photo: electric scooters in San Diego
California's new gig-work law helped pave the way for unionization at the Ford-owned scooter company Spin. Gregory Bull/AP

Spin’s San Francisco workers have voted to join the local Teamsters union—a micromobility milestone made possible by a new state law.

Early this month, San Francisco employees at Spin, the electric scooter and micromobility company owned by Ford, voted to join Teamsters Local 665. For this emerging industry, it represented a historic milestone—the first unionization of the dockless e-scooter workforce.

Part of the organizing efforts’ success could be attributed to Spin’s role within Ford, a company whose relationship with the Teamsters goes back to the middle of the 20th century. But it was a new California law—and a local governing body with the will to enforce it—that lay the groundwork from which organizing was built.

After months of debate, California’s state government passed Assembly Bill 5 this fall. The legislation, introduced by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, pushes industries across the state to reclassify certain independent contractors as employees. Lawmakers and labor experts who supported the bill say AB5 will correct for rampant job misclassification, allowing ride-hail drivers and other gig workers to obtain the benefits and job protections non-contractors enjoy. Foes like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash are planning on fighting the legislation with a ballot measure that they’ve collectively spent $90 million to back, worried that the reclassification will result in lost revenue and an erosion of driver flexibility.

Scooter companies are also affected by the legislation: several startups use non-employee contractors tasked with picking up, charging, and sometimes maintaining scooters. Even before AB5 officially takes effect on January 1, 2020, the companies have been pushed to follow its mandate.

Last year, only two scooter companies, Scoot and Skip, were granted permission to operate in San Francisco in a one-year pilot. This year, the city decided to expand its scooter program. To win a permit to operate permanently from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, 11 e-scooter companies were asked to submit new applications that detailed their maintenance, business, and labor practices. In September, Joe Fitzgerald reported in the San Francisco Examiner that Spin knew that part of the reason its application was rejected last year was because it depended on independent contractors—and that in advance of this year’s application process, Spin was eying a union deal and “labor harmony agreement” with the Teamsters, because they believed the commitment to employee protections “may give them an edge” in the new application process. The S.F. Board of Supervisors signed a resolution endorsing AB5 in October.

That play appears to have worked, both for the company and its workers. The company, which reached the labor peace deal in September, became one of four scooter companies allowed to operate in the city. Its workers, classified as full employees, had been given the right to unionize, and on December 5, voted to do so. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the three other approved scooter companies—Lime, Jump, and Scoot—were ones that said the majority of their workers would be employees, not contractors (though that’s true of the others who were not accepted, too).

With the aid of an impending state law, and the threat of a ban, cities were newly able to pressure companies to strengthen employment practices. “It’s something they’re realizing they can do something about very easily,” said Veena Dubal, a labor expert and associate professor of law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. “If cities are benefiting from city-issued licenses, then they need to abide by city and state law.” Spin has expressed its strong support of the union.

Dubal says other regulators in San Francisco—and across California—could use similar tactics. “If San Francisco can put this provision in the licensing agreement then can SF’s airport put the same provision in their licensing agreements with Uber and Lyft?” said Dubal. “That they have to be in compliance with state law and treating their drivers as employees?” Airport contracts are handled by the San Francisco International Airport Commission, which is governed by five mayor-appointed representatives.

In an email, Katie Wells, an Urban Studies Foundation postdoctoral research fellow for Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, said that the San Francisco supervisors’ push to limit the amount of e-scooters on the streets—alongside their embrace of AB5—fits into a broader backlash “against the deregulation, market-oriented directions of government AND businesses in the past thirty-plus years.”

But critics of AB5 have warned of unintended consequences, including driving jobs and businesses out of the state. One unusual potential victim to the new regulation: freelance journalists. Under AB5, freelancers are only able to contribute 35 pieces to the same publication each year before they’re considered employees eligible for full benefits. This month, SFGate reported that Vox Media laid off all its California contributors for the sports website SB Nation, in favor of employing six full-time staffers, with potentially 20 positions opening up in 2020. (The writers who lost their jobs were told they were welcome to contribute without pay.)

San Francisco’s strict scooter permitting policies have also resulted in a loss of jobs. When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors chose not to approve Skip for the permanent pilot, the company laid off about three dozen San Francisco workers, the San Francisco Examiner reported. And after another scooter company, Bird, acquired Scoot earlier this year, about two dozen workers in San Francisco lost their jobs, too.

Tony Delorio, president of Teamsters Local 665, says they’ve been looking at how to get new positions at Spin for those laid-off by Scoot. “The people who were left aside, we’re grabbing them and putting them into jobs that are unionized,” he said. Under the current permitting regulations, each scooter company has been given the license to operate 500 scooters, with the opportunity to add 500 more by February. For every 250 scooters that are allowed on the road, Delorio estimates that 20 jobs are created.

By becoming the first scooter company to unionize, Spin has set off a ripple effect, Delorio says. “We are going to be aggressively going after the other three,” he said, and workers from those companies have already begun calling him. As the transportation industry changes, established unions like the Teamsters—a massive organization of 1.4 million members best known for representing truck and cab drivers—must reinvent themselves, too, he says, taking new workforces like tech shuttle drivers and the (recently discontinued) Ford-owned microtransit service Chariot under their wing. Micromobility is an obvious next frontier. “We had to go with the times and say the days of trucking have come and gone,” Delorio said. “We’re the A-to-Z union now.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story included Postmates in the list of companies funding a fight against AB5. The correct company is DoorDash.

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