E-Scooter Workers Just Formed Their First Union

Employees at the the e-scooter company Spin are paving the way for a transformation of app-based work.
December 12, 2019, 6:15pm
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EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images

E-scooter workers in San Francisco at the Ford-owned start-up Spin joined a union on Wednesday—a first in the fledgling industry.

Roughly 40 Spin workers—who collect, repair, deploy, and charge Spin’s fleet of more than 500 electric scooters on the streets of San Francisco—are now part of Teamsters Local 665, as first reported by the San Francisco Examiner. The union says workers want to negotiate for better pay, health care, and retirement security in their first contract.

“We are confident this is the first in the nation for e-scooter workers,” Kara Deniz, a press secretary for the Teamsters union told Motherboard. “Spin didn’t put up any resistance. They were very supportive of workers, the majority of whom signed up as union members during card check.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that the historic union victory took place at Spin, the e-scooter start-up which operates in 70 different cities and college campuses. The company has resisted the status quo at many Silicon Valley app-based companies by hiring employees, rather than contracted workers. As employees, Spin workers in San Francisco and Los Angeles have been offered paid time off, health care, and dental insurance—benefits typically denied to contractors. Independent contractors, including Lyft and Uber drivers, also do not have the right to unionize. (E-scooter companies Bird and Lime have also begun hiring some workers as employees).

“We respect our SF employees’ right to organize,” Maria Buczkowski, a spokesperson for Spin told Motherboard. “Spin has long differentiated itself with our workforce policies, choosing a W-2 model and local hiring over independent contractors and staffing agencies. We believe investing in everyone from our headquarters to our warehouses leads to a safer, more reliable service.”

The union victory at Spin arrives in the midst of increased scrutiny on gig economy giants like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart, which contract out work to skirt basic labor protections like heath care, worker’s comp, and minimum wage guarantees. The recent passage of a law known as AB5 in California could reclassify many of the state’s roughly 200,000 gig workers as employees. The law goes into effect on January 1.

Rather than pour a collective $90 million into challenging the law as Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash have done, and arguing that paying for basic labor protections could hurt their companies, Spin is complying with it ahead of time. Union organizers hope the company will become a pioneer in the movement to unionize gig workers once AB5 becomes law.

“Spin is asserting a standard for other tech companies that are competing with them on the heels of AB5,” Deniz, the Teamsters communications represenative, told Motherboard.

In October, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed a resolution asking the city’s transportation authority to require compliance with AB5 as a condition of issuing permits to companies.

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“The Board of Supervisors clearly told companies that if they want to do business in the city, they need to create good jobs, not temp or ‘gig’ jobs,” Doug Blouch, political director of the Teamsters Joint Council 7, said in a press release. “This is significant because this is an industry that was based on independent contractors with little to no workplace protections and now they’re becoming employees and workers are organizing. It’s a model for the tech industry moving forward.”

Asked about whether unionization would affect business as usual at the company, Spin’s Buczkowski said, “We don’t anticipate any changes… We take an interest based bargaining approach, in other words, we seek win-wins. We are not approaching this in an adversarial manner.”