December 15th, 2015

Uber drivers are suing the company over 'threatening' messages urging them to vote for California's Prop. 22 (UBER)

uber driver prop 22Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

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Earlier this month, as part of its multi-million dollar bid to get California's Proposition 22 passed at the polls in November, Uber sent a series of push notifications and in-app messages to drivers and riders.

Now, a group of drivers have filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status against the company, accusing it of breaking the law with those app blasts and calling them unlawfully coercive and "threatening."

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in San Francisco, alleges that a 1915 state law bars companies like Uber from "attempting to direct or control the political activities of their employees or threatening a loss of employment to 'coerce or influence' employees to follow any particular course of political action."

An example of in-app messages sent by Uber in recent weeksGig Workers RisingThrough their lawyer, the drivers bringing the suit said the barrage of corporate propaganda left them feeling like they had no choice but to vote yes.

"Almost every time we log on, we are fed more one-sided information to pressure us into supporting Prop 22," driver Ben Valdez said. "Threatening that most of us will lose our jobs if Prop 22 passes is a scare tactic, pure and simple. It's not right." 

"Uber is constantly asking whether we support Prop 22," Hector Castellanos, the other plaintiff, said. "They make us feel like we have to say 'yes.'"

An Uber spokesperson called the lawsuit "absurd."

"This is an absurd lawsuit, without merit, filed solely for press attention and without regard for the facts," they said. "It can't distract from the truth: that the vast majority of drivers support Prop 22 and have for months because they know it will improve their lives and protect the way they prefer to work."

In August, California's Attorney General filed a lawsuit against both Uber and Lyft, accusing them of breaking the state's new employment law that was passed at the beginning of the year. That law, known as AB5, codified a structure in which companies must define the contractor versus employee classification.

Because drivers set their own hours, use their own cars, and can work for competing apps, Uber has long maintained that it is not breaking the law by treating them as contractors. Under that arrangement, the company saves money by avoiding paying for certain benefits like minimum wage or healthcare.

Prop. 22, which is supported by nearly $200 million in funding from Uber, DoorDash, Lyft and other gig-work companies, would establish a benefits fund that would follow workers across apps and jobs, while keeping them as contractors.

If the voters don't pass the measure, Uber will likely be forced to raise prices in California, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said this week. Earlier this year, it threatened to shut down if a judge didn't grant its stay in the ongoing AG lawsuit. That case remains ongoing.

"Prices would go up, we estimate, between 25 and over 100%, depending on what city you are," Khosrowshahi said.

"In larger cities, let's say San Francisco and LA," he continued, "price increases will be in the 20, 30, 40% range. And in certain smaller cities, price increases would be 70, 80, 100%. Those are the estimates that we have. These are not made up estimates."

The lawsuit is seeking a court order calling Uber's actions unlawful.

"It's unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising, that a company like Uber with a history of using strong-arm tactics would attempt to bully their drivers in this way," George Warner, an attorney for Valdez, said in a statement.

"If I were an Uber driver receiving these messages, I'd think that I better say 'yes' I support Prop 22 or the company might not offer me work. And that is exactly why California made it illegal for employers to manipulate employees – and elections – in this way."

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