Couriers: building a new movement

Submitted by AWL on 13 February, 2019 - 11:15

Deliveroo couriers are due to strike again on 14 February, for demands including a minimum payment of £5 per drop, paid waiting times of £10/hour, and more. An activist involved in the Couriers and Logistics branch of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) spoke to Solidarity about the strike.

Deliveroo couriers in a number of cities are planning further strikes on 14 February. Bristol is the flagship city for the strike, where couriers are best organised, and have lots of action planned that’ll be revealed on the strike day itself.

Organisation in London is a bit weaker. There was strike action in London 1 February, but things have receded a bit in the period since, so worker-organisers in London are focusing on doing some proper ground work to build things back up. In part the setback has been a consequence of people feeling deflated about having struck but not made any immediate gains. There is couriers’ organisation in other cities, including Birmingham, Cardiff, Cheltenham, and Horsham, with possibilities for strikes there.

Individual couriers, often representing larger groups, have tended to approach the union at the point where they’re ready to go on strike. The fundamental organisation is done organically, “in the workplace”, and then workers contact a union as a mechanism for taking action. In Nottingham, there were over 100 couriers ready to strike at the point the union was approached. We now need to turn that into sustained, ongoing organisation. Conversations I have with workers are about saying: this isn’t just about one strike, it’s about building a movement, spreading solidarity across the country, and preparing for an ongoing struggle.

That’s not to say that we don’t need a sense of urgency, or a sense of wanting to win. When couriers approach the union, their aim isn’t to have a strike for the sake of it, it’s to make material gains. The traditional trade union movement might congratulate itself just for organising a successful action, regardless of whether or not it gets any results. This isn’t about that; we want to win. In terms of organisation, I’d still be cautious about calling these strikes “IWGB actions”, as such. We don’t want to take credit for things we haven’t organised. But it is increasingly the case that leading worker-organisers are joining the IWGB.

We’re attempting to coordinate as much as possible with the Industrial Workers of the World’s courier network, and have largely managed to complement each other so far. The demands are still focused around pay, and aren’t yet taking on bigger questions around employment status [moving from being categorised as “independent contractors” to being categorised as workers]. In part that’s because it’s much easier to demand more money than a big contractual change in your legal status. However, many IWGB members in particular are very passionate about getting worker status, and have joined the IWGB precisely because of that, often because they’ve seen the work IWGB has done in other sectors around those questions.

The IWGB does a good job of framing the rights that come with worker status as rights we should be entitled to anyway but are being robbed of. Deliveroo spreads a lot of misinformation about what worker status would mean, so a lot of workers are still sceptical about it. To me, that restates the case for a consistent work of on-theground organising, and having conversations that are about more than just “what time are we striking? Where are we meeting?”. Starting to look at the big questions around what we’re fighting for.

Deliveroo: strikes again on 14 February

An activist involved in the Bristol Couriers Network, affiliated with the Independent Workers’ union of Great Britain (IWGB), spoke to Solidarity about the Deliveroo dispute and the next strike planned for 14 February.

The number of riders striking has increased with each action so we’re expecting a good turnout on Thursday. In Bristol, we’re trying out some new tactics this time. We’ve called a “flash strike”, meaning the time of the strike will only be announced on the day itself. This is definitely an experiment for us and will be a test of our organisation. In Bristol, we built up our organisation by having regular meetings of committed organisers and recruiting as many couriers as possible into a Bristol-wide network.

We used every action to identify and recruit more organisers and build capacity. Launching a formally organised committee, where people had designated roles, was very important, as this helped solidify our organisation and give it some permanence between actions. Social media and press were also very important in reaching out to other riders and putting pressure on Deliveroo.

Our social media presence in particular is what’s allowed couriers in other cities to connect with us when they’ve been looking to organise their own actions. Our charter of demands is a work-in-progress. If someone suggests an additional demand, that’ll be discussed at a meeting and voted on. If it passes, it’ll be added to the list.

The question of worker status is still contentious among gig economy couriers. I think it’s something we should have, but I wouldn’t advocate adding it to our demands until further down the line. I see us building up our organisation and confidence with successful struggles over immediate pay and conditions, and then using that organisation to raise demands around employment status at a later stage. The immediate next step after the 14th will be recruiting more organisers. We’ll advertise our next meeting during the strike, and use the action to consolidate the network.

Our strike fund is growing, with over £1,200 in donations so far, but we need more. The fund will be crucial going forwards, to allow people who can’t afford to strike to do so. If it takes sustained strikes – all-day strikes, rather than strikes of a few hours, or strikes of two, three, or more days – to bring Deliveroo to the table, we need to be in a position to finance that. So we need to bolster our strike fund significantly before we’re in a position to support workers in taking that kind of action.

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