taxi workers alliance

HONK FOR LABOR: The New York City Taxi Workers Alliance had to get creative in the midst of the pandemic to ensure visibility for their campaign for better working conditions in an industry upended by Uber and Lyft.

The 2020 election results for labor-related ballot questions were a mixed bag for unions.

While voters in Florida voted overwhelmingly to support a $15-an-hour minimum wage, joining New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia and the District of Columbia, which have different mechanisms to phase it in, California voters permitted ride-sharing firms and other "gig" companies to deny those working for them key rights and benefits by classifying them as independent contractors.

And even in Florida, it will be nearly six years before the new minimum is reached, with further increases linked to the rate of inflation.

2.5 Million to Benefit

According to the Florida Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank, the change will bring higher wages to 2.5 million Floridians. Maine voters approved an upgrade in the $12 hourly minimum to $15 over several years, with employers during declared public emergencies required to grant hazard pay at the rate of time-and-a-half, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Joe Biden made raising the national minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for more than a decade, to $15 a key campaign pledge.

Congressional Republicans, however, have refused to boost the minimum wage or grant hazard pay for work during the pandemic.

Vinnie Alvarez, president of the AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council, said he was encouraged that Florida voters supported the higher minimum even while giving the state to President Trump.

Sees Pro-Union Wave

"It is significant and it's telling of both the support for the $15-an-hour minimum wage and also support for unions that we have seen as well throughout the country reaching a high point this year," he said during a phone interview. 

Mr. Alvarez, who is also a Director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, believes that the public-health emergency prompted by COVID has helped build public pressure to better compensate essential workers, especially those who lack union representation.

"It is hard to conceive of people that have served communities throughout the country during the pandemic and not been compensated at a level that is going to give them a fighting chance to provide for themselves and their families," he said. 

But Richard Wolff, a Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, wrote via email of Florida's delay until 2026 for a full phase-in, "Assuming a 2.5% inflation rate between now and then means that $15/hour in 2026 will have lost about 12% of its real value in terms of what it can buy for the worker who gets it. In short, a $15 min wage in 2026 = $13/hour roughly. A pathetic result."

California Regression

In another unwelcome move, roughly 60 percent of California voters sided with companies like Uber and Lyft in their campaign to beat back efforts in that state's legislature to win employee status for the state's two million gig workers, who are considered independent contractors and therefore not eligible for the minimum wage, paid sick leave, and employer contributions to Workers' Compensation, Social Security and Medicare.

The shared-ride companies and other gig-economy firms used a multi-million-dollar ad campaign to convinced voters, in a state that's considered progressive, to defeat the measure, which had been adopted by the California Legislature.

Darrell West, in a Brooking Institute analysis, wrote that "their argument was that the law was unduly restrictive and that companies did not fully control workers in the traditional sense. They also invoked drivers who said they liked the convenience and flexibility of a gig job and that the new law was overly restrictive."

Joshua Freeman, a labor historian and Professor at Queens College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, said the California vote was a major setback for gig workers, writing that it was "likely to become more difficult to mandate benefits and protections for Uber and Lyft drivers and similar workers all over the country and even abroad."

Mr. Wolff concurred.

Deserve Protections, Too

"This means that the last 150 years of hard-fought working-class struggles to get legal protections for workers can be set aside for today's service workers," he said. "Reclassifying employees as contractors is done to save employers the costs of all those labor protections."

State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said, "I can assure you that our fight will continue. One way or another, app-based workers will receive the same rights and protections, including the right to organize, as all other workers."

George Arzt, a political consultant whose firm advises private-sector and non-profit clients on how to advance their public-policy agendas, said the labor movement has to be able to outfight corporate giants in the battle for public opinion.

"The unions have to be in the same arena as their opponents," he said in an email. "Some unions use social media and PR to advocate. Many prefer to use their clout behind the scenes. They need both to be effective to the maximum extent."


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