to harm communities of color, and how the idea of, quote, “third worker categories” like the ones pushed by Uber and Lyft are suspiciously similar to Jim Crow-era efforts to strip Black and immigrant workers of the rights white workers were winning under the then New Deal.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll speak with Veena Dubal, Professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
Veena Dubal: In this particular political moment, we talk a lot about the racial wealth gap, and when we talk about the racial wealth gap, it’s often as though this is just a remnant of moments long ago, a remnant of slavery, a remnant of the post-Reconstruction Era, and that, you know, we’re climbing to better and more equal places, and it’s just a matter of time before that happens, and that’s just not true.
Adam: Before we dive into some history, I think it’s important to note the Prop 22 effort in California, which had tremendous implications, as pretty much every new law in California does, it puts pressure on other states to do the same, puts pressure on the federal government — if you ever meet any lawmaker from California, they never shut up about how they’re the laboratory of democracy — so the stakes could not be higher in terms of similar laws like Prop 22, which are already being voted on or will soon be voted on in various states, including Illinois. And I know this because I get spammed with these ads every five seconds, that basically want to create this third category worker who is exempt from other labor obligations due to some inherent feature of the employment itself, and that this proposition effort in California was fundamentally at its core, as most of these things are, a media story, a story of public relations, a story of marketing, a story of using various wedge narratives to try to put lipstick on a pig, or put, you know, give you chicken shit and call it chicken salad. This is a classic example of that, and specifically, in the context of the George Floyd protests, at the time, we thought was worth revisiting, as an example of one of the core tenets of our show, which is PR, power and the history of bullshit, to use the tagline, that this was going to be a quintessentially PR episode, and you’ll see some really sinister and very bleak uses of public relations in this episode.
Nima: Yeah, there’s some really dark marketing going on that we’re going to get into, and it goes to show that it’s not just the power of the press or the power of bosses or the power of a racialized capitalism that just holds wages over people’s heads, and forces terrible policy, but it is the distinct effort of companies to pump so much money into these promotions, into this PR, into ad campaigns, and billboards, and commercials to move the public sentiment, to change the way that people even understand what they’re talking about, even understand their own jobs.
Now, this summer, on August 20, 2021, the Los Angeles Times reported that Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roche ruled that Prop 22 is unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable. This follows a lawsuit from the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, and several gig economy drivers challenging Prop 22 for violating the California State Constitution. Now, as exciting as this news is, and it is, the implications of this are uncertain at present as pro-Prop 22 groups, of course intend to appeal this ruling, which could of course result in a months- or even years-long process. But still, this is a very noteworthy and potentially incredibly positive development that of course we needed to mention on this show.
Now we’d like to start with a bit of history. So the first minimum-wage laws were established during the Great Depression, through the 1933 National Industrial Relations Act, known as NIRA, and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, FLSA. Yet both laws expressly excluded farm workers, domestic workers, and tipped workers, who were predominantly and disproportionately Black, thus creating a system of wages and legal protections that was ostensibly racially neutral but, in reality, stratified and defined by race.
Now, according to Rebecca Dixon of the National Employment Law Project, nearly half of all Black men, Mexican American men, and Native men and women, and significant numbers of Asian American workers as well, were excluded from Social Security, unemployment insurance, and the right to organize under another piece of labor legislation passed around the same time, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, otherwise known as the NLRA. The effects of this exclusion harmed Black women the most because of their concentration as both agricultural and domestic workers, which, as I mentioned before, were specifically excluded from protection.
Adam: So, After the passage of the NIRA, the National Recovery Administration, or the NRA, was created. The NRA was tasked with gathering information to determine the labor regulations for each industry, which we will delve into further with our guest. Employers who testified at NRA hearings called for explicit wage differentials based on race. Dixon wrote that, quote:
One employer stated that ‘a negro makes a much better workman and a much better citizen, insofar as the South is concerned, when he is not paid the highest wage.’ An employer of a manufacturing company in Selma, Alabama testified: ‘If all the past years have failed to make any real impression in the status of their intelligence, can any legislative act take them and immediately advance their capabilities to be equal to those of the white man with whom they must compete in the race for employment? We think not and because of this inherent ineradicable element of incapability, any idea is futile that fails to recognize a difference does exist and will always exist and that a proper difference in wage rates must be applied to meet the inequality.’
The FLSA’s de jure agricultural and domestic worker carveouts lasted until the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time, Congress amended the law in response to robust social and labor movements by Black farm laborers, civil-rights groups, and others, but these workers were still denied overtime protections. By 1974, after a decade of organized agitation by Black women, domestic workers also gained FLSA protections. Nevertheless, the racist and capital-favoring labor structures that defined them would, of course, continue, and continue to this day.
Nima: Now, as we will discuss much more in depth with our guest, Veena Dubal, later in the episode, platform companies like Uber and Lyft have continued this system of racially stratified pay and worker protections. Repeatedly, by fighting to continue classifying their drivers as independent contractors, these companies, like Uber, have lobbied to keep wages depressed for a workforce that is majority people of color. Now, in 2020, last year, Uber along with other quote-unquote “gig economy” companies like Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash, was lobbying to get the gravely anti-labor Proposition 22 passed in California, of course, where Silicon Valley is and where all of these companies are headquartered. So it really means a lot to them to get this kind of carveout. The proposition, which the companies infamously poured over $200 million into to get passed, sought to exempt app based transportation and delivery companies from the new state law that required them to classify their drivers not as independent contractors, but rather as employees. So if they’re employees, then the companies have to provide essential benefits like paid time off, unemployment insurance, health care. With these carveouts, these companies no longer have those requirements.
Adam: When Prop 22 passed many Californians expressed regret for voting yes, thinking that they were voting to expand workers rights. One survey of California voters found that 40 percent of yes voters thought they were supporting gig workers’ ability to earn a living wage. This of course is a result of the PR campaign by the gig app lobby. The vast majority of workers for these platform companies, and thus the people who will suffer most from Prop 22 are Black and brown. A study by UC Santa Cruz revealed that 78 percent of drivers in San Francisco, as we said in the introduction, are people of color. Lyft’s 2021 economic impact report notes that 69 percent of drivers are quote-unquote “racial or ethnic minorities.”
As Lyft driver and activist Cherri Murphy wrote in an op-ed for the website Voice, quote:
Racial justice is economic justice. The conditions that make police killings of Black people possible and inevitable are the same conditions that make the exploitation of Black and brown workers possible and inevitable. We reject your attempts to separate racial justice from economic justice, and we see it as an attempt to dodge your responsibility for the exploitation of your Black and brown workers every day.
This fight is not only about police killings and terror — it is about every institution that exploits and abuses Black and brown people in this country. When it comes to exploiting Black and brown people, you and your companies are experts.
