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California bill would give freelancers power to collectively bargain

A Lyft car drives along Montgomery Street on January 21, 2014 in San Francisco, California. A state assemblywoman proposes giving Lyft drivers and other independent contractors the rights to bargain collectively with their companies. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As governments begin to consider how to account for an increasing number of companies that employ independent contractors, a state assemblywoman from San Diego wants to give those workers the rights to collectively bargain.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonazalez recently introduced the 1099 Self-Organizing Act, a reference to the tax form most freelancers fill out. If it becomes law, it would give freelancers the right to negotiate as a group with the company they work for. Ten or more Uber drivers, Task Rabbit taskers, or freelance coders, for example, could join together to either push for a higher wage and better benefits or protest a company policy.

“We have a growing number of workers who, if something goes wrong, they’re going to have to rely on the safety net,” Gonzalez said. “It’s time for these businesses to realize that we’ve got to equal the playing field just a little bit to give workers some power to be able to negotiate and give them some leverage to do it.”

Gonzalez says the bill is her start of the discussion about how to handle an economy where a growing number of companies are turning to the independent contractor model.

“It saves them money, but it could cost the state a lot of money,” Gonzalez told KPCC. “You’re talking about workers who have no protections if they’re hurt on the job.”

Gonzalez says she's a proud former labor leader who gets a lot of campaign support from labor unions, but she adds that isn’t what’s driving this bill.

“The labor movement is split on what I’m doing. There’s no consensus on whether this is the right approach," she said.

Many labor leaders think more gig-economy workers should be classified as traditional employees and enjoy the same benefits, she said. Gonzalez acknowledged that she “probably” agrees with them and supports the workers in misclassification lawsuits. 

“While we’re trying to work out those questions in a court, this [bill] would give those workers an ability to still have a voice on their jobs,” she said.

The bill has a long road to becoming law: It must go through the committee process and pass both chambers of the state legislature and then be signed by the governor. Democratic political consultant Steven Maviglio predicts the fight over it could be a “clash of the titans.”

“It pits labor versus business, the new economy versus the old economy, and a lot of political forces against each other in an election year,” Maviglio told KPCC.

He predicted that the California Chamber of Commerce would place Gonzalez’s bill on its “Job Killers List.” That hasn’t happened just yet, but the Chamber did issue a statement saying the bill would hurt the state’s job climate.

“It appears the bill will adversely impact all industries that use independent contractors, including, but not limited to technology, trucking, manufacturing, healthcare, professional services, film production, agriculture, insurance and financial services,” the statement read.