After California passed a law extending labor protections to gig economy workers, Uber, Lyft, and other gig economy employers overturned it on election day 2020 with a $200 million ballot referendum campaign. Over the past year, the same companies have been setting up infrastructure to ensure that app-based drivers and other gig economy workers do not win labor rights in New York.
Tactics used by Uber and Lyft in their campaign to deny workers protections included threatening to shut down their apps entirely in California if forced to comply with the law giving drivers employment status and flooding drivers’ apps with misleading pop-up messages about the initiative – called Proposition 22 – in the run-up to the November election.
When the ballot initiative succeeded, Lyft chief policy officer Anthony Foxx, former President Barack Obama’s secretary of transportation from 2013 to 2017, told the Washington Post, “We think that prop 22 has now created a model that can be replicated and can be scaled.” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi made similar comments, telling Politico, “It’s a priority for us to work with governments across the U.S. and the world to make this a reality.”
In New York, Uber and Lyft are laying the groundwork for this replication, even though there has been little movement by the Democratic Party-controlled state government to classify gig economy workers as employees. Uber, Lyft and their allies have deployed a host of corporate front groups, lobbying firms, and super PACs to ensure that state policy minimizes companies’ costs while maximizing returns to investors. Beyond this influence operation, these Silicon Valley firms have cultivated deep ties to Democratic Party insiders through political spending as well as revolving door hires from the Obama and Cuomo administrations.
While the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft are at the center of this fight, app- or computer-mediated gig work is expanding into many areas of the economy through other platforms like Grubhub, Instacart, TaskRabbit, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Looking at the entire picture, an interconnected network of Big Tech companies, lobbying and PR groups, and Democratic Party establishment formations can be seen emerging and consolidating power with the aim of dramatically reshaping employment relations to shift power away from working people and to large corporations.
- Uber and Lyft are behind a front group working to deny labor protections to gig economy workers in New York. The front group, called Flexible Work for New York, is being run by the influential Democratic party lobbying and public relations firm SKDKnickerbocker on a pro bono basis.
- Uber and Lyft spent more than $1 million on Democratic state legislature campaigns through super PACS. New Yorkers for Flexible Work and New Yorkers for Independent Work, super PACs formed by Uber and Lyft in 2020 spent $1.1 million backing Democratic candidates in the New York State Senate and Assembly in 2020.
- Uber and Lyft have cultivated deep ties to the Democratic Party. Both companies have contracted with lobbyists and consultants with close connections to the party as well as former public officials from the Barack Obama and Andrew Cuomo administrations. Obama administration officials David Plouffe and Anthony Foxx have been high-level policy advisors to Uber and Lyft. Matthew Wing, Uber’s head of work communications, is a former Cuomo communications director and is married to Cuomo’s top aide Melissa De Rosa.
- Uber and Lyft’s Democratic Party ties include connections to the incoming Biden administration. Anita Dunn, a partner at SKDKnickerbocker, the firm running a pro bono effort to block labor protections for gig economy workers in New York, was a top advisor to Biden’s presidential campaign. Tony West, the brother-in-law and top advisor to likely incoming Vice President Kamala Harris, is the general counsel for Uber.
- Uber and Lyft spent nearly $11.5 million on lobbying between January 2017 and June 2020. Firms and lobbyists working for the company have strong connections to New York State Democrats, such as Mercury Public Affairs, which has extensive connections to Cuomo, Patrick Jenkins, a friend and consultant to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and David Yassky, a former Cuomo state policy director.
Corporate front group operated by influential Democratic lobbying firm
Gig economy employers began their mobilization against labor rights for their New York workers in earnest after the unions 32BJ and New York Taxi Workers Alliance formed a coalition aiming to classify gig workers as employees rather than independent contractors. Such a classification would entitle gig workers to basic labor protections like minimum wage, unemployment sick leave, workers’ compensation, and unemployment.
In December 2019, gig economy employers created Flexible Work for New York “to protect New Yorkers’ ability to maintain flexible work hours that fit their schedules and support their families.” In its lobbyist registration, Flexible Work for New York indicates that the beneficial client of its lobbying is TechNet, a trade group representing many major corporations in the technology sector. On its website the group lists Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash as well as other major gig work companies like GrubHub, Postmates, Seamless, and TaskRabbit as members. The site also lists several regional New York chambers of commerce as well as a number of (primarily upstate and Western New York) restaurants and real estate companies.
In addition to lobbying on its own behalf, Flexible Work for New York has also retained the powerful Democratic Party-aligned lobbying and public relations firm SKDKnickerbocker to advocate on “labor issues.”
