The 21st-Century Road to Serfdom Runs Through Silicon Valley

The danger posed by California’s Proposition 22, the tech-backed ballot measure that dismantles existing labor protections for gig workers, isn’t just about low wages and poor working conditions. It signals the creation of an entirely new kind of servant class.

Prop 22 effectively allows companies like Uber and Lyft to create a new employment category that is neither employee nor independent contractor. (Kevin Sullivan / Digital First Media / Orange County Register via Getty Images)

When California’s Proposition 22 passed late last year, its immediate dangers were already widely understood. The measure, which effectively allows companies like Uber and Lyft to create a new employment category that is neither employee nor independent contractor, seems certain to make gig-economy work even more precarious than it already is — the state’s rideshare workers being stripped of basic rights and benefits like overtime pay, sick leave, and eligibility for unemployment insurance (not to mention the ability to form a union). Their wages, meanwhile, are also destined to drop: one estimate from the UC Berkeley Labor Center suggesting that hourly pay for gig drivers may sink as low as $5.64 an hour, a sum more or less equivalent in real terms to the minimum wage when Harry Truman was president.

The circumstances surrounding the initiative itself were also pretty Orwellian, the companies including a proviso in the measure’s fine print that will make it practically impossible to undo — its repeal requiring no less than seven-eighths of all votes in the state legislature. Between this, a misleading ad campaign, and a marketing offensive upward of $200 million, it’s no exaggeration to say that multibillion dollar corporations are now just buying laws and rewriting the labor code to suit their own bottom lines.

Certainly, California’s particular rules around ballot initiatives helped make Prop 22’s coup against representative democracy a whole lot easier than it might have been elsewhere. Nonetheless, Big Tech has been quite explicit about its intention to export the state’s newly feudal labor model nationwide. “We feel strongly that this is the right approach,” said Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in the immediate aftermath of the vote, ominously adding it was his company’s intention to “work with governments across the US and the world to make this a reality.” “We’re looking ahead and across the country,” added DoorDash’s Tony Xu, “[we’re] ready to champion new benefits structures that are portable, proportional, and flexible.”

It is, as yet, unclear exactly what all of this might portend. But there’s good reason to believe the result of such an offensive, should it be successful, could ultimately be even more far-reaching than many have assumed. As the American Prospect’s Alexander Sammon reported in January, the opening weeks of Prop 22 proved even worse than many expected — offering some clue as to what a national version of the measure might look like if successfully taken to its logical conclusion.

The gutting of wages and benefits at companies like Uber and Lyft aside, plenty of others quickly moved to seize a piece of California’s new regime and the potentially massive new pool of cheap workers it now affords. A few months ago, several major chains announced plans to lay off their full-time delivery staffs and replace them with drivers from DoorDash: a sinister sign that the exploitative model embodied by Prop 22 will potentially extend far beyond the world of Silicon Valley. The result, as Sammon observed, could see companies like Uber morph into something basically indistinguishable from a traditional staffing agency, with low-wage workers denied fair wages and basic rights while potentially being at the service of employers throughout the economy looking to cut labor costs.

There’s every reason to believe that Big Tech will pursue its forthcoming offensive with the same ruthlessness and dishonesty it put to use in California. Outfits like Uber and Lyft, after all, are actually unprofitable, their long-term survival contingent on crushing labor and establishing a monopoly. Given this fact, the expansion of precarious, gig-based work from its beachhead on the west coast is an existential matter for tech companies as much as a callous business strategy — and we can confidently expect them to take up the task with terrifying zeal in the years ahead.

It’s worth considering, for that reason, just how dangerous the model championed by the corporate coalition behind Prop 22 really is. Given the longer-term shift away from manufacturing and toward low-wage, service-based employment, it’s not difficult to imagine a growing buy-in from other sectors of big business considering the potential for even lower labor costs — likely justified using the same, faux-populist rhetoric tech companies have leveraged to misclassify their employees. In the most dystopian scenario possible, the model might be extended throughout the service industry — applying to all kinds of retail or hospitality work and even beyond, particularly if companies like Uber and Lyft devise a way of adapting the language currently deployed in rideshare and delivery contexts to other sorts of workplaces.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this would effectively mean the creation of a new class of servant worker: for all intents and purposes employed by tech companies but deprived of the wages, benefits, and protections associated with traditional employment. Mercifully, such a shift cannot take place overnight. The decades-long weakening of organized labor was ultimately a piecemeal process, driven by a symbiosis of dispassionate business interests, activist plutocrats, and right-wing ideology — and the offensive that began in California last year will likely proceed along similar lines. But make no mistake: the concerted drive to legally enshrine and extend a new category of precarious employment is only going to intensify — and the dystopian possibilities if Uber and Lyft get their way are almost too bleak to contemplate.