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Uber and Lyft-backed group falsely claimed that several community groups in Buffalo endorse its effort to deny workplace protections to app workers in New York.

App-based drivers line up outside New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office in protest of a proposed bill to codify misclassifying workers as independent contractors (by NY Taxi Workers Alliance, via Twitter)

The New York Coalition for Independent Work – a front group operated by the lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs – has been falsely claiming that grassroots community organizations in Buffalo and across the state endorse the coalition’s effort to deny workplace protections to people who work for Uber, Lyft, and other gig work companies. Furthermore, lobbyists working for the gig work front group have cited this false support to try to induce at least one other organization to endorse the campaign.

On a version of the New York Coalition for Independent Work website archived on January 8, 2021, shortly after it was re-launched under Mercury’s control, the group listed Citizen Action of New York, the Coalition for Economic Justice, Groundwork Buffalo, New York Renews, Open Buffalo, PUSH Buffalo, Stop the Violence Coalition, and the Western New York Peace Center as coalition members. Another organization, the Partnership for the Public Good, was contacted by a representative of the New York Coalition for Independent Work who cited these groups in a request for the Partnership’s support.

None of these groups actually endorsed the coalition, however.

In fact, several of the organizations are critical of Uber and Lyft and have spoken out against the gig work business model, which relies on misclassifying workers as independent contractors to evade minimum wage and requirements and to shift operating costs off of the companies and onto their workers.

Emails obtained by PAI show that after Mercury falsely named Buffalo community organizations and New York Renews as members of the New York Coalition for Independent Work in January, some logos were removed from the coalition website only to be subsequently added again.

In late March, a partner at the lobbying firm Court Street Strategies, Adam Witkowski, wrote to Buffalo’s Partnership for the Public Good to solicit their support for the coalition. Witkowski cited the participation of “community groups and small businesses advocates such Groundwork Buffalo, PUSH Buffalo, OPEN Buffalo, WNY Peace Center, the Business Council of New York, NAACP, New York City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Coalition for Economic Justice.” When the Partnership for the Public Good instructed Witkowski not to list the organization as a coalition member and told him that other Buffalo groups had not consented to their inclusion in the anti-worker campaign, Witkowski replied that the Buffalo groups’ inclusion had been a “communications error within the coalition.”

On March 30, 2021 Witkowski wrote to the Partnership for the Public Good:

Groundwork Buffalo, PUSH Buffalo, OPEN Buffalo, and the Coalition for Economic Justice Buffalo, were listed in error as supporters in the beginning year and were taken off our website when that was brought to our attention. Since then, an outdated supporter list was passed on to me when I was put in charge of WNY outreach recently. In addition, when I received this outdated list, I also re-submitted their logos to the website without knowing they had previously been taken down. The issue has since been resolved after being brought to our attention, and the outdated list taken out of circulation.

Though Witkowski is clearly working to support the Mercury-run front group, Court Street Strategies has not disclosed lobbying on behalf of the New York Coalition for Independent Work. Court Street Strategies has reported lobbying for Uber in the recent past, from May 2019 through May 2020.

After the March 2021 email exchange, the names of four organizations – Groundwork Buffalo, PUSH Buffalo, Open Buffalo, and Coalition for Economic Justice – do appear to have been removed from the New York Coalition for Independent Work website. However, the Western New York Peace Center, whose mission is to “uphold human rights and challenge oppression, power imbalances, and systemic issues that hurt the quality of life for all,” remained listed as a coalition member. Western New York Peace Center was only removed on the morning of June 3, 2021 when PAI sent questions to Mercury asking about how it came to misrepresent Buffalo community organizations’ support for the New York Coalition for Independent Work.

In a statement emailed after this article was initially published, Mercury said: “To our knowledge, all groups that have ever appeared on the website had agreed to be a part of the Coalition.” Mercury managing director Beth DeFalco blamed an unnamed “third-party consultant unaffiliated with Mercury who said they spoke directly to the Buffalo groups and received permission to use the logos.”

However, emails obtained by PAI from January, when the Buffalo organizations were first listed on website, and from March, after the organizations had been removed once and then added again, show that relevant staff at these organizations had not been contacted by Mercury or anyone else about the coalition, much less agreed to be named as endorsers of the anti-worker campaign.

Faking grassroots community support is a tried and true tactic of corporate pressure groups like the New York Coalition for Independent Work, also replicated in the oil and gas and telecommunications industries as well as in the past by Uber and other gig work companies.

The New York Coalition for Independent Work is part of a multi-year, multi-million dollar effort by Uber, Lyft, and other gig work companies to secure legislation in New York classifying their workers as independent contractors. In addition to funding the lobbyist-operated front group, this effort has included spending more than $1 million to influence the 2020 New York State state legislative elections through two super PACs and hiring lobbyists and staff with connections to New York government.

Broadly speaking, the gig work companies’ strategy has been to cultivate relationships and support within the Democratic Party in deep blue New York State, which we detailed in a November 2020 report. Building ties within New York’s Democratic Party is such an important element of this campaign that Lyft even used its Super PAC to boost progressive, union-backed Democrats presumably more likely to back protections for gig economy workers. Now, it appears that gig work companies and their lobbyists augmented that effort by falsely claiming to be supported by trusted grassroots organizations that have organized for years for racial, economic, and economic justice.

Such a drastic and unethical step underscores how important New York State is as one of the next battlegrounds for gig companies’ campaign to circumvent workers’ rights and remake labor relations in the United States.

In May 2021, proposed legislation from negotiations between gig work companies, organized labor, and state legislators was made public. While permitting drivers to join a union, the proposed bill would have given gig work companies a great deal of power over which union represented their workers and, critically, would have prohibited gig workers from striking or picketing companies and retain the independent contractor classification. The proposed bill was quickly denounced both by labor organizers like Los Deliveristas Unidos and by Senator Jessica Ramos, the chair of the New York State Senate Labor Committee.

Though support for the leaked bill collapsed, negotiations with gig work companies are ongoing. Misclassifying workers is so essential to the gig work business model that companies like Uber and Lyft will go to nearly any end to maintain it.

This article was updated on June 7, 2021 with Mercury Public Affairs’s statement about the misattributed endorsements from Buffalo community organizations.