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A nascent political action committee, Illinoisans for Independent Work, is being bankrolled by rideshare giant Lyft, with one of the Bay Area-based company’s top executives at the helm— signaling a potential expansion of efforts to carve out independent contractor status for their drivers following a win at the ballot box in California.

Labor activists long feared that California’s Proposition 22, a now-passed ballot initiative that allows gig economy companies to classify workers as independent contractors instead of employees, was merely a bellwether for similar legislation in other states. And on the heels of the success of that initiative earlier this month, those fears may be coming to fruition.

“We know that Uber and Lyft have both said they’re gonna start advocating more loudly,” says Susan Cuffaro, founding member of the Gig Workers Collective, a nonprofit advocating for gig workers’ rights. “And that they believe that the model can be replicated. So they’re on a roll.”

According to the Illinois State Board of Elections website, the Illinoisans for Independent Work committee was established in late June 2020, and the Reform for Illinois’ Sunshine Database of political contributions lists the committee as a super PAC. While the committee focuses on Illinois and its gig economy, it is based in Sausalito, California.

More precisely, the committee’s listed address is the office of California-based boutique law firm Politicom Law LLP, which specializes in political compliance law and was cofounded by the committee’s treasurer Darrin Lim. The BOE website also states that the chairperson of Illinoisans for Independent Work is Jordan Markwith, the head of Lyft’s external affairs. Markwith, Lim, and Illinoisans for Independent Work did not respond to interview requests from the Reader.

Lyft said in a statement provided to the Reader that the company “is ready to work with Illinois policymakers and labor leaders to keep drivers earning during this pandemic. Drivers want both independence and benefits, like the policy that was supported in a landslide by California voters, and we’ll continue to fight for them.”

Social media ads for the committee have also appeared recently, quoting so-called gig workers touting the benefits of independent work. In one such ad, a woman, named Crystal, is quoted as saying she “never wants to work for anyone else ever again.”

This new effort comes weeks after Lyft, Uber, and other gig economy companies successfully funded the Proposition 22 ballot measure in California that now allows the companies to classify workers in the state as independent contractors instead of employees. Classifying workers as contractors versus employees allows the companies to dodge millions of dollars in costs for health insurance, overtime pay and workers’ compensation, and other benefits afforded to employees.

Workers outside of the gig economy who are typically exempt from minimum wage, overtime, and paid leave, have also been caught up in this fight. Gig companies have long said that classifying workers as independent contractors provides the flexibility that makes gig work possible, but activists say that flexibility can still be afforded to benefit-wielding employees.

“It’s one of those public relations slogans that’s a meaningless gimmick that is designed to make you sound like you’re cruel if you choose to oppose it,” Cuffaro says. “The point is that they can’t just be honest and say that their slogan is, ‘we support candidates who can be paid enough to look the other way so that their constituents can get taken advantage of by billion-dollar companies who care more for a buck than a buddy.'”

But as the Los Angeles Times reports, gig economy companies and their opponents alike poured millions into the Prop 22 campaign, making it the most expensive ballot initiative in U.S. history. While unions, gig workers, and labor activists raised roughly $16 million in an effort to defeat Proposition 22, that stockpile was dwarfed by the more than $200 million raised by Lyft, Uber, DoorDash, and other gig companies to pass the initiative, the LA Times reports. Proposition 22 passed with 58 percent of voters supporting the initiative.

Illinoisans for Independent work has thus far spent more than $660,000 in digital media and mailing costs in support of a dozen Democratic state House and Senate candidates, most of whom won seats in the state legislature earlier this month. The Sunshine Database also details a single donation by Illinoisans for Independent Work—a $25,000 contribution to Fair and Equal Illinois, a pro-LGBTQ+ equality super PAC in the state.

Those expenses are funded by a $1.2 million loan received from Lyft just days after the committee was established in June. According to quarterly reports from the BOE website, that loan is so far the committee’s only source of funding.

Activists say this paints a bleak picture about the future of gig work in the country, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, historic unemployment numbers, and a recession. Just days ago, the gig companies that bankrolled Proposition 22 launched the App-Based Work Alliance, which describes itself as “a national coalition dedicated to elevating the voices and needs of independent workers.”

“The recent passage of Proposition 22 in California demonstrates the widespread support for preserving flexible work with access to benefits,” the Alliance said in the announcement about its founding. “The broad support from drivers and voters across the political spectrum demonstrated that policymakers and workers must find solutions that provide independence plus benefits.”

For gig workers, Cuffaro says the growing threat these companies pose to their rights is real. But it’s not just gig workers and exempt employees who Cuffaro says are vulnerable. She says many companies could be motivated to turn their employees into gig-like workers to similarly avoid paying benefits, a phenomenon she calls the “gigification” of the workforce.

“It’s a very dangerous situation, not only for gig workers and those that are close to gig work, like janitors, home health care workers,” Cuffaro says. “What happens to the rest of the worker population? If an employer can save this much money, it would be almost irrational for the employer not to do so.”   v

Adam M. Rhodes

Adam M. Rhodes is a queer, nonbinary, first-generation Cuban American journalist. Rhodes is currently a social justice reporter at the Chicago Reader, where their work centers primarily on queer people and people of color. Their recent work has examined HIV treatment access in Puerto Rico, racism in Chicago’s principal queer neighborhood, and, most recently, HIV criminalization in Illinois. Alongside the Reader, Rhodes has been published in outlets including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post. You can follow them on Twitter at @byadamrhodes.