So Uber had previously developed an ad campaign “thanking” passengers for not using the service during the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce the spread of COVID-19 to drivers and other passengers. One ad read “Stay home for everyone who can’t. Thank you for not riding with Uber” — Kind of doing the Don Draper, “Why I quit smoking” routine, trying to get ahead of it, it’s all very greasy. Yet Uber and Lyft, on account of their drivers not being classified as employees, have avoided paying into unemployment benefits — in California alone, an estimated $413 million between 2014 and 2019. So Uber and Lyft makes this huge production about telling people not to take their apps but because Uber and Lyft have these carveouts, they don’t pay into unemployment and indeed, from 2014 to 2019, and well into the pandemic, $413 million were not paid into unemployment, and not offered to the drivers of Uber and Lyft. So at the same time they’re doing this cutesy-wutesy, trying to get good PR while Uber is saying ‘stay home, don’t use our service,’ they’re not paying their drivers unemployment insurance, because they’re not eligible for unemployment insurance.
Nima: So stay home and the folks who you’re protecting you’re now also not paying.
Adam: Yeah, they can’t eat, but look how fucking magnanimous we are.
Adam: The cynicism of this PR move pales in comparison to their PR move later in the pandemic, in June of 2020, after the George Floyd uprisings where they gave us the Delete Uber campaign.
Nima: Yeah, this is truly, truly cynical and bleak. So platform companies waged expensive PR campaigns — beyond the, you know, ‘stay home during COVID’ which actually didn’t actually negatively affect their bottom line because, you know, they don’t have employees, so, whatever — but they really pumped in so much money to sanitize their own role in racist labor laws, during a time of uprising over racial injustice, and nothing speaks more to this, Adam, than what you just mentioned, June 2020’s #DeleteUber campaign.
So, in the summer of 2020, Uber installed billboards in 13 major cities throughout the country reading this quote, “If you tolerate racism, delete Uber.” The company also sent the slogan to users via emails and app notifications on August 28 of that year, 2020, timed to coincide with the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.
Now, Uber also shared, because they care so much about popular uprising and the safety of dissent and protecting people who are advocating for their own rights, of course, they sent users the ACLU’s Protesters’ Rights guide, and co-sponsored a, quote, “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” march in Washington D.C. Now the Delete Uber campaign billboard’s message included the subtext that read this, quote, “Black people have the right to move without fear,” end quote. The implication, apparently, was that Black riders and drivers should be free of racist harassment and assault. I mean, of course. Meanwhile, Uber pledged to develop, quote, “anti-racism and unconscious bias resources” unquote with quote-unquote “experts” to distribute to riders and drivers.
Adam: So while Uber is pouring tens of millions of dollars into the lobbying effort for Prop 22 to reclassify their drivers not as employees, but gig workers who are not afforded things like unemployment insurance, health care benefits, paid time off, while they’re lobbying for anti-labor practices for their disproportionately Black and brown drivers, they are doing this we-oppose-racism billboard ad, which is so funny, it’s so facile even in its own right, because it’s like, ‘If you’re for bad things, you can just go away because I don’t do that,’ and it’s so fucking impish, right? It’s so pointless.
Nima: ‘Because we stand for good things and you’re bad.’
Adam: But what really makes it cynical, because otherwise it would be sort of a kind of pretty craven, but otherwise forgettable gesture, the #DeleteUber campaign emerged if you recall, in January of 2017, after the Taxi Workers Union in New York City had a formal and informal strike on JFK Airport because of Trump’s Muslim ban. Now, obviously, a great deal of the taxi drivers in New York were and are Muslim at the time, they went on strike and Uber, to break the strike, exploited the moment by posting on Twitter, and other social media, that if you wanted a taxi at JFK you could get Uber.
Nima: With the requisite surge pricing, of course.
Adam: Right. One of these really inspiring moments of solidarity where activists, immigration, and labor activists show up to JFK to get these people who’ve been stopped by immigration under Trump in the first few weeks that he was in office, this moment of human solidarity where we were protecting brother and sister, everyone united, Uber comes along, smells chum in the water and says ‘Oh, actually, we’re gonna break the strike if you need to get home from JFK, we got you.’
Nima: ‘We got you.’
Adam: And immediately, within a matter of minutes, I mean, just on a purely PR marketing level, I mean, the second I saw them do that I’m like, oh, yeah, you guys are fucked. Now, the immediate backlash, again, against this cross class, cross racial moment of solidarity to protect the most vulnerable in the world, really, which is refugees, immigrants, that the backlash to that greater the Delete Uber hashtag, which went viral in about five seconds. They lost hundreds of thousands of apps, and since then, anytime Uber has done anything anti-labor, which is a lot, the Delete Uber hashtag will trend on social media. It’s been something labor activists and racial justice activists have been using for years now. And so along comes this George Floyd protest and some fucking marketing major dickhead —
Adam: There were like five of them, you know, marketing majors sitting around some table with a whiteboard thinking like, ‘Alright, so guys, the George Floyd protest took off today, this week, what can we do to really capture the Zeitgeist?’ And they were like, ‘You know, that Delete Uber thing, hashtag that goes viral every time that there’s some story or report or dash cam that catches us doing something horribly racist and anti worker? What if we took that, appropriated it to where you now use this hashtag, which has been a constant reminder of our moral capitulation in the most important moment of the Trump years, if you use that you are in fact racist.’
Nima: It’s incredibly brilliant. ‘You know how #DeleteUber is about Uber being racist? What if #DeleteUber is about Uber being not racist?
Adam: And in fact, ‘We’ve read the book. So we know that it’s not, it’s not enough to not be racist, we have to be anti-racist.’
Adam: ‘And the way we’re being anti-racist is by appropriating a hashtag that criticized us for being racist.’ I mean, this is the depth, the bowels of just dark, dark cynicism. But the Tech Workers Coalition newsletter, which is a informal union in Silicon Valley, published a letter vehemently denouncing Uber for doing this and they had an Uber engineer named Eddy Hernandez who went on record and said, quote:
I had coworkers make their case for co-opting the #DeleteUber hashtag for their Black Lives Matter billboards, and then shut me down in conversation when I asked about what we’re doing for Black drivers. It was pure marketing.
And this was during their push for Prop 22 you have to keep in mind as well. So here you have Black and Latino tech workers within Uber just appalled by the sort of raw cynicism here, and they got a lot of pushback from it in the media, and not nearly as much as they should have, but this really kind of shows how there’s this sort of nonprofit-speak they try to adopt where they have all the right words, right? Ally-ship discussions and listening, all the kind of ritualistic masochism, like, ‘Oh, we were wrong, and we’re sorry, we’re a corporation, but we’re not really going to do anything about it, we’re certainly not going to support any kind of political action that takes money out of our pocket that isn’t just a write off tax donation.’