Curiously, considering gig employers’ seemingly limitless ability to spend, the Flexible Work for New York lobbying registration reports that SKDK is providing its services “on a pro bono basis.” Earlier lobbying filings from 2018 show that SKDK also provided pro bono representation for Uber and Lyft beginning in March of that year.
Since then, Flexible Work for New York has employed similar tactics to those used by gig economy employers in their $200 million campaign to pass Proposition 22, a California ballot initiative that overturned a 2019 law granting employment status to gig workers in that state.
For example, in the Prop 22 campaign in California, gig employers paid leaders from the NAACP and other civil rights organizations to speak out in favor of the initiative. Similarly, Flexible Work for New York has enlisted religious leaders from across the state to pressure legislators not to grant labor protections to gig workers.
Super PACs spend more than $1 million to influence state legislative races
In the spring of 2020, a pair of super PACs emerged with names mirroring that of the Flexible Work for New York front group. New Yorkers for Flexible Work was registered by Uber director of public policy Josh Gold and the similarly-named New Yorkers for Independent Work was registered by Lyft head of external affairs Jordan Markwith.
Uber and Lyft’s super PAC spending shows one way that the companies are cultivating influence within the Democratic Party – historically the more friendly party on workers’ rights – which controls both state legislative houses and the governor’s office in New York. Their corporate super PACs spent a combined $1.1 million supporting Democratic candidates this year, the bulk of which went to ads backing Democratic candidates for the state senate, both incumbents facing Republican challenges and candidates seeking to flip formerly Republican seats.
Lyft’s strategy of spending heavily to help Democrats fend off the Republican Party attempt to recapture the state senate (which did not ultimately succeed, but did cut into Democrats’ majority thanks to a $4 million super PAC investment by billionaire Ronald Lauder) appears calculated to further solidify the ties between the Silicon Valley company and New York Democrats.
New Yorkers for Independent Work
New Yorkers for Independent Work, the super PAC created by Lyft, reported receiving two loans from the company – one worth $1.1 million on June 2 and one worth $150,000 on September 18.
During the primary season, Lyft’s super PAC spent $86,000 on digital ads and $127,000 on mailers supporting incumbent Democratic Assemblymembers Joe Lentol, Al Taylor, Laytoya Joyner, Jeffrey Dinowitz, Steven Otis, and John McDonald. All of the candidates backed by Lyft won their primaries, except for Lentol who was upset by progressive challenger Emily Gallagher.
In the general election, Lyft spent $774,640 through its super PAC on ads and mailers supporting five Democratic state senate candidates from Long Island to Western New York in their general election bids. Lyft’s state senate spending appears targeted at maintaining a Democratic majority in the house as billionaire Ronald Lauder and New York police groups attempted to flip it back to Republicans. Lyft backed incumbents Monica Martinez and Kevin Thomas, who were facing Republican challenges in Districts 3 and 6 on Long Island; Michelle Hinchey, who was challenging Republican incumbent Sue Serino in District 41 in Poughkeepsie; and Karen Smythe, Samra Brouk, and Jeremy Cooney, who were trying to flip previously Republican-held seats where the incumbent did not run again in Districts 46, 55, and 56 in the Hudson Valley and Rochester area.
The fact that Lyft paid to boost even progressive, union-backed Democrats presumably more likely to back protections for gig economy workers underscores how the company appears to view the Democratic Party as a necessary collaborator in blocking workers’ rights.
New Yorkers for Flexible Work
Uber’s super PAC, New Yorkers for Flexible Work, reported a $150,000 contribution from the company on August 10, after New York’s primary elections had ended; however, the committee did all of its 2020 spending well before then.
On June 18, New Yorkers for Flexible Work reported $105,000 in liabilities – essentially accounts payable – for ads running on the music streaming service Spotify and “telephone and data services” to back the primary campaigns of incumbent New York State Assembly Democrats Aravella Simotas, Jeffrion Aubrey, Mike Miller, Michael DenDekker, Walter Mosley, and John McDonald.
Zohran Mamdani, a housing counselor and a Muslim backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, who ended up defeating Aravella Simotas in the Assembly District 36 primary, decried the Spotify ads as a racist dogwhistle. The ads described Simotas and the other candidates backed by Uber as “standing up to extremists to protect our values.”
Most of the other Uber-backed incumbents also lost their elections. Phara Souffrant Forrest, who was also endorsed by DSA, defeated the Uber-backed Walter Mosley in Assembly District 57, Jessica González-Rojas defeated Michael DenDekker in Assembly District 34, and Jenifer Rajkumar won her election against incumbent Michael Miller in Assembly District 38.
