Editors’ note: Four weeks after this story was published, Alice Huffman reportedly said she’s stepping down as president of the California chapter of the NAACP, effective Dec. 1. The news was reported Friday by the Los Angeles Times, which said Huffman, 84, cited health issues as the reason for her departure. The paper noted that Huffman has held the position since 1999.
Uber and Lyft have been refining their $200 million effort to win a ballot measure campaign designed to keep gig workers classified as independent contractors in California. They’ve sent out mailers, emails, text messages and press releases and. One of the many themes they’ve hit on is that “communities of color support Prop 22.”
The Yes on Proposition 22 campaign even secured an endorsement from Alice Huffman, a notable Black leader and president of the state’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“CA NAACP President notes ‘politicians are stubbornly advancing disastrous laws and lawsuits that threaten hundreds of thousands of jobs for our people,'” reads one Yes campaign Facebook ad that began running in September. “That’s why the organization supports Prop 22.”
A little digging through campaign finance records, however, raises questions about the independence of Huffman’s support. In February, the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign began making $10,000 and $15,000 payments to AC Public Affairs, the small Sacramento-based consulting firm that Huffman runs with her sister. As of Oct. 9, the firm had brought in $95,000 from the campaign.
The NAACP’s endorsement of Proposition 22 comes during a particularly fraught election year in which racial justice has been a central theme. Corporations and politicians have been quick to condemn racism and inequality. By enlisting Huffman, the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign is also using racial justice as part of its argument to pass the ballot measure.
Yes on Proposition 22 is sponsored by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates, which have contributed so much cash to the proposition that it’s become the most expensive ballot measure campaign in California history. They introduced the initiative last fall, a law that would require the companies to reclassify drivers as employees. Under Proposition 22, the companies would offer workers some benefits, such as expense reimbursement and a health care subsidy, but the drivers would remain independent contractors.
The battle between the gig economy companies and California is likely to have national implications. Other states, like Washington, Oregon, New York and New Jersey, are mulling legislation similar to AB5. Lawmakers say employee status boils down to creating more labor protections for gig workers.
The majority of those gig workers in California are people of color, according to the Yes campaign. That is backed up by Uber’s own data, which shows that at least 55% of its US drivers aren’t white. A separate study by the University of California at Santa Cruz found that 78% of Uber and Lyft drivers in San Francisco are people of color.
Huffman and AC Public Affairs didn’t respond to requests for comment. The California and national arms of the NAACP also didn’t respond to requests for comment. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Postmates, which Uber acquired in July, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Instacart referred CNET to the Yes campaign.
“Alice Huffman is working with the Yes on Prop. 22 campaign to support outreach efforts in communities of color because of the significant impact the loss of app-based rideshare and delivery services will have on Black and brown Californians,” a spokesman for the Yes campaign said in an email.
A spokesman for California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, who declined to comment on this particular situation, said people and organizations are free to endorse or oppose any candidate or ballot measure. There’s no indication the payments to Huffman cross any lines.
But opponents of Proposition 22 say the campaign’s use of the NAACP endorsement without disclosing that Huffman’s firm received money is disingenuous.
“This is a wolf in sheep’s clothing type of bill,” Shamann Walton, a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, said during a video press conference last week about the ballot measure and racial inequality. “Prop. 22 is anything but an equity initiative.”
As the gig economy companies have inundated California voters with political messaging about Proposition 22 being supported by “social justice advocates,” politicians nationwide have also weighed in on the ballot measure. Since the state’s economy is the largest in the US, its laws often ripple across the country.
Several prominent Democrats, including presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate California Sen. Kamala Harris, oppose Proposition 22, as do Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Rep. Barbara Lee. Racial justice and human rights organizations, including Color of Change, ACLU, National Employment Law Project and Human Rights Watch, have also criticized the ballot measure.
“Prop 22 will make racial inequality worse in California and at the worst possible time,” Lee said in a statement last week. “Prop 22 was written to lock drivers … into permanently low-wage jobs and strip them of sick pay and benefits.”
