A California-style Brexit
Freelancers are rising up in opposition to the state’s new law regulating “gig workers.”
Are California Democrats—responsible for the state’s new anti-gig-worker law, AB5—so out of touch that they’re not aware of the growing anger of their constituents? It appears so.
Since AB5 took effect on January 1, hundreds of thousands of Californians are finding their businesses in tatters. Musicians can’t join bands for a one-night gig, chefs can’t join forces with caterers, nurses can’t work at various hospitals, and writers must cap their submissions per media outlet to 35 per year. Under the law, these freelancers can no longer conduct the same business-to-business transactions they have for years or even decades. Clients with whom they fostered valuable relationships are gone—as are their successful careers and incomes. An overwhelming majority of professionals in fields affected by AB5 identify as liberals and have generally voted along the blue line. Today, however, many are so disillusioned with their representatives that they’re changing political loyalties.
When Gloria Rivera, a San Diego-based, Peruvian-born translator and interpreter, achieved U.S. citizenship, the first thing she did was register as a Democrat. “Now I’m seeing a lot of people like me who are either going Independent or Republican,” she says, “myself included. The Democrats are not listening to us.”
Lorena Gonzalez, the San Diego assembly member who authored AB5, faces public condemnation wherever she goes. Online and in person, independent contractors are confronting Gonzalez and demanding a repeal of the law. Her condescending response: independent contractors need the protection of union-driven labor laws. In a damning KUSI news interview, Gonzalez denied that AB5 has resulted in widespread income loss. Her dismissive attitude has fueled outrage against Democrats. “Lorena Gonzalez is doing a great job turning everybody red,” says Rivera.
Gonzalez deserves much of the blame for the AB5 train wreck, but she had plenty of support from her party: nearly every assembly member who approved AB5 is a Democrat, including Governor Gavin Newsom. Those opposed: Republicans and Independents. Senator Patricia Bates, a Republican state senator representing parts of Orange and San Diego counties, has been hearing from constituents who had no idea that they were swept up in the AB5 net. “They’re asking, ‘Who did this to me?’” says Bates. “I don’t like to make it partisan, but I have to tell them the majority party that runs the show did it. There’s a new awareness about the anti-business environment and how it affects their right to work, to be free.”
Independent contractors are entering new territory. Suddenly, a more conservative approach seems more attractive. “My entire political mindset has changed drastically following the enactment of AB5,” says Cathy Hertz, a freelance copyeditor of STM (science-technology-medicine) books, from Loma Linda. Hertz campaigned for Barack Obama cross-country at her own expense in 2008; she campaigned for him locally, in Los Angeles, in 2012. “Now I feel that the rights of entrepreneurs are being stifled, trampled upon, violated,” she says. “Free enterprise is one of the main pillars of modern democracy.”
Apparently oblivious to the reaction in California, congressional Democrats have passed HR 2474, a national version of AB5, known as the “Protecting the Right to Organize” or “PRO Act.” The PRO Act, designed to boost union membership, will put 57 million independent contractors across the country out of work if it becomes law. These enterprising professionals will be forced into low-paying jobs—if they can find them—with none of the autonomy, flexibility, or opportunity that they currently enjoy. When the Trump administration denounced the bill, people who normally hiss at mention of the president’s name found themselves in a peculiar position: feeling grateful.
As for Gonzalez, she’s up for reelection this year and is aiming for secretary of state in 2022. Her campaigns will be tougher than she likely imagines. The movement against her is ramping up.
“I see a revolution on the horizon,” says David Mills, a musician from Lake Elsinore who created the Facebook group Freelancers against PRO Act. “This may be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back. But I think it’s leading to something good. The American people on all sides are waking up. We’ve gotten too caught up in partisan support. Now we’re paying attention. There is a huge uprising. People had to lose their jobs to find out what it was.”
Kevin Kiley, a Republican assembly member representing a large swath of Sacramento and a vocal ally of independent contractors, agrees. In January, he led a rally on the steps of the state capitol against AB5 and introduced a bill to repeal it. “We have a capital that’s controlled by special interests, and the public good isn’t even considered,” says Kiley. “That disconnect is stark. I’m more motivated to change this law than anything I’ve ever worked on because it has such a direct and negative impact on peoples’ lives. I believe very deeply in economic freedom, the right to pursue your calling. AB5 is a grave moral offense. So if there’s a silver lining to all this, it’s giving a diverse range of people a window into the dysfunctional nature of politics in Sacramento. For those who are disenchanted with the political majority, there is now an opportunity for alternatives.”
Such alternatives are popping up around the state. Evan Wecksell, a comedian and tutor by trade, is running for state senate as a write-in candidate for District 25, which encompasses parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino county. He was registered as a Democrat until recently. Today, he’s a Libertarian.
“I definitely sense a change,” says Wecksell. “People who swore they would never vote for a Republican are doing it. We were not up to speed with knowing what was going on in Sacramento, but AB5 was a lesson and we’re learning from it. They’re taking away our natural human rights.”
Independent contractors are a unique bunch. Deeply committed to individual liberty, they’re becoming a unified group of fighters in California. They come from all walks of life and political persuasions, and if voting differently means that they can continue to run their businesses as they see fit, then so be it. Unless Democrats change course, the AB5 revolt may be the Brexit that the U.S. never saw coming. California certainly didn’t.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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