Nima: ‘And quite the contrary, we’re actually lobbying hardcore for ourselves to get far richer on the backs of Black and brown labor.’
Adam: ‘Yeah, anything that could put food on the tables of Black people, anything that can put diapers on Black babies, anything that could actually provide housing for Black people, that creates material benefit? We don’t want to do that. We want to give $200,000 in a tax write off to some bullshit charity or nonprofit to kind of check the box to feel good about ourselves, but when it comes to things which existentially compromised our business model: fuck no.’
Nima: Now meanwhile, gig companies’ lobbying efforts certainly have not been limited only to Prop 22 or just to California politics. Journalists Dara Kerr and Maddy Varner wrote a comprehensive story for news site The Markup revealing the extent to which Uber and Lyft effectively planted anti-labor op-eds in papers throughout the country, particularly to target readers of color. Kerr and Varner wrote this:
At the end of February, an impassioned op-ed appeared in The Chicago Crusader, a well-established Black newspaper in the city. Titled “Why Independent Workers Want to Stay Independent,” the op-ed argued that gig economy companies like Uber and Lyft are a “lifeline” to communities of color by providing “a flexible way to work.”
Similar articles and op-eds riffing on the theme of “protecting” independent work have popped up in local publications all over the country, from Colorado to Massachusetts to New Jersey to New York.
In some of these states the articles have a common thread: Their authors represent organizations that serve communities of color and have received recent donations from Lyft, and in some cases Uber or DoorDash.
The op-eds are one facet of a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign aimed at fighting regulations that would require the companies to treat drivers and delivery workers as full-fledged employees. Over the past several months, news outlets have detailed political action committees set up by Uber and Lyft in New York and Illinois.
Adam: The article would go on:
The Markup found that the practice was even wider spread, occurring in other states and often involving alliances with local community groups.
According to public records obtained by The Markup, Lyft set up various types of political committees in Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington. Uber formed one super PAC in New York. Combined, the companies contributed a total of more than $3 million to the committees. Along with paying several public relations and lobbying firms through those committees, the companies also made donations to more than 30 local organizations that work with communities of color, according to an analysis by The Markup of the four states’ lobbying disclosure filings. A few of those organizations are behind the op-eds, which feed into the companies’ narrative that the fight for “independent work” is an organic grassroots movement waged by people of color.
Nima: Now, just to close the loop on this, and this will come as no surprise, Kerr and Varner would go on to write that, quote:
The companies’ lobbying tactics in Illinois, New York, and the other states are reminiscent of their successful $205 million campaign to pass California’s Proposition 22. The ballot measure exempted the companies from a state law that required them to give drivers and delivery workers employee benefits and at least minimum wage pay. In the run-up to last November’s vote, the gig economy companies paid $95,000 to a small firm run by Alice Huffman, then president of the NAACP’s California chapter, who subsequently wrote op-eds in local Black newspapers advocating that drivers should be classified as independent contractors.
Meanwhile, The New York Times published an August 10, 2020 op-ed by Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi proposing a quote-unquote “‘third way’ for gig workers.” Khosrowshahi posited that, quote:
gig economy companies be required to establish benefits funds which give workers cash that they can use for the benefits they want, like health insurance or paid time off. Independent workers in any state that passes this law could take money out for every hour of work they put in.
So, for all intents and purposes, what does this mean? Workers would still be independent contractors and would not be guaranteed the protections or the benefits of being actual employees. In the op-ed, Khosrowshahi cultivated a faux-populist appeal, arguing that polls show — always “polls show” — that most drivers don’t even want to be classified as employees, and certainly don’t want employer-provided health insurance because they’re already covered through the ACA, or another job, or better yet, another family member.
Adam: ‘Our push polls that we commissioned get the answers we want.’ So of course, Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash, and these other gig companies, are not the only corporations that did similar stunts during the George Floyd uprising. In June 2020, Kroger announced the creation of a $5 million fund for, quote, “organizations that support the advancement of the black community and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives” and created an “allyship guide” for workers, management, and customers. Historically, Kroger has violated the labor rights of Black workers. In 2008, it was sued for blocking the promotions of Black employees and paying them less than white employees. In 2021, it shut down stores to avoid paying hazard pay of an extra $4 an hour, despite reporting record profits through 2020 — an issue that deeply affects a grocery store workforce that the company reports is 35 percent people of color. Also in June of 2020, McDonald’s announced that it would give money to the NAACP and the National Urban League, which is like the Republican NAACP. It also produced a digital ad ostensibly to honor victims of police brutality that listed their names and read: “We see them in our customers. We see them in our crew members.”
Yet as Sarah Jones reported for New York magazine, quote:
In one Oakland McDonald’s, managers told cashiers and cooks to wear dog diapers if they couldn’t find masks on their own. Eleven workers eventually tested positive for [COVID]; one of them is pregnant. The virus then spread to their family members, and beyond them, to other McDonald’s workers. After an Oakland worker took a shift at a restaurant in Berkeley, seven more workers tested positive for the virus. If McDonald’s wants its workers to believe it cares about racial justice, ‘they need to start by opening the dialogue between themselves and us workers, and by listening to us,’ said Angely Rodriguez Lambert, who has COVID-19. ‘We demanded more than three times to talk to our employers, but we have yet to hear back. We’ve been ignored.’ Lambert is still on strike, along with 32 of her co-workers in Oakland. A dozen Berkeley workers have joined them.” All workers were people of color.
That was in May of 2020. So again, this is bullshit rhetoric, donate to these tax write off PR organizations, kind of bourgeois liberal organizations, whatever that means, it’s all reputation laundering, but when it comes to like actually giving any kinds of money, or rights, or employment benefits to Black and brown employees it’s: ‘Fuck you. Walk.’
Nima: To discuss Silicon Valley’s racist double game some more, we’re gonna speak with Veena Dubal, Professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Veena will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Veena Dubal. Veena, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Veena Dubal: I’m so honored to be here. Huge fan. It’s very exciting.
Adam: Thank you so much. So we want to start off as we often do by setting the table for our guests. This is obviously a complicated issue. We’ve been talking about it for the better part of an hour now. But I want to start by doing what we often do to annoy our guests, which is sort of reference the work of our guests back to them. In May, you published a paper in the Harvard Law and Policy Review entitled, “The New Racial Wage Code,” where you lay out, we think very convincingly, that recent labor carve-outs, like Prop 22, targeting so-called “gig workers,” and the fact that gig workers are disproportionately people of color, is not a coincidence, or some form of kind of incidental de facto racism, but it’s indeed part of a long continuum of racist wage codes. That the fact that immigrants and minorities make up most wage workers is precisely why they are targeted for the separation from normal protections, because I think some people think what Uber and Lyft tried to do with Prop 22, and others, but there’s, you know, a dozen or so copycat laws in various states — I know this because I get ads against them in Illinois, and I don’t even think they’ve even proposed it yet there — that this is not something new. This is in fact part of a continuum, which I thought was a very fascinating point you made. I want to start, if you wouldn’t mind, by talking about that continuum. We touched on the history a little bit, but I want to expand on that, what the history of these kind of, what you call “third category of worker” statuses are and how they very, very conveniently fall along racial lines.
