Teachers and Uber drivers win in California courts

Workers -specifically teachers and Uber drivers – gained two big wins in California courts, one state and one federal, within the space of four days from August 22-25.

The first win came on August 18 when U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen in San Francisco threw out a class action settlement the Uber’ drivers’ lawyer tried to get him to accept. In his ruling, Chen noted that since the settlement was proposed, Uber drivers had written his court with objections.

Chen’s big objection, along with theirs, was that the settlement would leave the Uber drivers open to further exploitation by the manipulative “gig economy” firm. The Uber drivers would remain “independent contractors,” without labor law rights, Social Security, Medicare, workers’ comp, jobless benefits and the right to organize.

And on August 22, the California Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling against a right wing scheme to destroy teachers’ tenure.

The rulings are important for several reasons: California, as the nation’s largest state, shows it is once again coming down on the side of workers and against the radical right. And the Uber case should give exploitative firms in the “gig economy,” which thrive on letting workers fend for themselves, pause.

And the right wing has hatched plans to try to kill teacher tenure elsewhere, both as a way to trash teachers’ unions and to impose its dogma in the nation’s schools.

The Uber drivers’ lawyer claimed the settlement would benefit 240,000 drivers nationwide. The lawyer said the Uber drivers would have gotten $90 million as a group to cover what they sued for: Unpaid expenses for their cars – such as buying gasoline-and no tips. The lawyer would have gotten $10 million and the “vast majority” of the drivers would have gotten less than $100 each.

But a chart that Judge Chen included in his ruling said the drivers’ claims total $854.4 million. No way would he agree to the settlement, the judge said.

“The settlement as a whole is not fair, adequate, and reasonable,” Judge Chen wrote. He then said he “DENIES” – his emphasis-the “motion for preliminary approval.”

In words that could apply to workers at other “gig economy” firms, the judge explained Uber drivers are employees, not independent contractors, because “the fact that Uber’s drivers render a service to Uber created a rebuttable presumption of employment status.” Employees have the right to organize. Independent contractors do not.

Judge Chen also noted that even if Uber does not control drivers’ hours, it does control other working conditions, including hiring and firing.

The teachers won when the California Supreme Court threw out the anti-tenure case. The justices voted 4-3 to uphold the lower court’s ruling backing the tenure law. Two of the three dissenters made clear they wanted to take the case so the court could issue an unambiguous decision on tenure.

Formally, the right wing, using nine minority-group middle school students as puppets, sued the state and the California Teachers Association-the Golden State’s National Education Association affiliate-saying the tenure law deprived the students of equal protection of the law, by denying them their state constitutional right to a quality education.

But the real issue was the right wing’s attempt to trash tenure entirely, part of its nationwide drive to destroy public schools, their teachers and their unions, while opening schools to right wing dogma.

That real goal drove the American Federation of Teachers, the NEA, the Service Employees, several notable civil rights groups and others to intervene on behalf of teachers. Former GOP Govs. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger were among the backers of the right wing’s suit, filed by a group of lawyers from Orange County.

“It is possible the challenged statutes-in the way they pertain to teacher tenure and seniority-lead to a higher number of grossly ineffective teachers being in the educational system than a hypothetical alternative statutory scheme would,” the state Supreme Court majority said. “This possibility may present a problem with policy, but it does not, in itself, give rise to an equal protection violation, which requires a classification affecting similarly situated groups in an unequal manner.

“Assuming that poor and minority students encounter more grossly ineffective teachers and that this impacts their constitutional right to ‘basic educational equality’, the constitutional infringement is the product of staffing decisions, not the challenged statutes.” So the majority threw out the appeal and let the lower court’s ruling for the teacher tenure law stand.

“One of our criteria for review is whether we are being asked to settle an important question of law,” the dissenters responded “Under any ordinary understanding of that criterion, our review is warranted in this case…All sides agree that grossly ineffective teachers substantially undermine the ability of (a) child to succeed in school. The controversy here is whether the challenged statutes are to blame for the hiring, retention, and placement of grossly ineffective teachers. Because the questions presented have obvious statewide importance, and because they involve a significant legal issue, this court should grant review.

Teachers cheered the majority’s ruling.

“This is a good day for students and educators as the court’s decision brings an end to the case brought by wealthy anti-public education millionaires who spent millions of dollars to bypass voters, parents, and the legislature in an attempt to impose their harmful education agenda on local schools,” said California Teachers Association President Eric Heins.

“It’s time to get back to the real issues facing our public schools and work together to improve student learning and support the art of teaching. Eliminating teachers’ ability to stand up for their students and robbing school districts of the tools they need to make sound employment decisions was a well-funded but wrong-headed scheme developed by people with no education expertise.”

“I hope this decision closes the book on the flawed and divisive argument that links educators’ workplace protections with student disadvantage,” added AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Instead, as the expert evidence clearly showed, and the Court of Appeals carefully reasoned” in the decision the state’s High Court cited, “it was the discretionary decisions of some administrators, rather than the statutes themselves, that contributed to the problems” in schools.

“It is now well past time that we move beyond damaging lawsuits like Vergara┬áthat demonize educators and begin to work with teachers to address the real issues caused by the massive underinvestment in public education in this country,” she concluded.

Photo: Seth Wenig/AP


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.