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Uber accused in lawsuit of bullying drivers in its app to support Prop 22

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Uber accused in lawsuit of bullying drivers in its app to support Prop 22

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Uber drivers in California are suing the ride-sharing company, claiming the “constant barrage” of messages in its app violates workers’ rights. The group of drivers is seeking up to $260 million in penalties, saying in a press release that Uber is “illegally exploiting its economic power over its California-based drivers by pressuring them to support the Yes on 22 campaign.”

The drivers say they have been getting messages reading “Prop 22 is progress,” and receiving in-app warnings about what would happen if Prop 22 were to fail. They have to click “OK” before they can move forward in the app. “Almost every time we log on, we are fed more one-sided information to pressure us into supporting Prop 22,” Ben Valdez, a driver for Uber and one of the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement. That includes in-app videos of drivers speaking about why “Prop 22 would make a difference,” reinforcing Uber’s stance that the measure should pass.

California law prohibits employers from trying to influence employees’ political activities by threatening a loss of employment, according to the press release. The lawsuit, which was first reported by The Washington Post, takes aim at what it calls Uber’s wrongful efforts to dictate to its drivers how they should vote in the upcoming election. But it’s not clear whether the law would apply to Uber drivers, all of whom are independent contractors, not employees — the very status that’s up for debate in the Prop 22 battle.

“Let’s be absolutely clear,” said attorney David Lowe, of Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe, in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “Uber’s threats and constant barrage of Prop 22 propaganda on an app the drivers must use to do their work have one purpose: to coerce the drivers to support Uber’s political battle to strip them of workplace protections.”

Prop 22, a November ballot initiative in California, would exempt companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash from a California state law that requires them to classify their workers as employees. Drivers for Uber are classified as independent contractors who aren’t entitled to overtime pay, paid sick leave, or other benefits. The companies have spent more than $186 million on a campaign to support Prop 22.

The workers are seeking an injunction to prevent Uber from showing any further Prop 22 messages to drivers in the app. The lawsuit was filed in San Francisco Superior Court, under the California Private Attorneys General Act, which allows employees to sue on behalf of the state, Lowe said. The suit alleges that Uber told workers that 72 percent of its drivers plan to vote yes on Prop 22, which the workers say is “false and misleading.” The company says the survey was conducted in May and June, before there was any messaging in the app.

“This is an absurd lawsuit, without merit, filed solely for press attention and without regard for the facts,” an Uber spokesperson said in an email to The Verge. “It can’t distract from the truth: that the vast majority of drivers support Prop 22, and have for months, because they know it will improve their lives and protect the way they prefer to work.”

But this is not the first time Uber has been called out for its aggressive messaging around Prop 22. Earlier this month, before California users of the app could call for a ride, they had to “confirm” they’d seen a message that described how wait times and prices would rise if Prop 22 wasn’t passed (the text was later changed to “continue to ride”). Last week, Uber users complained on social media about in-app notifications stating that “Prop 22 will save lives,” in an apparent violation of Apple’s app developer agreement which prohibits sending “unsolicited message to customers, including […] Push Notifications.”

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