Veena Dubal: Yeah, and so I guess I would start just by saying that in this particular political moment, we talk a lot about the racial wealth gap, and when we talk about the racial wealth gap, it’s often as though this is just a remnant of moments long ago, a remnant of slavery, a remnant of the post-Reconstruction Era, and that, you know, we’re climbing to better and more equal places, and it’s just a matter of time before that happens, and that’s just not true. The way that wages are structured today very much reflect decisions that were made by legislators in the Great Depression when we first got sort of our laws around employment and labor, and certainly they continued to reflect all kinds of discrimination in the housing market, and the way that the state engages in public expenditures for some communities and not for others. But certainly we can trace the inequality in wages to very, very racialized decisions that were made, and continued to be made over the course of many decades. So in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, after decades of unions fighting for and conceptualizing what we now think of as a living wage, Congress, alongside Roosevelt, put forth these laws. Well, we can not have people working for 60 hours a day who are also dying of hunger, who don’t have a place to live, and so these people deserve a minimum wage, they deserve overtime compensation. If they’re injured on the job, they and their families need workers compensation, if they are out of a job through no fault of their own, they need a safety net and unemployment insurance until they get a new job, and of course, they deserve the right to collectively bargain and organize. So these were laws that were passed, and Black communities did not benefit from them. They were purposefully passed with sectoral carveouts for African American workers. So, most African American women worked in the domestic sector and in the agricultural sector, and most African American men worked in the agricultural sector, and it just so happened that in order for the southern Democrats to get on board with these New Deal laws, the southern congressmen, they insisted that Black workers did not get the benefits that white workers had. And so for many years, that remained the case, there was a lot of agitation, good organizing in African American communities, amongst domestic workers, Latinx communities, amongst farm workers, and overtime over a few decades, some of those sectoral carveouts were legislated away, but not all of them, namely, agricultural workers and domestic workers still, under the federal right to collectively bargain, still don’t have collective bargaining rights. They do in some states, like in California, and in New York, but they haven’t benefited from over a century of federal protections. And then we got things like the sub minimum wage for service workers, for people who are tipped, that too falls around racial lines, you know, the service economy in the US has long been made up predominantly of women and people of color and immigrants. So what we’re seeing in the gig economy where we have these large companies creating new laws, new wage laws for their workforces, really is a continuation of this history, and what’s particularly disgusting and frustrating to me, is that, unlike during the New Deal when you had these plantation owners saying, very openly ‘Black workers they don’t work as efficiently as white workers, they can survive off of less than white workers,’ you had these sort of racist ideas being spewed very openly, what’s happening now is these companies, Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash, they’re making the same racialized moves that is creating new laws, that subordinate Black ,immigrant, Latinx workers, but they’re doing it under the guise of racial justice. And so they’re saying, ‘Oh, we offer really important work to single Black women, moms, this is you know, the third or fourth job that the Latino immigrant father needs to make ends meet and without us, he’d be out of a job, without the flexibility we offer he wouldn’t have anything,’ and so instead of sort of outwardly talking about how, ‘Yes, we have a highly racialized workforce, and we are passing laws that give them less rights than everyone else,’ instead of sort of acknowledging that, they’re really hiding behind this sort of racial benevolence facade, and people are buying into it.
Nima: Yeah, I really want to kind of dig into this more, this idea that the anti-racist posturing of these huge companies, especially when it comes to the criminal legal system, right, that kind of avatar of Black and brown people, as if they don’t exist outside of any other, through any other system, families or living their lives or walking down the street, it’s always has to do with criminal legal system, but that, you know, versus entrenching racialized discrimination in the economy themselves. You point out that industrialists used race as a resource, I mean, maybe we could say app-drustrialists do the same thing, right, to eliminate these protections and these rights. And earlier on the show, we actually spent quite some time talking about the #DeleteUber marketing campaign from last summer, the summer of 2020, a campaign that actually the publication Ad Age deemed to be the ninth “Best Brand Move of 2020.”
Veena Dubal: Oh my god.
Nima: Now, as we on Citations Needed near our 150th episode, I think we could say, Adam, without hyperbole, without irony, that the #DeleteUber marketing campaign is possibly like a top five most cynical thing we’ve ever covered on the show, just like super bleak and gross. So Veena, I’d love to talk a bit about Uber specifically. I mean, you know, yes, we can touch on Lyft and DoorDash, and those other —
Veena Dubal: I mean, they’re all the same.
Nima: They’re all the same, right? So those efforts to rebrand themselves, especially last summer, especially in the midst of uprisings, right, as champions of Black and brown people, and how this rhetoric really matches up or let’s say maybe doesn’t match it up with their legislative and lobbying efforts towards which they push record breaking dollars.
Veena Dubal: Yeah, I mean, I have so much to say, I don’t even know where to begin. I have a visceral response to even thinking about this particular campaign. So maybe you mentioned this earlier, but just to remind your listeners, their billboard campaign was, “If you tolerate racism, delete Uber,” and it was a reappropriation of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, Delete Uber campaign, which was directed at Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, and Uber’s strike busting — when the taxi workers tried to strike at the airport in opposition to the ban — and so, first of all, it didn’t make any sense. I was on the text chain with a bunch of drivers who were organizing, and they were like, ‘What does that even mean? If you tolerate racism, delete Uber?’ But the idea that Dara Khosrowshahi put out there in writing that Uber was an anti-racist company, and that they were going to donate money to all of these criminal justice organizations, and that they stood in solidarity with Black Lives Matter because the police murder of George Floyd was so abhorrent, what all of this did was to distract, and purposefully distract, from the reality that at the very same time they were spending $225 million to pass a law that would take away rights from a Black and brown workforce in the middle of a pandemic. So wasn’t just the Black Lives Matters uprisings that this was happening as the backdrop of, this was happening against the backdrop of a coronavirus pandemic where transportation workers were disproportionately dying in the state of California, as were African American workers and Latino workers. So you have this kind of structural violence that was really occurring quite rapidly in their workforce against Black and brown workers, and they were trying to distract from the realities of people on the ground by saying, ‘Look, we are anti-racist, and Prop 22,’ which is the law that they paid to get passed in California, ‘is going to be great for Black and brown workers,’ and race was so central to everything they did with Prop 22.