Jeffrion Aubrey, who was backed by Uber, won his primary election against Hiram Monserrat, a former state senator attempting a political comeback after being expelled from the legislature when he was convicted of assaulting his romantic partner. As mentioned above, John McDonald, who was also backed by Lyft, won his primary against the Working Families Party-backed Sam Fein.
Gig employers’ deep ties to the Democratic Party
Cultivating ties to the Democratic Party, which currently holds a “trifecta” of both legislative houses and the governor’s office in New York, appears to be a major component of Uber and Lyft strategy to export Prop 22 to New York State and elsewhere in the country.
The companies have made it a practice to hire lobbying firms whose personnel have deep connections to Democrats in national, state, and local politics. More, the companies themselves directly employ people with prominent Deomcratic party ties, both through revolving door hires of former public officials and through hiring the friends and family of active politicians and office-holders, including numerous people in the orbit of Governor Andrew Cuomo, former President Barack Obama, and the likely incoming President Joe Biden.
Uber and Lyft’s lobbying firms have connections to prominent Democrats on the national and state levels
SKDKnickerbocker, the company running the Flexible Work for New York front group, is a major player in Democratic Party politics. The firm is owned by the Stagwell Group, a conglomerate founded by Mark Penn, a pollster for former President Bill Clinton and chief strategist to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
SKDK is frequently named as among the top influence operations in New York – City & State named partners Josh Isay and Jennifer Cunningam as the most powerful public relations professionals in the state in January 2020 – and many of its staff have worked in high-level positions on Democratic political campaigns and administrations.
Isay is a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Cunningham is a long-time friend and political advisor to Andrew Cuomo. Both are named as lobbyists for Flexible Work for New York and both have lobbied for Uber and Lyft in the past, though Cunningham left the firm in early 2020.
SKDKnickerbocker partner Anita Dunn was a senior advisor and communications director for former President Barack Obama’s campaigns and was a top strategist with “effective control over” Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign.
Mercury Public Affairs, which is running Lyft’s New Yorkers for Independent Work super PAC, has ties to Cuomo that are too numerous to exhaustively recount here. Charlie King, Mercury’s New York co-chair, worked under Cuomo at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, ran as Cuomo’s running mate in 2002, and advised Cuomo’s 2014 reelection campaign. Morris Reid, a partner at Mercury was also a senior aide to Cuomo at HUD. Another Mercury partner, Michael McKeon is the executive director of Republicans for Andrew Cuomo. We previously reported on the connections between Mercury and Cuomo in our report “The Percoco Connection.”
Red Horse Strategies, the firm running Uber’s New Yorkers for Flexible Work super PAC, also has close ties to the Democratic Party. Red Horse co-founders Doug Forand, Marc Lapidus, and Nate Smith were respectively the executive director, campaign director, and field director of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. Smith also managed the state comptroller campaign of close Cuomo ally Bill Mulrow and was a director of Campaign for One New York, a now defunct lobbying group started by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to advance his political agenda. As described below, Red Horse strategies has done campaign work for Uber in the past, including running ads against New York City’s cap on for-hire vehicles.
Red Horse is normally associated with more progessive campaigns, working for a variety of community and labor groups in New York State. In fact, Red Horse Strategies has worked in the past for 32BJ, a New York union at the center of the campaign to win employee classification for gig workers.
Since July 2014, Uber has contracted with Patrick Jenkins, a lobbyist and political consultant who was the college roommate of and a former aide to New York State Assembly Speaker Carl E Heastie. While lobbying on behalf of Uber and other corporate clients, Jenkins has at the same time performed political consulting work for Heastie’s campaign committee and PAC from 2015 through at least October 2020. According to the New York Post, Jenkins has also been a campaign aide to Andrew Cuomo. From January 2017 through June 2020, Jenkins has received $330,000 from Uber.
Uber and Lyft’s revolving door hires
Further, Uber and Lyft have made it a practice to directly hire former public officials from Democratic administrations.
Anthony Foxx, the chief policy officer at Lyft who articulated the company’s plan to replicate the Prop 22 campaign across the United States, was the Secretary of Transportation under President Barack Obama. Valerie Jarrett, another senior advisor to Obama, joined the Lyft board of directors in 2017 and earned $301,840 in the role this year. David Plouffe, who managed Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and served as a senior advisor to the President, was the senior vice president for policy at Uber until 2017. Plouffe was fined $90,000 in 2017 for lobbying Chicago Mayor, and former Obama chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel on behalf of Uber without registering.
Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer, is a former associate attorney general in the Obama administration. Further, West is married to Maya Harris, the sister of Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris and the former chair of Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign. West has long been a top advisor to Kamala Harris – since her 2003 campaign for San Francisco district attorney, according to the Los Angeles Times. More recently, West co-chaired Harris’s Senate transition team in 2016.
