A ride-hailing driver participates in a protest Aug. 20 at Los Angeles International Airport. An Uber engineer is on the side of the drivers and on Oct. 6 published an op-ed against Proposition 22.

Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

An Uber Technologies Inc. engineer said Tuesday he is taking a risk by speaking up against his company’s California ballot measure, which is meant to avoid classifying ride-hailing drivers as employees as is called for by state law. But “workers are subsidizing the product with their free labor,” and the issue “is bigger than my employment at Uber,” he said.

Mobile engineer Kurt Nelson brings a unique perspective to the Proposition 22 battle, which is backed with $185 million from Uber
Lyft Inc.
DoorDash Inc., Instacart and Postmates. He told MarketWatch shortly after an op-ed he wrote was published by TechCrunch that he has looked at the worker-classification question from the viewpoint of someone who has done gig work (for Lyft, Uber Eats and Caviar, especially during college), a user of gig-economy platforms and now as someone who helps work on the Android version of the Uber app.

In his op-ed, he wrote that he knows what it’s like to have no employee protections and believes drivers deserve more rights: “Before joining Uber, I worked a range of low-wage jobs from customer service at Disneyland to delivering pizza with no benefits.”

See: Uber and Lyft must make drivers employees because California law has ‘overwhelming’ edge, judge says

The San Francisco-based ride-hailing giant has specifically asked its employees to urge their friends and family to vote for Proposition 22, and has offered them T-shirts, car decals and window signs, Nelson said.

“I’m definitely worried about this affecting my working conditions at Uber,” he said. Nelson knows he could become the latest casualty in tech worker activism. In the past few years, other tech companies, like Google and Amazon, have fired employees who have publicly criticized or protested against them.

However, Nelson added that “I care about a bunch about this issue,” and that he is especially concerned about the measure’s “immutability.” Proposition 22 — which offers drivers a new guaranteed minimum wage, contributions to health benefits and other promises that its opponents say fall short of full employee protections — contains a clause that would require seven-eighths of the state Legislature to approve any amendments to it.

“The ballot proposition system in California has flaws, and is easily exploitable by anyone who has enough money and spending power,” he said. “Like Proposition 13, this could stick with us for decades.” (Proposition 13 caps property-tax increases in the state.)

A company spokesman said Uber had no comment Tuesday.

See: Uber and Lyft granted emergency stay, shutdown averted in California

Nelson said some of his colleagues feel the same way about Proposition 22 but are afraid to speak up. He said some have already thanked him for doing so through his op-ed. On the other hand, he also works with people who are strongly for the initiative and against Assembly Bill 5, the worker-classification law that Uber and other gig companies are fighting with all their might. They include people who “personally attack” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who wrote the bill, he said.

In his op-ed, he implored his colleagues and other employees of gig companies to stand with other workers.

“When your employer tells you to vote for something because it’s what is best for the company, consider that your employer’s interests might not align with your own, or with society’s,” Nelson wrote.

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