For your listeners who don’t live in California, customers were bombarded every day with images of Black and brown workers, on TV, on the internet, on their phones, carrying messages, you know, paid actors carrying messages about how they needed this work, how important it was to them, and simultaneously the company is, as you said, constantly talking about how anti-racist they were and how they were against violence in the criminal justice system, simultaneously, they are creating structural violence, economic violence against these communities. I can cynically say that they don’t care, that these executives don’t care, that they are just out to line their own pockets, but you know, I know some of these people, I went to school with some of the folks who work for these companies, and I’ve really struggled with how is this okay? These are Obama-era Democrats, which comes with its own piece of baggage, but you know, they think of themselves as being good liberals. How do they justify this with this extraordinarily, as you said, cynical isn’t even, there has to be a more extreme word here, just this disgusting move, like how do they justify it for themselves? How do they sleep at night? I came to understand that these people really believe in capitalism, they really think that if you work really long and hard that anyone can make it and the people that make it deserve to make it and that people that don’t make it don’t deserve to make it, and they don’t see the violence of the criminal justice system and of the market as being interrelated and very much the same in many ways, and I think that they, like some of it was, they really think on some level that they’re providing jobs for people just like slave owners thought that, you know, ‘We’re providing food and work for the slaves and what would they be without us? Where would they be without us?’
Adam: I mean, you want to pay me $400,000, I’ll convince myself of anything.
Veena Dubal: I don’t know, I think that you’re selling yourself short. I think it’s got to be like $10 million I think?
Adam: Yeah, $10 million.
Nima: Adam comes cheap.
Veena Dubal: (Laughing.)
Adam: It’s like, do they really believe it? Well, you know, I mean, obviously, there’s a filtering system, you wouldn’t be having a job if you didn’t have some kind of cultish devotion to the free market or the kind of power of capitalism.
Veena Dubal: To yourself.
Adam: Or to yourself, but also yeah, if you paid me a couple hundred thousand dollars a year I’ll start saying anything you want. That’s an open offer, by the way, for anyone interested.
Veena Dubal: I heard Dara say recently, you know, after he did his ridiculous PR stunt where he drove around, or he rode his bike around San Francisco for a day as an UberEats courier, he said, ‘You know, there are some people who just haven’t figured it out and can’t make it, but most people can.’
Spent a few hours delivering for @UberEats. 1. SF is an absolutely beautiful town. 2. Restaurant workers were incredibly nice, every time. 3. It was busy!! – 3:24 delivering out of 3:30 online. 4. I'm hungry – time to order some 🍔🍟🍺 pic.twitter.com/cXS1sVtGhS
— dara khosrowshahi (@dkhos) June 27, 2021
Nima: Yeah, it’s like this Undercover Boss garbage.
Adam: Well, I want to talk about that for a second, right, because the ability to spin these kinds of dystopian labor laws, abusive labor laws is actually good. It’s very much like when Lionel Hutz is teaching Marge Simpson how to be a real estate agent, right? She says this house is small, he says it’s cozy. She says this is dilapidated, he says rustic, it’s on fire, motivated seller. The ability to take this idea of precarity, and not being tethered to any informal employer — and obviously, this is something the restaurant industry’s been doing for years to some extent as well — and spinning that is like, ‘Oh, it’s freedom.’ A lot of these commercials they adopt — because again, I’ve been inundated with these commercials on Twitter and elsewhere — they adopt this kind of rise and grind, like, ‘You’re a hustler, this is your side hustle,’ which is all sort of very convenient when you want to keep your labor costs low, and of course any kind of pension, you know, God forbid we talk anything like that, right?
Nima: Because it’s all supposed to be gravy instead of the entire turkey.
Adam: Yeah, I want to talk about the way in which they’ve been very clever at spinning it that way, and to what extent is this messaging effective? Does this maybe sort of appeal on some level to people who do just need to make some extra side income? Because you know what they would say, if they were here, they’d say, ‘Look, waiters in Paris, France, have full benefits, they get paid €80,000 a year, but you can’t get the job,’ right? That’s what they would say if they were here, they’d say that the barrier to entry, worker protection makes the job almost too attractive, and then prevents struggling immigrants from taking the job. What would you say to those people? Because this is an argument that industrialists have been using for 200 years.
Veena Dubal: Absolutely. I mean, this is also, as I write in the paper that you referenced, this is also the argument that some of the more conservative leaders in African American civil society made for siding with industrialists, they said, ‘Well, if you raise the wages of Black workers to that of white workers, they’re just going to fire all the Black workers,’ and what they are saying, when we sort of pull apart what they are saying, what they are saying is that it should be okay for struggling immigrants and people of color to be in lesser positions, because it’s better than nothing. The lack of imagination, or willful lack of imagination in making an argument like that is that they are denying us the opportunity to think about okay, well, if we did have a situation where waiters are making a lot of money, and it’s not as easy to get a job, what else could the state do to either create a jobs guarantee or can we talk about some kind of basic income? Pushing the political imagination in a different place? What this does, creating these sorts of jobs where there is no barrier to entry, and everyone makes nothing and, and everyone’s struggling, what it does is it creates an ideology that is very anti-welfare state. So when a judge is talking to say, a parolee and the parolee has to report on how many jobs they applied for, and whether they were able to get any of them, that judge can say, ‘Well, this is BS, why didn’t you just, I can just download Uber on my phone and start driving now,’ and what that suggestion, you know, this is already happening, this is happening in the child support context, where you have noncustodial parents who cannot pay their child support, and the judges will go so far as to potentially put these people in jail because they didn’t just download Uber, they didn’t try hard enough to get a job, and what that idea is missing, the idea that ‘Oh, like you could just download an app and start working and isn’t that so much better than these people having nothing at all,’ is that there are other possibilities, and that, in fact, the type of work that this creates, is not, in many instances, a lot better than no work at all.
Adam: Yeah, it’s also an argument against the minimum wage at all, right?
Veena Dubal: Right. No, absolutely. That’s exactly right. It’s an argument for work spreading where everyone gets a little and no one gets enough. So you have in the Bay Area, a recent study suggested that pre-Prop 22, 20 percent of drivers after they considered their expenses, were making nothing, and so I mean, like this kind of work spreading as I think that they sort of talk about, is not sustainable for anyone, it’s actually not providing the kind of economic security that work should provide.
Nima: Yeah, the idea that the entire spectrum of possibility is a racial caste system…
Veena Dubal: Yeah.
Nima: …or genocide, right?
Veena Dubal: Yes.
Nima: And that’s it! ‘Hey, which one are you gonna choose?’