Jake Sullivan, former national security advisor to Biden, worked as a consultant for Uber as the company tried to strike a deal with labor in California while also serving as a top policy advisor to Biden’s Presidential campaign. Laphonza Butler, a former president of SEIU Local 2015, also consulted for Uber on the effort while advising Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign, according to Bloomberg.
Seth Harris, an Obama administration acting labor secretary and labor advisor to Biden’s campaign according to Bloomberg, co-wrote a paper at Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, on “modernizing” labor laws in 2015 that Lyft cited in a press release about Prop 22.
Uber and Lyft’s’s revolving door hires extend into New York politics as well.
Matthew Wing, Uber’s head of work communications, is a former communications director and press secretary for Cuomo and is married to Melissa De Rosa, Cuomo’s top aide. Josh Gold, the Uber lobbyist named as the control person on the New Yorkers for Flexible Work super PAC is a former political director for the Hotel Trades Council and manager of New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s universal pre-kindergarten campaign.
David Yassky, Cuomo’s former director of state policy and former NYC Taxi and Limousine Commissioner, has lobbied for Lyft since the second half of 2014. From January 2014 through June 2020, Yassky has received $56,000 from Lyft.
There are quite likely more ties between these companies and Democrats on the New York State and national stages as well. As described below, both companies also employ a host of in-house lobbyists and lobbying firms in more traditional political influence operations.
New York State Lobbying
Over the past three and a half years, Uber and Lyft have spent prodigiously on lobbying in efforts to influence public policy in their favor. From January 2017 through June 2020, the two companies have spent a combined $11.5 million on lobbying – $9.7 million by Uber and $1.8 million by Lyft – using 16 different firms.
The companies’ lobbying spending has fluctuated over this time period, ramping up during important policy fights. In the first half of 2017, while the state government was deciding whether to allow Uber and Lyft to operate in upstate New York, the companies spent $2,074,303 on lobbying, more than 18% of their total spending during the time period. Then in the second half of 2018, as New York City was considering putting a cap on the number of for-hire vehicles that can operate in the city, Uber and Lyft spent $4,746,905 on lobbying, more than 41% of their total lobbying spending from 2017 through June 2020.
All of the firms hired to lobby by Uber and Lyft since January 2017 can be seen in the table below.
Table 1. Uber & Lyft Lobbying Spending January 2017 – June 2020
|Uber Lobbying Firms||Amount Spent||Lyft Lobbying Firms||Amount Spent|
|Uber Technologies (In-House Lobbyists)*||$570,703||Yoswein New York*||$570,000|
|Cordo & Company*||$405,000||Albany Strategic Advisors*||$451,500|
|Patrick B Jenkins & Associates*||$330,000||E3 Communications*||$275,000|
|Stu Loeser||$275,000||David S Yassky*||$56,000|
|Dentons||$184,023||Lyft, Inc. (In-House Lobbyists)*||$42,767|
|Court Street Strategies*||$80,000||Itemized Expenses||$142,453|
|Mercury Public Affairs||$76,000|
|Long Point Strategic Advisors*||$60,000|
|Metropolitan Public Strategies||$60,000|
|Uber Total||$9,669,240||Lyft Total||$1,825,720|
Source: Uber and Lyft lobbying filings at JCOPE, January 2017 through June 2020
It is notable that the bulk of Uber’s lobbying spending came in the form of itemized expenses. Uber made $5 million of these expenditures – more than half of its total spending in this timeframe – in 2018. Much of this money was spent with firms that were not registered to lobby for Uber. For instance, in 2018 Uber reported $1,563,798 in itemized lobbying expenses with Red Horse Strategies for ads opposing New York’s for-hire vehicle cap.
The growing dominance of Big Tech companies is drastically altering the landscape of employment in the United States and around the world. As permanent, full-time work with benefits and union protections disappears, it is being replaced by precarious, contract-based employment with no benefits mediated entirely through smart phone and computer applications. Through hundreds of millions of dollars of political spending and the merger of corporate power networks with the structures of politics and governance, these companies are threatening to undo the gains made by the labor movement through the New Deal and post-war boom, returning the US to the labor exploitation of the Lochner era.
After winning a major victory with their Prop 22 campaign in liberal California, gig economy companies are already preparing to codify this new standard of labor relations around the country. Key to this expansion is securing the complicity and partnership of the Democratic Party, whose corporate wing won significant victories against the left wing in the 2020 elections.
Uber, Lyft, and other gig economy employers have integrated their political influence operations into the Democratic Party power structure and have expressed confidence that they will be able to replicate their California victory in other jurisdictions. With the infrastructure in place in New York, it seems only a matter of time before gig economy employers make their next major attack on workers’ rights.