Sherry Zhu, an intern at Spin and a SF native, at Spin’s offices on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Spin may be first SF e-scooter company to unionize in bid for permit

Eleven e-scooter companies are competing to operate in San Francisco.

Just in time for Labor Day, one e-scooter company revealed it may become the first in San Francisco to unionize, and perhaps one of the earliest such companies to do so in the nation.

There is, however, a catch.

Spin, the e-scooter company in question, does not yet have a permit from The City to operate. It’s in a crowded pack of 11 companies all vying to obtain permission from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to operate in The City.

In anticipation of that permit, Spin has come to an agreement with the Teamsters Joint Council 7, which represents more than 100,000 union workers statewide.

At the Teamsters’ urging, Spin has signed onto a “labor peace” pact that amounts to a public statement that unionization is welcome, Spin told the San Francisco Examiner. A review of past permits awarded by The City suggests this may give them an edge in obtaining a permission to operate e-scooters in San Francisco.

At this point, these companies are looking for any edge they can get.

Still, in the billion-dollar tech mobility sector — from e-bikes to pogo sticks — this is a rare agreement, and among e-scooter providers in particular it is relatively unheard of. Many e-scooter providers have been known to pay independent contractors to shuffle e-scooters around U.S. cities for availability’s sake.

But independent contractors are a vulnerable workforce lacking work-provided benefits, and utilizing them in the gig-economy is a much derided practice in San Francisco.

“We’re not going to try to be like the other tech companies,” Nima Rahimi, senior policy counsel at Spin, told the Examiner.

Rahimi added that not only is Spin “not going to get in the way” of unionizing its workers, including potentially e-scooter mechanics, but “we’re going to help in any way we can.”

This is perhaps not a leap for a tech mobility company owned by Ford, which bought Spin earlier this year for a reported $100 million. But it is still relatively unique.

San Francisco awarded two companies permits to its Powered Scooter Pilot Program last August: Scoot and Skip. In its permit application, Skip promised a blend of 85 percent independent contractors and 15 percent full time employees for its workers who pick up e-scooters across The City to charge them.

By contrast, SFMTA knocked Spin as “poor” on labor, particularly for its dependence on independent contractors for its workers who charge vehicles, and for requiring its mechanics bring their own tools. That will no longer be the case, Spin confirmed.

But last year, Spin and a dozen other companies lost out, left to spin their wheels. Now SFMTA is reviewing applications once again, this time for its permanent program.

Spin and ten other companies sent applications to the SFMTA for that new permit: Bolt, Helbiz, JUMP, Lime, Lyft, Razor, Scoot, Skip, VeoRide and Wheels. SFMTA is expected to announce the new permittees any day now, as the agency voiced hopes those companies would deploy e-scooters on the road by October.

But Spin my have the edge with the Teamsters’ support. Though the Teamsters are in talks with Spin’s rival, Scoot, that company has not yet signed any agreement, Doug Bloch, political director of Teamsters Joint Council 7 confirmed.

SFMTA included labor practices as one of its key metrics in evaluating e-scooter permit applications last year, a fact Bloch knows too well.

“I would expect the MTA will value companies that have agreements in place that will let workers freely choose whether they want to join together in a union or not,” Bloch said.

The precursor of Spin’s labor peace agreement is the “labor harmony” agreement, which SFMTA and then-supervisor, now State Senator Scott Wiener crafted in 2015 for corporate commuters shuttles, like those that speed Google’s workers down the Peninsula.

The Teamsters have successfully argued that some corporate shutter providers lacked harmony with labor, which resulted in SFMTA revoking city permits for at least one corporate shuttle provider since 2015. Wiener said SFMTA should value the path it forged with the labor movement.

“Labor harmony agreements are important, and companies that have them should get credit from SFMTA in the permitting decision” for e-scooters, he said.

Local hiring is also a key metric in SFMTA’s permit program that Spin is unique in pursuing.

Spin reached out to San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development and signed a letter committing to its First Source program. It was the only e-scooter company to do so, said Gloria Chan, an OEWD spokesperson.

First Source is a program that refers qualified candidates from a pool of economically disadvantaged residents to open positions before others are interviewed. For people from The City’s poor communities, this can help them leapfrog generational disparities.

“The goal is to give them an advantage and head start,” Chan said. And Spin, “is the only company that reached out to hire local and actually did something about it.”

Other e-scooter companies inquired about workforce programs but did not follow through, Chan said.

Sherry Zhu, a Spin intern since July, is one San Francisco local who started out skeptical of the e-scooter industry but had her position flipped by her experience at Spin. The 18-year-old UC Santa Cruz sophomore hails from the Visitacion Valley and said she was skeptical of the tech mobility industry as a whole.

“I have basically wanted nothing to do with scooters until I started the internship. There’s a kind of conflicting reputation with the e-scooter companies,” she said.

But Spin was uniquely interested in reaching out to her community, and trusted Zhu with the responsibility to help speaking to people in the Bayview — her neighbors.

“I was treated very personal, they kept reminding me that this opportunity was for me to basically be exposed to as many things as possible. They really did that,” she said.

Though she attended Lowell High School, a city school known for its high-achieving students, “I was freaking out the first week I was here,” she said. Now she rates these companies on a more nuanced scale — do they really show a commitment to her city?

“It’s a question about what efforts are being taken by the companies to engage with the community,” she said.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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