A record $200 million were splashed to win votes for a controversial ballot measure.
In the end, it was a close race. On the one side was a band of labour unions and groups such as Gig Workers Rising. They were up against ride-hailing and delivery service giants Uber, Lyft and others.
Alongside the US presidential elections on November 3, Americans cast their votes on 120 ballot measures across 32 states.
A ballot measure allows a US citizen to have a say on an existing or a proposed law. It’s a form of direct democracy - for some, a mockery of it.
Some see it as a referendum, which can supersede legislation enacted by elected representatives. Anyone can initiate a ballot measure. An individual, a lobby group or a corporation with deep pockets can gather enough signatures - a little over 600,000 - to bring a law for direct vote during the elections.
Also known as Propositions, these ballot measures this year covered matters such as whether women should be allowed to have abortion in their 22nd week of pregnancy, on the question of legalising use of marijuana, and a minimum $15 wage.
But it was in the state of California that one of the fiercest battles was fought on what’s called Proposition 22 or simply Prop 22.
It was a measure, which allows Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and others to sidestep a state law that binds them to treat their drivers as regular employees.
Around 58 percent of the 11 million voters in the state sided with these companies, which say the drivers must be treated as private contractors and not employees.
This basically means the drivers working for these companies won’t be entitled to a minimum wage, paid sick leave, health insurance or have the right to form a union.
“Gig workers did not lose today, democracy did. When corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars to write their own labor laws even after our elected officials and public institutions have, numerous times, rejected them, that is a loss for our system of government and working people,” said Gig Workers Rising in a statement.
A rejection or NO vote could have had a far-reaching impact. Other states were closely watching the ballot measure because it could have set a precedence for how gig workers are treated elsewhere.
California, where Uber and Lyft are based, is not just the most populous state in the US - if it were a country, it would have been the fifth largest economy in the world.
Wherever the money flows
In the lead up to the vote on the ballot measure, Uber and others spent a record $200 million on the lobbying effort. Never before in the history of the state has so much money been used to shape public opinion.
Last year, California passed a gig-work law, AB5, which was authored by Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat lawmaker.
The ride-hailing and delivery service companies were dead against it and worked tirelessly to bring a vote that helps them avoid AB5. They hired expensive consultants and 19 PR firms, some of which had previously represented petrochemical firms such as Chevron and Monsanto.
They sent voters mass emails from organisations with names such as The Council of Concerned Women Voters, popped up messages appeared on smartphones, advertisements were taken out in newspapers, some of which ended up supporting Uber and Co.
They even bought off Alice Huffman, the president of the California chapter of National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Huffman received $85,000 in consulting fees between February and September to support Uber’s campaign.
On a nationwide scale, NAACP doesn’t endorse Prop 22.
Amid the campaign for Prop 22, an Uber engineer resigned after he said company employees were being forced to take sides. And a respected professor voicing concern for the drivers was targeted in an online hate campaign.
On the other hand, the unions and groups representing the drivers could raise only $11 million. Even then, they were able to mobilise 4.4 million people to vote a ‘No’ on Prop 22.
Gigs Workers Rising says voters were misled into believing that they were doing drivers a favour by voting a ‘Yes’.
In their campaign, the ride hailing companies said that if the classification of drivers is switched from independent contractors into employees, many of them will lose their jobs. The ride fare, they said, will also go up by as much as 100 percent.
What’s transpiring around the gig workers in California is something being played out elsewhere in the world. In the UK, drivers are waiting for a Supreme Court judgement, which will decide if Uber and others should treat them as employees.
Uber says it's simply a tech firm which connects drivers with passengers, absolving itself from the usual employment obligations.
The companies say classifying drivers as regular employees undermines one of the basic tenets of the gig work: their ability to work whenever they want.
To back this argument, Uber says that only 2 percent of its 200,000 drivers in California drive for 40 hours a week, the minimum length of time that will qualify them as full-time employees in the US.
But independent studies such as this one by the University of California professor Chris Benner show that more than half the drivers are on the road for that much time or more.
"This is not a 'gig.' This is full-time work for the majority of these workers. More than one-third are supporting children and nearly half are supporting other adults,” he said.