AB 5 Isn’t About Protecting Workers. It’s About Enhancing Politicians’ Power

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Imagine you’re a California politician, and you need to raise money—for your own campaigns, or to run issue or ballot measures campaigns on subjects that matter most to you. What would be the easiest way to make fundraising easier?

Here’s one answer: come up with legislation that covers virtually every piece of the state economy. But make sure the legislation is complicated, and imposes different rules for different businesses and sectors. Set up a standard that is tough on companies and workers—but allow room for exemptions that you as a legislator can give out to businesses and workers that buy your protection, via campaign contributions.

In other words, you’d create legislation exactly like AB 5.

Yes, AB 5 deals with a real problem; the misclassification of workers. Many workers who are considered contractors are really employees. But AB 5’s purposes isn’t really about that.

AB 5 is, at heart, a cash grab.

It’s a law that also wasn’t necessary. The California Supreme Court, in its unanimous ruling in the Dynamex case, already set out a standard for dealing with such misclassification. But the legislature and governor decided to step in, on the theory that they needed to affirm the supreme court decision.

But that’s not what they did. They created a far more complicated series of tests and exemptions, using the Supreme Court decisions as cover. Indeed, much of the legislation is devoted to replacing that decision with other language and text seen as more favorable to organized labor—and to favored industries.

The result is a series of muddled and different standards based on¸the decisions made by politicians. 

The legislation is described as being about Uber and Lyft, but it’s not just about them. Uber and Lyft are targets of the legislation because they are targets of union organizers. And because those two companies haven’t been willing to pay big enough price to get an exemption. They are pledging to fight, even by ballot initiative, rather than surrender to the labor machine.

But this bill is great for politicians because it gives all kinds of industries, businesses, workers and others an excuse to give them money—to get an exemption that preserves their current ways of doing business. 

Those with exemptions have powerful lobbies and make campaign donations. My favorite of those who bought their way out: podiatrist and repossession agents. (I’d like to have been in on the repo men’s meetings with lawmakers).

For the powerful, the great thing about AB 5 is that it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Industries, businesses and workers will keep having to come back to ask for exemptions, or ask for a tweaking of exemptions. They’ll have to give money and support to politicians to get what they want. Even better, those who oppose the measure will have to use ballot initiatives, and thus feed millions of dollars into the same political industrial complex that feeds politicians. 

And of course, none of this is good for the average worker. Sure, some might get protection—at least until someone with money buys changes in the law. Other workers might have their livelihoods disrupted. 

But AB 5 isn’t about labor, or workers or dignity or proper job classification. It’s about power—and about expanding a democracy where policymaking belongs to the highest bidders.

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