[By Nick Statt]
A group of Instacart employees in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, voted to unionize this past weekend with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1546 chapter, Motherboard reported. The union vote is a landmark victory for gig worker activism, as it represents the first time employees of tech companies that rely predominantly on contract labor have formed a union to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.
The workers that voted to unionize were not contract workers but are classified as part-time Instacart employees due to how the grocery delivery company structures its operation. Instacart mainly relies on a fleet of more than 140,000 contract workers who, like Uber and Lyft drivers and other delivery workers for on-demand platforms, are not paid a wage and instead make money per delivery.
Because Instacart requires careful coordination of grocery orders in-store, it has hired more than 12,000 in-store “shoppers” who work just under 30 hours a week at a fixed wage, which is under the threshold that would require Instacart provide benefits like health care, Motherboard reported. Still, thanks to labor laws, Instacart is required to classify these workers as part-time employees, instead of contract workers, due to the nature of their work and the fact that Instacart exerts control over the number of hours per week they work. That, in turn, has made those specific Instacart workers eligible to unionize.
This past weekend, a group of 15 did just that by coordinating with the local UFCW chapter and overcoming an anti-union campaign Instacart waged by sending managers to the grocery store, Mariano’s, where the workers packed up orders. “The workers remained united throughout the organizing campaign despite being subjected to their company’s anti-union stance,” Bob O’Toole, the UFCW Local 1546 president, said in a press statement. “We look forward to this opportunity to work with our new Instacart members in negotiating their first union contract.”
According to the UFCW, the Instacart workers now plan to begin working on a collective bargaining agreement that will be negotiated with corporate management, with the aim of improving items like access to health care, hourly wages, and time off, among others.
“Instacart cares deeply about all members of our community, which includes in-store shoppers who are part-time employees,” an Instacart spokesperson told The Verge in a statement. “We will always support employee freedom and choice, and we respect our employees’ rights to explore unionization.” The spokesperson says Instacart “will honor the outcome of this election,” and the company will negotiate a contract “in good faith.”
Unionization and broader labor activism have become hot-button topics throughout the tech industry over the past few years, both within the ranks of full-time employees at high-profile institutions like Google and among the contracts workforces of the industry’s most successful on-demand platforms. Amazon, Google (as well as YouTube), Kickstarter, Tesla, and numerous other companies have aggressively pushed back against efforts from full-time workers to unionize, in some cases refusing to voluntarily recognize unions and participating in anti-union and union-busting activities.
But the situation is slightly more promising in the gig economy workforce, which is composed of much more vulnerable workers and has a much broader groundswell of support from activists and politicians. Numerous laws around the country, most notably the controversial California AB5 bill, have put pressure on companies that rely on contract workers, like Uber and DoorDash and others, to classify those people as full-time employees.
Uber and other on-demand companies are currently fighting the California law, but the general attitude around unionization and worker protections has shifted significantly of late. Labor actions like those of the Instacart employees in Skokie signal that pro-worker movements within the tech industry will likely only intensify. Kickstarter, which has fought its employees’ decision to unionize for nearly a year now, would become the first tech company with an employee union if its election with the National Labor Review Board results in a yes vote to unionize. According to Motherboard, the results of that vote will be counted next month.