If You Can’t Convince Them, Confuse Them: California Political Establishment Doubles Down on AB5

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Progressives are fond of saying that authority never gives up power easily. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is demonstrating that by rewriting the ballot language for Proposition 22, which covers rideshare drivers, in order to frame the issue in the most negative way he can.

Becerra is part of the state establishment that wants to bring gig economy rideshare companies Uber and Lyft under its thumb. They hate that the companies classify their drivers as contractors rather than as employees. The companies claim that the freedom and flexibility this allows is key to their business model and important to the drivers too. The state establishment, along with its labor union allies, counters that it allows the companies to shirk their duties as employers, while making it too difficult for unions to organize the companies. That establishment passed AB5 last year to force the companies to treat all drivers as employees rather than contractors. The companies responded gathering enough signatures to qualify a rollback initiative for the fall ballot.

The rideshare companies were helped by the fact that AB5 has become a problem for freelancers and contractors across the state. In order to limit the rideshare companies’ ability to use contractors, the law restricts contracting all across the state. That has become a major problem for many people during the COVID-19 outbreak as it has severely restricted their ability to find alternate means to earn a living while stuck at home.

Becerra resorted to all old trick in politics: confuse people as to what exactly is being discussed. The initial language approved by the state to describe the proposal during the signature-gathering phase was “Change US employment classification rules for app boost transportation and delivery drivers.” That was accurate and neutral. Then on July 2 Becerra’s office made the official language for the ballot: “Exempts APP-based transportation and delivery companies from providing employee benefits to certain drivers.” That framed the initiative in the most negative way possible.

“[T]the attorney general’s description all but cries out for voters to reject it,” noted San Francisco Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz.

The ballot language could just as easily have been: “Allows APP-based drivers the freedom to work as contractors and set their own hours.” That would have been accurate and more helpful in explaining to voters what the rollback would actually do. Voters might also want to know that leaving AB5 in place could result in less pay for drivers and higher fares for customers. But Becerra apparently only wants certain facts known. It is telling that Becerra and others in the state establishment think that the best way to win this fight is to avoid open debate and resort to propaganda instead.