Human Rights Watch said last week that Proposition 22 would “eviscerate minimum wage and other labor rights protections” for gig workers, adding that “opaque pay algorithms” would leave drivers at the whims of the companies. Some cities, like New York and Seattle, have tried to get ahead of these issues by passing laws mandating Uber and Lyft pay drivers at least minimum wage.
“The Yes on Prop 22 campaign that these large gig companies are financing threatens to create a class of workers scraping to get by,” said Lena Simet, senior poverty and inequality researcher at Human Rights Watch.
If forced to reclassify drivers as employees, Uber says tens of thousands of jobs will be lost — it contends it will have to limit the number of drivers on its platform in order to manage costs. NAACP’s Huffman and the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign say this job loss will affect communities of color.
James Lance Taylor, a political science and African American studies professor at the University of San Francisco, said he isn’t surprised by Huffman’s AC Public Affairs taking campaign payments.
“She’s got a reputation of being a maverick and being independent,” Taylor said. “And [$95,000] will make you independent.”
Huffman’s firm received $1.7 million from all of the California ballot measure campaigns she endorsed, according to a lengthy report by CalMatters. Her positions appear to contradict the NAACP’s goal for racial equity. For instance, she’s backed the No campaigns for Proposition 15 and 21, which aim to boost funding for public schools and expand rent control, respectively.
‘Billboard signs and big checks’
As Uber and Lyft poured millions into Proposition 22, the companies also kicked off ad campaigns designed to highlight their dedication to racial justice.
Lyft’s ad was for an initiative it launched in late August called LyftUp, which provides free rides in some communities that don’t have access to transportation services. The campaign debuted with a video using select lines from Maya Angelou’s poem On the Pulse of Morning.
“Lift up your eyes upon the day breaking for you,” the ad begins, quoting Angelou’s poem. It features diverse families, drivers and riders getting ready for work and shuttling throughout San Francisco and other cities with views of the Golden Gate Bridge and blocks of murals painted after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May.
Around the same time, Uber kicked off a billboard campaign across the country with the slogan, “If you tolerate racism, delete Uber.”
Both companies’ ads were met with ire by critics who said the fact these marketing campaigns went up at the same time as the companies were aggressively pushing Proposition 22 was hypocritical. Because the companies classify their drivers as independent contractors, those workers don’t get employee benefits like health insurance, paid sick days and overtime. Drivers also have to pay for their own cars, gas, vehicle maintenance, insurance and phone plans. Many workers say this system has led to exploitation.
The companies argue, however, that Proposition 22 will help drivers because they’ll be getting add-ons, such as a minimum earnings guarantee. Under that guarantee, the companies say, drivers will make about $21 per hour, which applies to the time they’re with a passenger or on the way to pick one up.
Economists at the University of California at Berkeley Labor Center crunched the numbers and included other costs, like the time when drivers must wait to be matched with a rider. They concluded drivers’ actual wage to be closer to $5.64 per hour. Uber disputes those findings.
Cherri Murphy, an organizer with advocacy group Gig Workers Rising, was a full-time Lyft driver in Oakland, California, until the novel coronavirus pandemic hit. She said she quit driving in March because she was worried about working without personal protective equipment and sick leave. Murphy said she believes “racial justice is economic justice” and so it’s hard for her to trust the companies when they say they care about Black lives.
“It’s completely hollow words hiding behind billboard signs and big checks,” Murphy said. “This fight is not just about police killings and terror, it’s about the systems that exploit Black and brown people in this country. And when it comes to exploiting Black and brown people, Lyft, Uber and DoorDash are experts.”
Huffman, the California NAACP president, has continued speaking in favor of Proposition 22. In a September op-ed in the Observer, a Black newspaper based in Southern California, she wrote, “We need to take matters into our own hands to ensure Black and Brown families don’t suddenly find themselves without a paycheck.”
Since that op-ed ran, Huffman’s firm has collected at least $20,000 from the Proposition 22 campaign.