Former top Uber lobbyist says drivers should be presumed employees
In a 10-minute speech to European Parliament, Mark MacGann shredded the gig economy's favorite policy position
The debate over whether Uber drivers are employees or independent contractors is as old as Uber itself. As anyone who follows platform work knows, the gig economy model relies on hiring workers as self-employed contractors, not employees. Treating workers as contractors allows companies to save a lot of money by skirting labor protections and benefits to which most employees, but not contractors, are entitled. For example: paid time off, unemployment insurance, and a minimum wage.
By now, lots of time and money has been invested in this debate, and the positions of both sides are clearly staked out. But for the first time—at least that I can recall—a former top Uber lobbyist has switched sides from selling the gig model to attempting to tear it down.
On Tuesday, Mark MacGann, Uber’s head of public policy for EMEA from 2014 to 2016, spoke to European Parliament about the balance of power on tech platforms and called for gig workers to be presumed employees, not contractors. “A presumption of employment strikes the right balance,” MacGann told MEPs. “It is a balance that still allows the flexibility for those who want it, while shifting the cost of that flexibility to the entity that benefits the most: the company.”
MacGann’s comments are particularly important as the EU weighs new rules to improve the conditions of people working on digital labor platforms like Uber. The European Commission released a draft proposal back in December aimed at ensuring “that people working through digital labour platforms can enjoy the labour rights and social benefits they are entitled to” and increasing worker protections from algorithmic management. Per Politico, EU lawmakers are “in the final stretch of negotations” on the platform work bill, which could reclassify more than 4 milion gig workers as employees instead of independent contractors.
In case you haven’t heard of MacGann, he’s the whistleblower who provided the trove of documents known as the “Uber Files” that came out over the summer. The Uber Files consisted of more than 124,000 documents from 2013 to 2017 that MacGann passed to Guardian reporters in Geneva this past January in suitcases crammed with laptops, hard drives, iPhones, and paper. Press coverage focused on how Uber broke laws, evaded law enforcement, lobbied governments, paid off academics, and even leveraged violent conflicts between its drivers and taxi workers, all to advance its ride-hail model around the globe.
The Uber Files, as I wrote at the time, were largely old news. If you didn’t know that Uber built its ride-hail empire with brash tactics like evading law enforcement and promoting taxi aggression as well as traditional corporate power plays such as lobbying and crafting in-house economics research to support its policy agenda, you weren’t paying attention.
This is the company, after all, that hired former top Obama advisor David Plouffe to lead a “political campaign” against “an asshole named taxi”; that attempted to sabotage a competitor by ordering and cancelling thousands of rides in a DDoS-like manuever nicknamed Operation SLOG; that systematically dodged and deceived law enforcement with a tool called Greyball; that lured drivers with the promise of flexibility and impossibly high earnings while internally comparing the gig to flipping burgers at McDonald’s. The company whose co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick was known for saying things like “boober” and “always be hustling”; who famously told a struggling driver who confronted him about fare cuts: “Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit.”
If the Uber Files were largely old news though, MacGann’s speech to the European Parliament on Tuesday was anything but.
Over 10 minutes, MacGann described to MEPs how Uber grew high on its own success and, at least internally, dropped any scruples in its quest for global taxi domination. “We were permeated by a sense of self-entitlement,” MacGann said. “We were right, everyone else was wrong. The response to every problem was ‘Uber on.’ Don’t ask for permission, just launch. Local resistance? Uber on. Drivers getting fined? Uber on. Cars getting impounded? Uber on. Drivers getting arrested? Get them a lawyer, and Uber on.”
MacGann also described how Uber…
Always intended to cut driver wages after launching in new cities. “It was a company-wide campaign called ‘burn the burn.’”
From early 2014, as class-action lawsuits around employment status started to appear, had the legal team instruct everyone to refer to drivers as “partner-drivers” and talk about “economic opportunities” but to never use the words “job” or “employment”
Paid academics to “use skewed data sets” to produce results that bolstered Uber’s policy positions. “The data would show high earnings because the data didn’t take into account the time that the drivers were waiting between one trip and another. The data would show that the drivers wanted to be independent, but based on very carefully designed driver surveys.”
It’s striking to see someone who’s been behind the curtain, manuevering the puppets, draw that curtain back and reveal the strings. That’s what it felt like MacGann was doing on Tuesday. He said what many of us already knew or suspected, clearly and succinctly. He put names to Uber tactics like “burn the burn” and stated the real purpose of jargony phrases like “driver-partner” and “economic opportunities.” He clarified how Uber manipulates data and statistics to further its policy agenda and encouraged policymakers to press the company for the source data on any claims it makes (which, side note, is always a good practice).
“Uber didn’t create a new type of worker as much as find new ways to avoid the costs and responsibilities that employers have towards their workforce,” MacGann said. And: “Platform companies that deny their workforce basic labor rights in the name of a zealous, stubborn, libertarian belief that ‘flexibility’ is what workers value most, are being dishonest with governments, misleading with investors, and, in the harsh economic times in which we live, cruel with millions of workers.”
The gig economy has always been something of a regulatory arbitrage. The question now, as always, is how to make it better for workers. It’s true that many gig workers are taken advantage of through algorithmic management and gamified earnings; it’s also true that many value the flexibility of a job like ride-hail driving, and prefer it to an alternative like working at Walmart or McDonald’s. At the heart of the problem, as MacGann pointed out, is the power imbalance between platforms and their workers. Hence his question: if the companies stand to benefit the most from a flexible work standard, shouldn’t they and not their workers bear most of the costs?
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