A Marble delivery robot moves down Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District on July 21, 2017. City officials later approved regulations that require companies to get permits for testing the devices. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Delivery companies prompt a human vs robot showdown

Two years after ban and regulations passed, companies awaiting approval of testing permits

It was human versus machine under City Hall’s gilded dome Wednesday.

Two companies pushing to offer robot delivery services, Postmates and Marble, each had permit hearings before San Francisco Public Works Wednesday morning but met with heated opposition from the workers their services could one day replace.

The two companies aren’t seeking permission to run their services outright. Rather, they’re seeking approval to run tests of their machines in specific San Francisco neighborhoods. Marble would test three delivery devices, which resemble high-tech boxes on wheels, in the Design District and parts of the Dogpatch neighborhood. Those machines are required to roll no faster than 3 MPH and must be accompanied by a human during testing.

Pending the decision of a Public Works hearing officer and Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, the two companies could be cleared to test their delivery robots in just a few weeks.

But the Teamsters union, representing hundreds of thousands of delivery workers, said the two companies are not adequately protecting workers. Doug Bloch, political director of Teamsters Joint Council 7, which represents thousands of workers across California and elsewhere, told the hearing officer that workers want to move lockstep with the march of technology — but they want to ensure it’s done the right way.

“We’re not afraid of change,” he said during public comment.

But he said it is important to note that the permit process for autonomous delivery robots includes a provision for “labor harmony,” a city policy essentially requiring companies be in good standing with unions when obtaining permits, which usually involves demonstrating paying a living wage or offering neutrality in union organizing efforts. This was pioneered by then-supervisor, now state Sen. Scott Wiener for the commuter shuttle pilot program in 2015, and subsequently incorporated by Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee in his delivery robot regulation legislation 2017.

Marble and Postmates’ labor harmony provisions must be stronger, Bloch said.

“Neither application has adequate labor dispute statements,” he said.

Speaking broadly about the issue, Mayor’s Office spokesperson Jeff Cretan said, “The business community should work with our labor partners to create opportunities for jobs as our economy grows and technology evolves. Spurring innovation and supporting a strong local workforce can and should go hand in hand.”

In their statements to The City, both companies essentially argued since they’d hire no unionized workers, they needed no labor harmony agreements.

“Postmates inc. … does not utilize organized and/or unionized labor to provide services to either the company’s core functions or in any way associated with the fleet of independent contractors who use the Postmates mobile application to provide their services to the public,” the company wrote in their labor harmony statement. “For this reason, Postmates does not anticipate potential labor disputes as a result of its testing and use of [automated delivery devices].”

Marble wrote “There is no employee whose work will be diminished or adversely impacted by the operation of Marble robots, and we do not expect to encounter labor disputes involving Marble’s workforce.” A spokesperson for the company reiterated that when questioned about the deal.

Marble CEO Kevin Peterson defended his company at the hearing, accompanied by a slideshow depicting delivery workers carrying packages from a truck, one from 1909, and the other from 2019.

“The techniques to delivering packages are still the same,” Peterson said.

Postmates senior government relations lead Vignesh Ganapathy argued Postmates delivery robots increase job opportunities in retail by bringing 20-30 percent in added revenue to local merchants.

But Bloch seemed unconvinced.

“Now I’m sitting here this morning looking at slides saying they’re going after 250,000 good delivery workers,” Bloch told the hearing officer, after Marble’s presentation. “Those are our members.”

The union’s opposition comes after Marble walked away from a deal promising the company would stay neutral in any union organizing efforts by the Teamsters of their robot mechanics, or other operations workers.

That deal was one of the central reasons the Teamsters previously decided to help the tech companies fight the delivery robot ban when Yee proposed it in 2017.

“We have buyers remorse,” Bloch said.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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