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Aug 30, 2021

AB 5 Strikes Back!

“Always look for that union label”—on the puckered lips of California Democrats

By Ed Goldman

Just when I think I’m out they pull me back in!”

I’m sure you remember Al Pacino as Michael Corleone saying this in “The Godfather Part III”. If not, you possibly saw it parodied on HBO’s “The Sopranos” and probably by every standup comic at the time and thereafter. It’s a memorable line in the context of the film, and flamboyant acting often inspires easy satire—because it’s not only genuinely affecting but also imitable enough for even non-impressionists to put over, with the merest of clues, that they’re “doing” Pacino.

Edgy Cartoon

“Look what they’ve done to my bill!”

I can do a few so-so impersonations and have a gravelly enough voice to include Pacino in my repertoire. But I don’t—I can’t come close to his intensity. This is why I also avoid imitating Robert DeNiro, Laurence Olivier and Caitlyn Jenner.

Pacino’s iconic line and his irate delivery of it came back to me when I read a couple of weeks ago that the California law ensuring gig workers are considered independent contractors was found to be both “unconstitutional and unenforceable,” according to a story in the New York Times and various media. While this may not seem to impact a lot of you, it does if you’ve ever used a ride-hailing service like Uber, Lyft or My Airborne Pillow (okay, skip that last one).

Initially, California enacted—or to be more accurate, adopted a problem child that the state’s Supreme Court begat—something called Assembly Bill 5. It ruled that people who made their livings in the gig economy—those Uber and Lyft drivers, freelance writers like me, artists, designers, hair stylists, and a variety of consultants—were actually employees of the places to which we sold our services. Moreover, it implied our clients were trying to avoid paying us benefits by categorizing us as contractors.

There may have been some truth in that but it was also a shallow ploy on the part of the state’s labor unions, to which my increasingly lamentable Democratic Party has let itself get too beholden over decades, to force enrollment and fortify their coffers. It also ignored the fact that a majority of us are freelance by choice, not neglect.

For example, for eight years, I wrote a five-times-a-week online column (and once-a-week print version) for the Sacramento Business Journal—as a freelance writer, not as a staff member. Even if the paper had offered me a genuine job (which it didn’t, not even once, not even as a goodwill gesture, can you imagine?), I really wouldn’t have wanted it.

I’d had a few serious jobs in my seven decades with the Department of Earth but never let any of them interrupt my freelance writing. After what I thought would be my final W-2 job, which ended 37 years ago—and despite a moment of weakness this past spring, when I accepted a job as a magazine editor, which lasted all of three weeks—all I wanted to do was set my own schedule and write only about the people and things that interested me. There’s a hoary old piece of advice to writers, “Write only what you know,” to which I say, “Write what you wish to know.” It’s a lot more fun.

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Anyway, a caveat was loaded into AB 5 that said, among other things, freelancers could write up to 35 stories a year for a particular media outlet. But I was writing around 310 or more pieces annually for one newspaper. So out the figurative door I went, on Friday, September 13, 2019. Two months and two days later (on my 69th birthday), I started the very column I hope you’re reading. It now has readers in 18 states and is expanding. I hope to launch a spinoff podcast in time for my next birthday. (Be afraid, be very afraid!)

In the meantime—well, let Kate Conger of my beloved New York Times explain it to you:

“Last year’s Proposition 22, a ballot initiative backed by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig economy companies, carved out a third classification for workers, granting gig workers limited benefits while preventing them from being considered employees of the tech giants. The initiative was approved in November with more than 58% of the vote.”

That’s right. A simple but significant majority of the state’s voters—which includes, I presume, plenty of employees who belong to labor unions—didn’t mind that a bunch of their fellow Californians refused to be pushed around by unions or pushed out the door by clients who feared we’d file lawsuits against them because they didn’t provide benefits we didn’t actually seek.

So we find ourselves back in the fight for true independence. Just when we thought we were out, they’ve pulled us back in. I wish Michael Corleone were available to run for the Assembly.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).