Veena Dubal: That’s exactly right.
Nima: ‘What are you so heartless? Are you insane?’
Veena Dubal: Yeah, exactly.
Adam: I was driving around in my limo and threw a ham sandwich at two homeless people, and they fought over it, but they didn’t have a ham sandwich without me. What if there was a third option?
Nima: ‘Where would they be without my ham sandwich?’
Veena Dubal: Yeah, no, totally. Well, it’s incredible how compelling that argument is though, because I talk to journalists a lot, and their question to me always is, ‘Well, they say that if they had to provide the minimum wage then hundreds of thousands of people are going to lose their jobs,’ and that is numerically wrong on many levels, because their own data suggests that something like 90 percent of people after they start working for the platform stop working for the platform after a year willfully because they’re not making any money. So it’s really like full-time immigrant workers who’ve invested in a car because they had a mistaken notion of how much money they were going to make — it’s really those people who are making the money for the company — but this idea that hundreds of thousands of people are somehow making a living off of working for these companies, it’s just such BS.
Nima: Well, yeah, you know, I mean, it really kind of reminds me of the arguments that were put forward during pushback against the anti-Apartheid movement, right? ‘Oh, well, you know, you’re gonna hurt Black workers the most if you support the boycott,’ you know, we hear the same thing about Palestine today.
Veena Dubal: About Palestine. That’s exactly right.
Nima: You know, it’s like, ‘Oh, who’s it gonna hurt? You’re gonna pull the jobs out?’ How about if working in colonies is not the only option?
Adam: But those arguments were effective, right? I feel like we’d be remiss to not note that there was a poll in 1980, that I think we may have cited in the show before, that said the majority, the plurality of Black South Africans opposed sanctions against South Africa.
Nima: And then in the mid ’80s that turned, but no, exactly, Adam, this narrative is so pervasive. Veena, you talk about these freedom narratives in your essay, as well as this idea of what do you say as, quote, “rebranding justice as benevolence.”
Veena Dubal: Absolutely.
Nima: So can you talk to us about what you saw, how these platforms, like Uber and Lyft, and DoorDash, push their own workers to kind of do their propagandistic bidding to promote stuff like Prop 22? Because these are so effective, what did you see, and what have you heard from the people that you’ve spoken to?
Veena Dubal: One of the things that the companies like to talk about is how if you look at these polls, these unscientific polls that they’ve taken and that their supporters have taken or completed, that the vast majority of workers want to be independent contractors and not employees, and what those polls really miss is that the vast majority of workers, in fact, the vast majority of the people in the United States have no idea the difference between an independent contractor and an employee and independent contractor sounds a lot better, and what the workers know about employee rights is actually limited for the most part to what their employers tell them. So, if your boss tells you three times a day, five times a day, that if you’re an employee, you’re likely going to lose your job, and you are going to have to work on a very strict schedule, according to a boss and not according to when you might need to work or when there is actually demand, then you’re going to be nervous about potentially becoming an employee, and so I think that a lot of the polls that they have reflect that kind of lack of real understanding about employment rates and the need for sort of more organizing and political power building amongst Uber and Lyft workers, but the companies 100 percent control the narrative for workers in terms of their understandings of what’s going to happen. So if you talk to workers who weren’t maybe politically engaged or weren’t really like following Prop 22, the arguments on both sides, etcetera, and you ask them what Prop 22 was about, many of them would be like, ‘Oh, it’s so great, they’re going to give us new benefits, and I’m going to get to keep my job and my flexibility, and it’s actually going to be even better.’ And so the drivers that I organize with and do this sort of engaged ethnography with set up all of these, what they called mutual aid stations, where they would go to the Lyft hub, or like the airport parking lot to talk to workers to be like, ‘Look, that is what they’re telling you, but there’s actually no way that this is going to be good for you and these are the reasons why they’re not going to be good for you,’ and they would engage in that kind of deep sort of political and collective power building that every social movement needs. It’s why the tide shifted so much with regard to the boycott movement in South African Apartheid after a number of years, because people did a lot of on-the-ground work having political conversations about what a boycott actually would do for the cause. And they did that. But when the company has the power to reach you, every second of your day through text message, through email, through your app on TV, it’s very hard to change the narrative, it’s pretty darn difficult to have a dent and to destroy some of the fear that people were feeling particularly in the context of the pandemic.
Nima: Right, of course, what’s actually super even more sinister about that, as you talk about the constant bombardment of talking points and corporate messaging and propaganda, is that the workers were getting propagandized to, on time that they weren’t even getting paid for.
Veena Dubal: That’s right.
Nima: Because if you talk about engaged time and non-engaged time, let’s talk about the difference there, because it is so truly, truly fucked up when you think about how work works. I used to work at a box office. If I were only paid for the minutes or seconds that I was selling a ticket to someone, as opposed to at work waiting for someone to walk up and buy a ticket, right, if it was kind of differentiated in that way, there would be no possible way to understand how much I make, to plan for anything, and what I would take home would be a fraction of what I thought I would, say, earn based on the time that I had spent at a place. Can you kind of unpack some of that for us?
Veena Dubal: Yes, so this is another reason that I think they won in California because this is so complicated. What they have done is to create a law where there is no minimum earning, you could work for 10 hours and go home with less money in your pocket than you started the day with, and that is absolutely legal, and it’s two steps removed from the sort of racial wage codes that were passed during the first and second New Deal, and this is why. So not only does this workforce not have access to a time-based minimum wage, meaning they do not get paid for all the time that they spend working, but the time that they are paid for is completely up to an individualized algorithmic allocation of work, and demand, neither of which a worker has control over. So say you’re driving for Uber, I’m driving for Uber, and Uber actually tells me at the beginning of the week, ‘Look, we, based on our data analytics from last week, we’re going to tell you that you should drive at these time periods, you should drive from Wednesday from three to seven, you should drive Thursday from four to nine, these are,’ — you know, they say that you can drive whenever you want, but they actually tell you when to drive at the beginning of each week — and so they tell me this, and I’m like, okay, you know, last week, I made $150, this week, I’m going to aim for the same thing. And so I start driving, and I do not, you know, I work over say the course of an hour and I only get one ride, and that ride is a five minute ride. I am only paid for those five minutes, and by law now I’m only paid for those five minutes, but what the law says, which was so confusing for so many people, was that the workers get 120 percent of the minimum wage for the time period for their engaged time period. So everyone thought, ‘Oh, great, that means they get 120 percent of the minimum wage, that’s better than the minimum wage, right?’ No, because I only get 120 percent of the minimum wage for those five minutes of engaged time.
Adam: And “engaged” is determined by the companies themselves based on a black-box algorithm.
Veena Dubal: 100 percent.
Adam: This is also democratic.
