Imagine if you had opened a box of Cheerios this morning and found a note from General Mills: Pending legislation about genetically modified corn would make your favorite breakfast unavailable or unaffordable.
That would feel odd and unwelcome, right?
That is essentially what app companies like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart are doing in California. State residents who open those apps are seeing blaring banners or are getting email blasts pushing the companies’ position on a state employment law.
It’s not unusual for companies to want their customers to know about laws that might affect how they operate and to ask people to take action. But there’s a pattern by young companies — Uber in particular — of taking the lobbying a step too far.
The simple act of being a customer now makes people a target for inescapable corporate advocacy.
This is happening because Uber, Lyft, Instacart and other companies that hire large numbers of contractors have been fighting a law passed in California that would force them to reclassify at least one million workers in the state as employees.
California’s argument is that app-based companies like Uber dictate how their drivers or other workers do their job, and therefore workers should count as employees with minimum wages and similar protections.
The companies have said the law doesn’t apply to them and fought it in court. They’ve also backed a ballot measure for California voters next month that would exempt the app companies from the new law. The ballot proposal, known as Proposition 22, would create something of a middle ground between the state law and the companies’ status quo.
There are complicated questions that voters have to consider, including whether it’s better to have more jobs with less of a safety net, or fewer but arguably better jobs. (The Washington Post has a good explanation of the details on Proposition 22.)
But the companies are not going for complexity or subtlety. “Your ride prices and wait times are likely to substantially increase,” Uber warned in its app in California. People have to click on the message before they can ask for an Uber ride. Lyft and Instacart are doing similar bombardments to get customers to vote their way.
Again, it’s not wrong or unusual for companies to try to sway people in business disputes or legal fights. Television viewers regularly see warnings on their screens about contract disputes that threaten to make their favorite channels go dark. Netflix, Wikipedia and other popular websites, when facing internet policy changes, posted warnings that were impossible to ignore.
What these app companies are doing is both more invasive and a regular tactic rather than a rarity. Uber has done versions of lobbying through its app over and over and over again in many parts of the United States.
The in-app messaging will probably win Uber and its friends some votes. They can get the word out to millions of potential voters in ways that seasoned politicians would envy. But the corporate propaganda risks turning people off, too. We should be able to take a ride across town or eat a bowl of cereal without becoming a target for self-serving corporate propaganda.