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Gig Workers Should Be Allowed To Organize. The FTC and DOJ Can Help Make That Happen.

As the name implies, Congress passed the antitrust laws to remedy the problem of the trusts—the great agglomerations of capital harming working people. Yet, from that very beginning, the forces of corporate power and oligarchy have used the antitrust laws to attack working people. When the federal government first deployed the antitrust laws against coordinated economic power, they did not use them against trusts like Standard Oil or railroad monopolists; instead, they used them against people organizing workers to fight for better wages. By doing so, the federal government created a threat that haunted the labor movement for decades—the threat of the “labor injunction.” That threat remains today. And the federal government can take a simple step to combat it.

In 1999, while Bill Clinton was serving his second term, port truck drivers across the country decided to get organized and go on strike. But instead of solidarity with their strike action, they received a subpoena from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the threat of a lawsuit under the antitrust laws from their employers. Faced with the threat of legal action from the government and their employers, they abandoned their strike.

The FTC investigated the port truckers even though the antitrust laws specifically exempt labor organizing. These truckers are not the only workers that have been targeted by antitrust authorities. Music teachers, ice skating coaches, and public defenders have all faced the wrath of the FTC. Why? Because they were classified as independent contractors—a classification dictated by their employers. These cases raise a question central to American political economy: which workers have the right to organize?

The answer should be all workers. But, in reality, fewer and fewer workers can organize without the threat of a lawsuit under the antitrust laws.

Today, more and more workers are classified not as employees but as independent contractors in a practice called “workplace fissuring.” This practice is most visible for gig workers. Companies like Uber have fought tooth and nail to preserve their workers’ independent contractor status. But this practice is not limited to gig work companies. It has become a common tactic employed by predatory corporations in every industry. By doing so, they believe they can legally prevent collective action through the antitrust laws. And if you ask antitrust scholars like Herbert Hovenkamp, that Uber drivers are “selling a combination of their labor and usage of their cars” implies the labor exemption to antitrust might not protect them.

But the law and history prove those who would expose workers to antitrust liability wrong. In passing the labor exemption, Congress did not intend to just exempt employees, it aimed to cover all workers organizing to vindicate their rights. Indeed, the text of the Norris LaGuardia Act explicitly states the exemption is not limited to just those “stand[ing] in the proximate relation of employer and employee.” And the Clayton Act does not restrict the exemption’s coverage to employees, but instead states that “[n]othing contained in the antitrust laws shall be construed to forbid the existence and operation of labor…organizations, instituted for the purposes of mutual help[.]” (emphasis added)

Fortunately, this historically accurate interpretation of the law is gaining ground. In 2022, the First Circuit found that a group of independent contractor jockeys could legally organize and strike, rejecting a title-based approach in favor of one that focuses on whether or not workers were selling labor or goods. FTC Commissioner Alvaro Bedoya drew attention to this interpretation of the labor exemption in a speech at a Utah Project event in 2023 and a law review article published this month. (Full disclosure, I worked on this speech while in Commissioner Bedoya’s office and am co-author on the article). A detailed analysis by two NYU scholars has grounded a reading of the exemption which would cover many independent contractors in court precedent and textualist methods.

But this view of the law should be formalized. The FTC and Department of Justice (DOJ) should issue a policy statement declaring that the labor exemption covers independent contractors that are treated like workers, rather than like independent businesspeople, by the company that hired them. While such a policy statement would not be precedential, it would be important persuasive authority for any court examining this issue. It would also provide crucial cover for workers uncertain about whether or not their employers’ threats of legal action are valid. It could not stop an employer from seeking an old-school labor injunction against their workers, but it could help those workers win in court—especially if the enforcement agencies back up the statement with amicus briefs in those cases.

Most importantly, it would remove the real threat of federal prosecution hanging over the heads of American workers. It is the duty of “the most pro-union President…in American history” to remove that threat. The FTC and DOJ must state affirmatively: All workers, not just those granted employee status, have the right to organize and that right will not be abridged by the antitrust authorities. The Biden administration must bury the labor injunction once and for all.

Bryce Tuttle is a student at Stanford Law School. He previously worked in the office of FTC Commissioner Bedoya and in the Bureau of Competition.

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