Veena Dubal: Yeah, and these things happen to where the company realizes, like, ‘Oh, Veena stops driving after she hits $150, so she must need to make $150 to make ends meet.’ So as I get closer to making $150, I get fewer and fewer rides.
Adam: Holy shit.
Veena Dubal: Because they want to keep me in this, you know, working for as long as possible in case they need me to keep the workforce as large as possible.
Adam: And they need to keep the supply liquid and large.
Veena Dubal: Exactly.
Adam: Wow, that’s… I didn’t know that.
Veena Dubal: That’s it exactly. So when drivers sometimes say they’ve figured it out, so I’ve talked to a bunch of drivers who are like, ‘Oh my God, I figured out a system that works for me, I’m making consistent money,’ after a few weeks or a few months, that will go away, because the system is smarter than them.
Nima: Because the algorithm will catch on to it.
Veena Dubal: Exactly.
Adam: This is what casinos do, they target your winnings based on your playing patterns, and then they manipulate you.
Veena Dubal: Yes, absolutely, yeah.
Adam: They probably have the same consultants.
Veena Dubal: They hired not just the same consultants, the same social psychologists. They won’t pay their drivers, but they have a whole slew of social psychologists who work with their engineers to make this like a casino app, and drivers talk about it a lot through the language of addiction. There’s a great book that I’m sure you guys have seen by Natasha Dow Schüll called, Addiction By Design, about the casino internet apps, and when I was reading it, which was when I was doing the course of my fieldwork, I kept being like, oh, my God, this is literally the exact same thing as everything. The way that they use light, the way that they use sounds in the app, it is all very, very casino-like and it’s all based on good science about how to get people to keep going, and in this case, it’s not the high of the sort of joy and fun of a gamble., it’s literally to keep going so that you can put food on the table and it’s so sinister.
Adam: Yeah. So I feel like we’d be remiss if we didn’t sort of talk about some of the parallels with what we view as the white-billionaire-funded charter school movement that gain momentum by capitalizing on legitimate grievances among Black and Latino populations specifically, and their frustrations with underfunded public schools. So Uber and Lyft, we should note, have made strides appealing to kind of high-profile minority celebrities and even some minority populations, in some ways, because what came before these rideshares was also horribly racist. Obviously, in frequent bus routes in poor communities, racist cab drivers in New York, I mean anyone who has been to New York knows about that, and I want to kind of talk about the ways in which what preceded it kind of laid the groundwork for them to kind of come in and capture with some modicum of credibility, this mantle of anti-racist.
Veena Dubal: Yeah.
Adam: And I want to talk about how the kind of pre-gig economy and how transportation in general, just to use one example, historically as kind of underserved these communities in what dare I ask, what could be a third option from either the horrible racist —
Nima: Racial caste system or genocide? You mean, those aren’t the only two options?
Adam: We’ve learned on this episode that there is sometimes a third option? So, what would that pitch be? What would you say to somebody says, ‘You know, back in the day, I couldn’t get a cab in New York, and now I can get an Uber because they don’t know necessarily, I’m Black, or they can’t deny me,’ whatever it is, and that ‘that’s kind of why I may be more sympathetic,’ what would you say to that?
Veena Dubal: Yes, I have lots of thoughts about this, and I’ve had a lot to say when people say that to me. I mean, let’s start here. When these companies started on the streets of San Francisco in 2012, 2013, there was a lot of excitement amongst the tech crowd that was having a hard time getting to bars when they wanted to get to bars at nighttime to catch a taxi, and they really blamed the taxi system, as opposed to blaming the fact that there wasn’t good public transportation available. So my first response is, was it that you couldn’t get a taxi or was it that there wasn’t good public transportation to help you get where you need to get? Taxis have always been supplements for and to public transportation, and what Uber and Lyft have done similar to as you say, the charter movement, is tried to take over public transportation, tried to completely privatized public transportation, as the charter movement is trying to privatize education, as opposed to making public transportation better for everyone, and we know that they’ve taken billions of dollars a year, over the last few years, diverted billions of dollars from public transportation to their companies. So this is a particularly sinister thing that they do when they say, ‘Oh, look, Black communities, poor Black communities couldn’t get a taxi before, now we have Ubers and Lyfts going to their neighborhood,’ subtext: they don’t need public transportation, we don’t need to fight to make sure that working people have access to public transportation. Sub subtext: oh, by the way, when we completely monopolize the industry, we’re going to raise prices, and those people aren’t going to be able to afford our rides anymore, and there’s not going to be public transportation to take them where they need to go, and we’re creating a crisis in fact. Actually, this has already happened in California, in the Bay Area. Bayview Hunters Point, they argued this is an area where taxis don’t go. True. It was a real problem. Taxi workers were making strategic decisions not to go to places that they deemed dangerous, and hence underserving these communities. But the problem wasn’t that taxis weren’t going to these communities, the problem was that public transportation wasn’t good in these communities, and continues to not be good in these communities. So the company’s PR during Prop 22 kept saying, ‘Look, we have so many low income folks in these communities that really depend on our services’ and they you know, they came out with the data that only they have that we can’t question because they won’t show it to us, and then they just raised prices after Prop 22 passed. And so now, those people cannot use Uber and Lyft, because they cannot afford to pay $120 during surge pricing to get to work, and oh, for the past eight years, all the money that could have been going to the SFMTA went into lining the pockets of these already unprofitable companies. And so yes, the third option here is let’s really invest in public transportation. It’s not complicated. It seems to be the, I mean, I don’t know if your kids have as much climate anxiety as my kids have, but they have a lot of climate change anxiety, and we talk about it a lot, and we talk about solutions a lot and my nine year old just comes back every evening to the same same answers like why are people driving cars? Why does everyone have cars? You know, it’s such a simple, almost, you know, like a nine year old can come up with this solution. It’s so clear, and yet somehow they’ve managed to bamboozle journalists, media analysts, academics, consumers all over the country into thinking that they’re doing right by Black and Latinx communities.
Nima: Yeah, your paper I think does such a great job of drawing the through lines from the then to the now, the injustices of the New Deal era to now the clear injustices of this raw deal era.
Veena Dubal: Yeah.
Nima: The agricultural and domestic workers then, are the transportation delivery workers now. You also, though, detail the grassroots efforts by gig workers, who I think in your paper you often refer to as “on-demand platform workers,” which I think is, you know, we talk about language a lot on this show, it’s important to even think about how “gig worker” sounds as opposed to “on-demand platform worker,” but you talk about these grassroots efforts, and how so many — then and now — refuse to just sit quietly as their anti-labor bosses claim to care about justice or, you know, now systemic racism, and yet do everything they can to entrench those very systems. Can you tell us about some of the amazing efforts you are seeing, what our listeners can learn about what they may be able to help out or support with, and what lessons can be learned from labor solidarity and the folks that you’ve been talking to?
