On May 14, 2019, the Trump administration’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is an independent federal agency that enforces US labor laws, classified UberX and Uber BLACK drivers as independent contractors. In September 2019, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s Janine Jackson interviewed Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, on the topic of NLRB. According to Bronfenbrenner, the agency’s decision to designate gig workers like Uber and Lyft drivers as independent contractors is a huge blow to workers’ rights. She explained, “If they are independent contractors, they not only are not eligible for minimum wage, they aren’t covered by health insurance, they’re not covered by all our labor employment law protections, and they don’t have the right to organize.” This reclassification sets a precedent for all gig jobs, not just Uber drivers, potentially threatening the entire gig-working class.
Under Trump, the generally business-friendly NLRB has become even more devoted to protecting employers’ interests than was the case in previous administrations. As Bobbi Murray explained in a September 2, 2019 American Prospect essay , the five-person board is currently operating with a vacant seat and consists of three Republicans and the lone remaining Obama appointee, Lauren McFerran, who is set to term out in December. Murray reports that “conservative interests have urged President Trump to wait until McFerran leaves and then to fill the two empty seats to lock in a unanimous pro-employer majority.”
In order to combat the setback dealt to gig workers by the Trump’s NLRB, California assembly member Lorena Gonzalez advanced Assembly Bill 5, which was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsome on September 18, 2020. As Marilyn Bechtel of People’s World detailed in a September 12, 2019 article, the law reclassifies as employees “over a million of Californian workers now misclassified as contractors.” In so doing, it makes them eligible for benefits they are denied as independent contracts such as unemployment insurance, compensation for on-the-job injuries, overtime pay, the right to form a union and Social Security.
Mark Gruenberg of People’s World on January 9, 2020 reported that Uber and Lyft tried to stop AB5 before it was passed. In response to its passage, Uber and Postmates are suing in federal court to overturn the law.
Not all hope is lost for app-based drivers. As NPR reported on May 15, 2019, in New York City, the Taxi and Limousine Commission established a base rate of $17.22 per hour back in December 2018, making it the first city in the country to set minimum pay rate for app-based drivers. Advocates for Uber and Lyft drivers in Chicago have picked up on New York’s decision as a model.
There has been some coverage of the NLRB’s ruling that Uber and Lyft drivers qualify as independent contractors. The New York Times, Forbes, and CBS News have all run articles on the subject. However, none of this corporate reporting has focused on the overall anti-worker bias of the NLRB which Trump has stacked with pro-business Republican board members. The New York Times did report on California’s AB5 and Uber’s suit to block the law but went out of its way to frame AB5 as potentially harmful to freelancers’ job prospects rather exploring in any detail the ways it would likely help most gig workers.
Bobbi Murray, “The Trump NLRB’s Anti-Labor Day,” The American Prospect, September 2, 2019, https://prospect.org/power/trump-nlrb-s-anti-labor-day/.
Janine Jackson, “‘Under the Trump Administration, the [NLRB] Appointees Have Been Extremists,’” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), September 10, 2019, https://fair.org/home/under-the-trump-administration-the-nlrb-appointees-have-been-extremists/; reposted as “Trump Administration Labor Board Appointees Are Anti-Labor Extremists,” Truthout, September 12, 2019, https://truthout.org/audio/trump-administration-labor-board-appointees-are-anti-labor-extremists/.
Marilyn Bechtel, “Gig Victory: Landmark Calif. Bill Ends Classification of Workers as Independent Contractors,” People’s World, September 12, 2019, https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/gig-victory-landmark-calif-bill-ends-classification-of-workers-as-independent-contractors/.
Mark Gruenberg, “Uber and Postmates Sue to Block California Law Protecting Gig Workers,” People’s World, January 9, 2020, https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/uber-and-postmates-sue-to-block-california-law-protecting-gig-workers/.
Student Researcher: Cem Addemir (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)