On February 1, 15 Instacart employees in the Chicago suburb Skokie will vote on whether to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1546.
The Instacart workers, who pick and pack groceries at the grocery store chain Mariano’s, would be the first to unionize on the grocery delivery-app, which would send a message to the app's 142,000 other workers in the United States.
Unionizing workers tell Motherboard that Instacart has brought in several high level Instacart managers into the Mariano’s grocery store where they work in recent days. They say managers who they’ve never met before have been distributing anti-union literature and are trying to convince workers not to vote for the union. Some of these memos were obtained by Motherboard.
“I encourage you to look at all of the FACTS and vote “NO” on February 1st,” Instacart senior operations manager Chris Nolan wrote in one of the memos dated January 22. “You may be under the impression giving Local 1546 the right to represent you could give you greater control over your work life,” continues Nolan in the memo. “However, the fact is, the UFCW brings a whole set of rules members must follow.”
Another memo also signed by Nolan and circulated among workers presents a list of “facts” about unions. These facts suggest that the union would serve to drain workers paychecks. “FACT #1 LOCAL 1546 DUES ARE EXPENSIVE… FACT #2 IF LOCAL 1546 WINS THIS ELECTION, THEY WILL WANT TO MAKE SURE ANY CONTRACT NEGOTIATED BETWEEN IT AND INSTACART GUARANTEES THE UNION WILL BE PAID BY YOU,” a memo dated January 21 reads.
Despite giving these threatening memos to employees, Instacart told Motherboard that it "support[s] employee freedom and choice."
“Up to 15 part-time employees in Skokie, Illinois, are expected to participate in an election on Saturday, February 1, to vote on whether or not to unionize,” a spokesperson from Instacart’s headquarters in San Francisco said. “We support employee freedom and choice, respect our employees’ rights to consider unionization and will honor the outcome of the election process.”
In recent months, Instacart has faced a series of gig worker-led strikes and protests led by the app’s gig workers over pay cuts. In November, several thousand Instacart workers launched a three-day strike, demanding the app reinstate a 10 percent default tip. Days later, the app eliminated its “quality” bonus—a reward for good service, which can account for up to 40 percent of pay— causing widespread outrage among workers and customers alike on social media.
While 130,000 Instacart workers are contracted gig workers who deliver groceries to customer’s homes, the app also employs another 12,000 in-store “shoppers,” in select grocery store chains who pick and pack groceries for delivery. All of these in-store employees work less than 30 hours a week but they are legally classified as part-time employees, not contractors.
“The in-store shopper role was created to promote flexibility, efficiency, and quality customer service—each of which is essential to our shopping experience and delivers positive results for both customers and our in-store shoppers,” an Instacart spokesperson told Motherboard.
Joe Loftis, an in-store Instacart worker at the Mariano’s and one of the lead organizers of the Instacart union drive, said that he decided it was time to unionize after he was written up twice when he missed work due to a few serious injuries, and noticed that his coworkers were also fed-up with the timed pace of work and frequent, seemingly arbitrary penalizations under Instacart’s algorithm.
“Being punished by a machine is what people are most upset about,” Loftis told Motherboard. “With them, you’re always guilty until proven innocent, even if there’s a glitch and the app is wrong.”
Loftis said Instacart workers at the Mariano’s earn the minimum wage, $13 an hour, work under a timer, and must meet a 72-items-per-minute quota. Because employees are capped at 29 hours a week, they do not receive healthcare benefits.
Last year, Loftis, a former Teamsters union member, says he reached out to the UFCW about unionizing, then launched the union campaign at the Mariano’s store where he works. In December, he says he convinced 15 Instacart coworkers to sign unionization cards with little resistance. Only a few workers oppose the union, he says, and he expects that Saturday’s vote will be an easy victory.
“I don’t think this will be much of a challenge. Workers are treated so badly,” Loftis said. “This is going to be a cake walk.”