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Hullabaloo


Saturday, January 02, 2016

 

Avenging angel

by Tom Sullivan

We called him "Rumor Control." He was the guy in the office who periodically ducked into your cubical to say with a conspiratorial whisper, "Keep your head down and look busy. They're talking about a layoff." Oh, and if you ever needed a good deal on a used Camaro, he could fix you up. (I never tested that.)

One other signal that you'd better update your résumé is when the phrase "shareholder value" is heard in the hallway or in a meeting. When shareholders get restless, employees become even more than normally disposable. Making employees disposable never appears in the mission statement. It's implied.

Shannon Liss-Riordan has an ear for those euphemisms too. From her Boston law office, the "avenging angel for workers" dubbed "Sledgehammer Shannon" brings class-action lawsuits on behalf of bartenders, cashiers, truck drivers, and baristas against firms pursuing creative ways to enhance shareholder value by disposing of employees altogether. Liss-Riordan is taking on Uber, Lyft and several other on-demand services who make their money by classifying employees as independent contractors or micro-entrepreneurs. Mother Jones has a profile worth reading:

In August 2013, Liss-Riordan filed a class-action lawsuit in a federal court in San Francisco, where Uber is based. Her argument hinged on California law, which classifies workers as employees if their tasks are central to a business and are substantially controlled by their employer. Under that principle, the lawsuit says, Uber drivers are clearly employees, not contractors. "Uber is in the business of providing car service to customers," notes the complaint. "Without the drivers, Uber's business would not exist." The suit also alleges that Uber manipulates the prices of rides by telling customers that tips are included—but then keeps a chunk of the built-in tips rather than remitting them fully to drivers. The case calls for Uber to pay back its drivers for their lost tips and expenses, plus interest.

Uber jumped into gear, bringing on lawyer Ted Boutrous, who had successfully represented Walmart before the Supreme Court in the largest employment class action in US history. Uber tried to get the case thrown out, arguing that its business is technology, not transportation. The drivers, the company contended, were independent businesses, and the Uber app was simply a "lead generation platform" for connecting them with customers.

Techspeak aside, Liss-Riordan has heard all this before. When she litigated similar cases on behalf of cleaning workers, the cleaning companies claimed they were simply connecting broom-pushing "independent franchises" with customers. When she won several landmark cases brought by exotic dancers who had been misclassified as contractors, the strip clubs argued that they were "bars where you happen to have naked women dancing," Liss-Riordan recounts with a wry smile. "The court said, 'No. People come to your bar because of that entertainment. Adult entertainment. That's your business.'"

From the corporations' perspective, they are the exploiter. You are the exploitee. There's a place for everyone in the new gig economy. Know your place.

Lead generation platform. That's a euphemism worthy of Washington.