Veena Dubal: Yeah, I want to say at the outset that this entire paper came, the idea of even comparing this Great Depression era, these racial wage codes to what Prop 22 did very much came from the workers who I organize with and talk to a lot. It was it was an observation that they kept making, a bunch of the workers, their parents and grandparents were agricultural workers in California, and during Prop 22 they kept saying, ‘This is just like what our family in previous generations have experienced,’ and that got me sort of interested in reading the legislative history and the social movement history leading up to the New Deal to sort of understand the kind of pushback and resistance that existed to these racial wage codes, and I was struck at how similar the arguments were on both sides. They weren’t as, as I said, they weren’t as obviously racist now, although racist in their own way using racial benevolence to cover up racial injustice, but they were the same arguments that we’ve discussed the past 30 minutes the, ‘Oh, this is work spreading, this is good for them,’ whatever.
Nima: It’s independence for workers.
Veena Dubal: Its independence, yes, everything. ‘If they didn’t have us, they wouldn’t have anything,’ and the workers that I organize with were particularly angered and really sort of catalyzed, what catalyzed I think a lot of that anger was the racial justice marketing of the companies. It just really, really pissed people off that, ‘How dare you take away rights that I’m owed, and simultaneously say that you care about my well being and my life,’ and so what they did, so I organize with a group called Rideshare Drivers United, which is a group of self-organizing workers — and when I say self-organizing workers, I mean that there is no, they weren’t started by a union, they were actually workers who just met in the airport parking lot in LA and organically grew this pretty amazing organization — and the reality is, is that in the United States, if you are an independent contractor, you don’t have the right to collectively organize with other independent contractors, because that’s considered price fixing. So unions are really worried about investing in organizing in this industry, while the status of workers is sort of unclear. So, so much of what Rideshare Drivers United does is actually just volunteer workers building solidarity with one another.
And so they did a bunch of things, when the companies during the pandemic wouldn’t provide PPE and actually Lyft was selling PPE to drivers, they got a bunch of donations, came together, and were handing them out for free. Handing masks and cleaner — and this was the time when cleaner was really hard to come by, and people were like making their own cleaners out of vodka — handing them out for free to workers, and at the same time having conversations with other drivers about why they were organizing and why they should be involved in organizing. They also helped workers, helped one another figure out the unemployment insurance system, which was so complicated for peoples whose status was unclear, really complicated, like I’m a lawyer, it was really hard for me to figure out, there was a group of legal aid attorneys in the Bay Area who had an email listserv called The Unsolved Mysteries of the EDD, because it was so complicated, and so they engaged in these mutual-aid efforts to sort of help people survive. I talked to a lot of drivers who, if they did get their unemployment insurance check, which seemed sort of random and arbitrary when someone would get them, they would then share them with the undocumented drivers who weren’t able to get them because they didn’t have access to unemployment insurance. They did a lot of really amazing, and again, this was happening during the pandemic. They did a lot of really amazing town halls, to just have honest conversations with other drivers about what Prop 22 was and did, and I have to say a lot of these drivers actually, after Prop 22 passed, stopped working for the companies because they said it just, they were long term drivers who had driven from the very beginning, you know, these are drivers who said that they had like talked on the phone to John Zimmer, and had been inside Lyft and Uber headquarters, and early on had been sort of put out there as a model driver, a bunch of those drivers just stopped because Prop 22 is so awful, but many of them have stayed involved in the organizing, which has just been really beautiful to see, because they are so angry and invested in ensuring that these companies don’t keep operating the way that they’re operating.
Most recently, in California, these workers organized a strike, a multi-city strike in front of Uber headquarters in San Francisco that was where we had a big protest to commemorate the strike, and they just keep going, and what’s amazing to me is that they’ve been really abandoned in some way by many of the unions because of their sort of status as third-category workers, and they by law have no rights in California and very little hope for rights because of the way Prop 22 was written we would need basically another proposition to overturn it, and yet they continue to organize, they continue to meet weekly, they continue to plan direct actions, they have found love for each other and love for the movement and the idea that they can change things through collective organizing and collective power and it’s so inspiring. It really deeply moves me.
Nima: Well, I think that is a perfect place to leave this interview on that note of solidarity and optimism. We have been speaking with Veena Dubal, Professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law and author of the recent article, “The New Racial Wage Code” in the Harvard Law and Policy Review. Veena, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Veena Dubal: I really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you for having me.
Adam: Yeah, you know, the parallels with the racist worker carve-outs of the ’30s and ’40s are pretty stark. It’s basically like, ‘Oh, no, they don’t deserve the normal wages because there’s something unique in their brains.’
Nima: Right. ‘If we treat them like full humans, they’ll stop being — ’
Adam: It’s so funny, you know, ‘They don’t want healthcare, trust us, our PR firm did some push polls, we realized that they don’t want benefits. They don’t want a union. They don’t want any of this. Nah, it’s all good. The fact that I get paid $680,000 a year to tell you that is just a coincidence. I’m just looking after the workers.’
Adam: How convenient.
Nima: ‘We are just giving them what they want, which is fucking nothing.’
Adam: ‘How convenient that the $200 million I’ve spent to convince them that this thing is right happens to actually be right. Otherwise, you know, the $200 million we spent was just, you know, to stimulate the economy, we didn’t need to do it, they already want it.’
Nima: ‘They already love being called essential. They don’t need any benefits on top of that.’
Adam: ‘Yeah, they don’t need it, we know what’s best for them. Now, here’s this extremely misleading poll, and hundreds and hundreds of hours of disinformation that we’re promoting on the app itself, and forcing you to proselytize your poor fucking drivers with, but don’t worry, it’s a level playing field, and this is the organic a priori feelings of our workers, or sorry, not workers of our’ — what dare they called?
Nima: Independent contractors.
Adam: Yeah, independent contractors.
Nima: Of our freedom force.
Adam: ‘Whatever you do, just don’t call them our employees, because then that comes with certain obligations, and our entire fucking business model that is over capitalized like a motherfucker to the tune of $60 billion requires this business model. So if we don’t pass this law, we are fucked.’
Nima: Because they’re really, Adam, they’re just Freedom Rides.
Adam: It’s the same thing. You know, they just care so much about racial justice.
Nima: (Laughs.) Exactly. Well, that will do it for this first episode of Season Five of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone, of course for listening to the show, for sharing it, for spreading the word and of course when you can for rating and subscribing to the show on Apple Podcast. Of course, you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and if you are so inclined become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. We are 100 percent listener funded, and so all your support goes an incredibly long way. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, September 15, 2021.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.