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Grassroots gigworker activism, brought to you by… Uber

As Uber and other gig economy companies struggle towards profitability during a global pandemic, it seems they're busy laying the astroturf in preparation for a nationwide legislative push to restrict the pay and benefits of gig economy workers.

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As Uber and other gig economy companies struggle towards profitability during a global pandemic, it seems they’re busy laying the astroturf in preparation for a nationwide legislative push to restrict the pay and benefits of gig economy workers. 

On Tuesday, that effort bore early fruit when President Biden quietly hired Seth Harris as a labor advisor. As Vice’s Edward Ongweso, Jr., reports, Harris has spent the last several years consulting and lobbying on behalf of the idea that gig workers are exempt from a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, or the right to have any say in such matters. The hire provides considerably more than a grain of salt with which to take the impassioned defense of labor principles the president issued earlier in the week.  

Meantime, the leader of a supposedly grassroots social justice organization called the Arc of Justice crashed into the replies of labor scholar (and Techworker advisor) Veena Dubal’s Tweet asking for a look into his organization’s funding.

In his repartee with Dubal, Elder Kristen John Foy took up the very same lines of attack that enumerable venture capitalists and other online trolls used against Dubal in the run-up to last years Prop 22 vote…

The Arc of Justice website says they “speak for the voiceless and amplify the cries of the least among us.” But when talking about Uber and the gig economy, as Foy did in an op-ed last month published in newspapers across the USA Today network, they seem to be speaking for Uber, Lyft, and other multi-billion dollar corporations…

[I]t should be no surprise that Black and Brown people have found opportunity in the app-based platforms like Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash and Postmates. Most come to these jobs to supplement their incomes. Others are looking to save up to start a small business or pay for education or job training. Some may have been laid off and need a job to serve as a bridge until they find their next opportunity. Or maybe they are a parent who needs to set their own hours to take care of their kids during the day. Whatever the reason, these platforms have helped millions of people of color take ownership of their work and their lives. 

Maybe this similarity should come as no surprise, considering that, as Dubal pointed out in her initial Tweet, Foy’s organization lists exactly six “Benefactor’s” on its website: Uber, Uber’s strategic PR firm, Airbnb, the former Chairman of CitiGroup, Estee Lauder’s billionaire son, and The United Federation of Teachers.

“The Arc of Justice mentions these corporate benefactors, I suppose, in a show of transparency,” said John Stauber, founder of the Center for Media and Democracy and author of Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry. “But it actually raises many more questions: How much money do they receive from Mercury and its corporate and political clients?  How do they spend it? What projects and partnerships benefit Mercury’s clients?”

These questions find no satisfaction on the Arc of Justice’s website, nor did Foy address them during his exchange with Dubal on Wednesday, or in his op-ed, or in the 45-minute radio morning show appearance he made on Tuesday, which didn’t mention gig work at all. The organization does not appear to have a filed as 501c3 nonprofit with the IRS. (To add to the confusion, there is an organization in Georgia named The Arc of Justice Project – which is an IRS-registered nonprofit, “dedicated to examining the distinct role of law in American history.” That Arc of Justice appears to have no connection to Foy’s organization.)

Here’s what we do know: Mercury Public Affairs specializes in state-level corporate lobbying and “high-stakes” campaigns like getting Republicans elected governor in Blue States (Christie, Schwartzenegger, Pataki). It employs former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, who last year penned a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed on behalf of Lyft. Outside of the economy formerly known as “sharing”, Mercury clients include Microsoft, Tesla, Pfizer, and Qatar, among scores of others. It’s an agency of the international Omnicom Group, and offers its clients “Grassroots Coalition Building” services, which it describes thusly:  

“Mercury manages an unmatched network of over 500 leading bipartisan political operatives in every congressional district in all 50 states … Through close coordination with our Strategic Media, Digital Communications, and Government Relations teams, Mercury develops and executes comprehensive “outside games” that elevate our clients’ issues and enhance their brands in D.C. and across the U.S.” 

To be clear, Foy’s credentials in the racial justice movement are solid, and longstanding. He is a longtime civil rights activist and political advisor. In 2011, he was an aide to then-NYC Public Advocate Bill De Blasio when he was profiled in the New York Times for his police reform work. Before that, he worked in the Criminal Justice Initiative at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s Political Action Network and was a Sharpton aide. Criminal justice reform and the long struggle to eradicate racist systems and white supremacy are central to his message and the organization’s mission. The gig labor stuff seems to be, appropriately, a side hustle.

It’s not the first. In 2019, Shortly after the Arc of Justice was founded, Foy and the organization became the face of a campaign to stop Mayor De Blasio from scrapping the entrance exams for elite New York public schools. The campaign was funded by the ultra-wealthy New York political heavies Ronald Lauder and Richard Parsons. Per Politico

“He’s dead wrong,” said Assemblyman Charles Barron, who is sponsoring legislation that would kill the test. “[Foy] honestly doesn’t care about really doing the proper research, especially if he’s not even going to talk to the sponsor of the bill who you have a longstanding relationship with.”

Foy claimed he has “greater moral authority” to speak on the issue since he is a Brooklyn Tech alum and that Barron, “calling someone else an attention seeker is indeed the pot calling the kettle black.”

Last year Foy co-founded the New York Coalition for Independent Work, a group whose membership includes Lyft, Uber, Instacart, Postmates, the NAACP and an assortment of local chambers of commerce. The coalition’s website explains its mission, thus…

The New York Coalition for Independent Work is dedicated to elevating the voices and needs of New York’s independent app-based workers. The group, which includes dozens of community, faith-based, business, and tech organizations, as well as several of the nation’s leading app-based platforms, is committed to protecting the independence and flexibility of app-based workers while also working to improve their access to benefits and other workforce protections. 

The coalition and its corporate sponsors supported Prop 22 in California, with the help of a massively expensive and multifaceted PR campaign that portrayed Prop 22 as establishing benefits for their workers rather than revoking them by ironclad statute. The proposition passed – a victory touted on the front page of the coalition’s website…

In November, millions of Californians went to the polls to vote Yes on Proposition 22 which guaranteed app-based workers could remain flexible and independent while accessing historic new benefits and protections. This vote mirrors the overwhelming support from the workers themselves

Perhaps it doesn’t matter who funds the supposedly grassroots organizations like Arc of Justice and the NY Coalition for Independent Work, assuming their campaigns really do achieve positive results for underpaid, undervalued workers. Since the companies jealously guard against researchers or governments talking to their workers to find out what they really think, we just have to take the companies’ word for it.

Last month, the Guardian reported on how the “flexibility” and “independence” touted by Uber-backed organizations like Arc of Justice and the Coalition for Independent Work is working for drivers in California…

Weeks after Proposition 22 went into effect in California and exempted some major tech firms from fully complying with labor laws, workers for rideshare and delivery apps in the state claim poor working conditions have persisted and pay has decreased.

“It’s clear that as soon as Prop 22 passed, it was open season to start cutting my pay again,” said Peter Young, a rideshare driver for four years in Los Angeles. “I’m looking for other work. I can’t keep doing this at this pay. I’m doing food delivery right now. Everyone is ordering food online so there’s demand. It’s just that what they are choosing to pay me isn’t reliable any more and it’s getting lower.”

How do Kirsten John Foy and the Arc of Justice feel about the suggestion that they’ve taken Uber’s money to enhance its brand and further its agenda? They so far haven’t responded to Techworker’s request for comment.