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Uber drivers sue, say company 'coerced' them to support Prop 22

A lawsuit alleges Uber used a "constant barrage" of "propaganda," "old-school exploitation" and "scare tactics" to get drivers to back its ballot measure campaign.

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Uber has been sending drivers in-app messages about its California ballot measure.

James Martin/CNET

Uber drivers have been getting in-app messages from the company asking them about support for Proposition 22 before they start picking up rides. Proposition 22 is the ballot measure campaign in California backed by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates, which aims to keep drivers classified as independent contractors.

Now, two drivers are suing Uber saying those in-app messages violated their employment rights. The proposed class-action suit, filed Thursday in a San Francisco Superior Court and first reported by The Washington Post, alleges Uber has "unlawfully" pushed drivers to "vote for and advocate for the passage of Proposition 22." Under California law, employers are prohibited from being involved in the political activities of their workers.

"Uber's threats and constant barrage of Prop 22 propaganda on an app the drivers must use to do their work have one purpose: to coerce the drivers to support Uber's political battle to strip them of workplace protections," David Lowe, partner at Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe and an attorney for the drivers, said in a statement.

The battle over Proposition 22 has heated up the last few months as Uber and the other gig economy companies have poured nearly $200 million into the ballot measure campaign, making it the most expensive in California history. The campaign has inundated voters with mailers, text messages, phone calls and advertisements. The companies say their businesses will be battered if forced to classify gig workers as employees. 

The No on Proposition 22 side, backed by labor groups and unions, has contributed more than $15 million to its campaign. It says drivers deserve to be classified as employees and get benefits, like minimum wage, health care and sick leave. 

Uber's in-app messages to drivers include information about Proposition 22 and ask drivers for their positions, according to KQED. Some messages list campaign talking points, such as thousands of jobs will be cut if Proposition 22 fails and that the ballot measure "would protect the flexibility that drivers and delivery people like you value." Under California law, employees are allowed to have flexible work.

The messages also ask drivers to record a 30- to 60-second video of themselves saying why flexibility is or isn't important and whether they support Proposition 22, according to a screenshot included in the lawsuit complaint. In one message, drivers are asked to choose "Yes on Prop 22" or "OK." 

"Almost every time we log on, we are fed more one-sided information to pressure us into supporting Prop 22," Ben Valdez, an Uber driver and a plaintiff in the case, said in a statement. "Threatening that most of us will lose our jobs if Prop 22 passes is a scare tactic, pure and simple."

The lawsuit alleges that drivers cannot avoid seeing these messages whenever they open the app. It also says that drivers fear retaliation from Uber if they don't participate in the in-app surveys or say they support Proposition 22. The presumed retaliation listed in the complaint includes less favorable or less plentiful trips, or no trips at all.

Uber didn't return multiple requests for comment.

Joining the two Uber drivers listed in the lawsuit are two nonprofit organizations, Worksafe and Chinese Progressive Association. The suit seeks a court order to stop Uber from sending these in-app messages. Additional claims have been filed with the California Labor Commissioner that seek civil penalties. 

"Uber's actions are old-school exploitation," Shaw San Liu, organizing director of Chinese Progressive Association, said in a statement. "Coercing their workforce to support the company's political position. It's undemocratic and a violation of basic workplace right."