Over the past year, delivery riders working for U.K.’s largest fast food delivery company, Deliveroo, have taken effective industrial action, giving lessons on how to organize in the gig economy.
On August 11 last year, London-based Deliveroo drivers received a text message from their employer announcing a change in pay structure from an hourly rate to a pay-per-delivery model. Unhappy about a potential loss of earnings and increased precarity, angry Deliveroo drivers gathered outside the company’s London headquarters to protest. Bosses maintained this new contract offered increased flexibility and opportunity to boost wages, but due to the over-employment typical of gig economy companies, workers feared they could end up earning less than half the National Living Wage (the U.K. minimum wage for workers 25 or over). Defiant in the face of threats of immediate dismissal, workers embarked upon a six-day wildcat strike. Demonstrations and strategic picketing hurt company profits and drew media and government scrutiny. Eventually, Deliveroo gave in to the workers’ demands and there was no change in contract and assurances were made not to victimize strikers.
This victory represented an important moment for grassroots unionism in the fight against increasingly precarious employment associated with gig economy companies like Deliveroo, where workplace organizing was seen as inherently difficult. In the gig economy, labour is performed as part of a flexible independent contract as opposed to traditional fixed-hours employment, so companies like Deliveroo view their workers as self-employed freelancers. Operating a platform capitalist model, similar to private car-hire company Uber, Deliveroo manages its employees via an algorithm through an online app. Workers log in and are offered individual delivery jobs as they become available. Deliveroo maintains this model offers flexibility while workers have complained of low pay, high entry costs (Deliveroo drivers have to provide their own vehicle and pay for upfront for their uniform and branded equipment), and a lack of employment rights such as collective bargaining, all contributing to increasing workplace precarity. Unsurprisingly, workers could not look to the pro-business government for support. The ruling Conservative Party has welcomed these “unicorn” tech companies as “innovators,” able to provide jobs in the modern economy, helping bring U.K. unemployment figures to a 10-year low.
Communication and action
These conditions had originally made workplace organizing difficult for Deliveroo workers, but the events in London showed there was opportunity. The absence of a central workplace made conversations between workers difficult — as opposed to traditional factory-floor organizing — but this also meant workers could talk freely when they did get opportunities to interact while waiting to pick up deliveries outside restaurants. These conversations turned into a Whatsapp group, where workers could share information and organize quickly. Furthermore, as workers were classed as self-employed, this meant they were not bound by labour laws meaning they could bypass time-consuming ballot actions and organize strikes at short notice.
These organizational tactics were later used by Deliveroo workers in the south-coast city of Brighton who were able to mobilize a wildcat strike over low pay. Brighton Deliveroo had already been operating a pay-per-delivery model offering £4 (about $6.58 Canadian) per drop and no hourly rate (Deliveroo operates like a franchise and sets different terms in each area). Workers were originally content with this offer but a recruitment drive (Deliveroo can hire unlimited workers at no extra cost) saw drops become scarce and pay rates plummeted. Workers were able to force Deliveroo to freeze recruitment but are still in an ongoing battle to earn a guaranteed living wage. Over the past year, workers in Leeds, Bristol and Manchester have also launched grassroots action using similar methods of communicating and organizing critical mass protests (riding through the city on their bikes) to public and media support.
This campaign has now escalated from the streets and into the courtrooms. Pressure from the Parliamentary Left has resulted in Deliveroo currently facing an investigation from the Central Arbitration Committee as to whether it can legally claim its employees are self-employed. Furthermore, Deliveroo is also facing a legal challenge from a group of 20 workers demanding improved conditions.
Although this campaign started as a spontaneous grassroots movement, it has received valuable support from a resurgent British Left along the way. Many Deliveroo workers have unionized with the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), which has been able offer tactical and legal support. IWGB formed in 2012 as part of a new wave of small independent worker-led unions formed in response to the failures of large traditional trade unions to represent low-paid, precarious and (mostly) migrant workers. They take inspiration from the Industrial Workers of the World and encourage wildcat strikes and occupations and, despite struggling for recognition from employers, have been largely effective so far. Deliveroo strikers also received support from radical Left group Plan C, whose members (some of whom were Deliveroo workers) offered tactical assistance and consciousness-raising by producing the Rebel Roo workers’ bulletin.
The struggle for a living wage continues and Deliveroo has fought back by firing key organizers (although it didn’t technically fire its “selfemployed” workers, they become “deactivated”), but the campaign has undeniably set an important precedent in fighting back under adversarial conditions. This campaign has shown that the wider Left needs to be in-tune to the modern workplace in order to develop new tactics to organize. This campaign has also given confidence to low-paid, precarious workers who had been forgotten and has helped create a new political culture of workplace solidarity. Since this campaign started last year, there have been similar strike action from workers in precarious employment at rival company UberEats, as well as outsourced cleaners and even McDonald’s workers recently went on strike in the U.K. for the first time ever.
This movement comes at a time when real wages have fallen by over 10 per cent in the last 10 years and poverty and homelessness are ever increasing. It is likely the U.K. will have a socialist Prime Minister after the next election, but until that time comes, it is important to keep building worker solidarity suitable for the ever-adapting workplace.
Any donations to the Deliveroo strike fund would be very much appreciated. Go to: crowdpac.co.uk/campaigns/47/the-deliveroostrike.
Paul Williams is an independent journalist specializing in political economy. He contributes to Novara and Jacobin and is a member of Brighton Plan C.
This article appeared in the Autumn-Winter 2017 issue of Canadian Dimension (The ‘Sharing Economy’).