Bristol couriers working for the meal-delivery company Deliveroo have voted to strike again on Friday 1 February, this time to be joined by couriers from at least four other cities.
Like many courier companies, Deliveroo falsely categorise us as “self-employed independent contractors”, so depriving us of any workers’ rights, and paying us only per order with no hourly minimum.
The net weekly pay has steadily reduced over the last six months or so. We have been demanding higher pay and a hiring freeze (full demands at bit.ly/demandsBC).
Bristol previously struck on 4 October alongside couriers and fast food workers in various cities, spontaneously in December following an unproductive meeting with management, and again on 18 January. Each strike caused significant disruption, and we “flash-occupied” four restaurants in the most recent one. We expect more couriers to come out for this strike than the last one in Bristol, and on Monday 28 January, 50 Deliveroo couriers struck in Birmingham.
The current campaign in Deliveroo goes back to 4 October 2018, when fast-food workers planned strike action around the same time in Chile, Colombia, the US, Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Philippines, Japan and the UK. In London UberEats couriers and workers at Wetherspoons, McDonald’s and TGI Fridays struck, with some UberEats couriers and Uber drivers occupying Uber’s headquarters.
The couriers and drivers organised through and were supported by the IWGB and IWW unions, and the workers in the restaurants through BFAWU, the bakers’ union. Restaurant workers also struck in various outlets outside of London. IWW had called for a national strike, and couriers struck or protested in London, Bristol, Brighton, Newcastle, Plymouth, Southampton, Glasgow and Cardiff.
While many couriers work for both UberEats and Deliveroo, in Bristol Deliveroo dominates, and our Bristol action had enough impact that we had the highest “boosts” to our pay per delivery in the country for a month. Nationally, there was no planned follow-up to those courier strikes. But in Bristol, the “Bristol Couriers’ Network” was born.
Our main way of reaching out to other riders is through talking to them in restaurants – then giving them leaflets and taking their contact details – plus existing communication channels between couriers. Riders frequently come together at certain key restaurants, while waiting for food. Even though you may only see one or two riders in every second or third restaurant, and may only have the chance to talk to them for five minutes, that builds up. (In Bristol, anyway: it’s harder in London.) Even a small number of initial organisers can talk to a large number of people over a few days, while working, and without having management looking over our shoulders.
Our categorisation as “self-employed” deprives us of many workers’ rights, but it also means we aren’t shackled by the UK’s anti-union laws. The law does not oblige us to meet any particular quota of workers completing postal ballots in order to strike, or bar us from picketing and briefly occupying restaurants. Then again, we have few legal protections against being “terminated” i.e. sacked. This has sometimes made building the confidence of couriers to stand up to Deliveroo more difficult. Likewise, the low pay makes many reluctant to strike.
In many workplaces, longstanding unions are conservative or defeatist, with union bureaucrats damping and delaying action, making many union members feeling demoralised. The challenges we’ve faced are different – we’re building workplace organisation and recruiting union members more-or-less from the ground up.
On 23 January we voted to affiliate to the IWGB, a union founded in 2012, largely comprising lowpaid migrant workers. They have experience winning against various courier companies in London, and are very supportive. A growing number of couriers in Bristol have joined.
The diversity of the workforce, with a large proportion being migrants, has I believe been very beneficial to our campaign so far. Many migrants come from countries with more culture of striking in recent decades than the UK. Many also have links among themselves which build tighter courier communities. Brazilian motorcyclists, for example, have good links among themselves, and have often turned out very well for strikes.
The flipside: language issues (we have done leaflets in English and Portuguese); and sometimes “tribalism”, motorcyclists or car couriers feeling themselves a different “tribe” from bike couriers, for example.
It is a very male-dominated workforce, particularly for cyclists. Among some cyclists there is a macho culture, a sense of pride and competitiveness in their ability to cycle fast and for long hours. A small number of riders will suggest that we aren’t cycling fast enough, and that if you do so the pay is good, and there are no problems.
But even if the pay was good – which it isn’t for most people – Deliveroo still pockets around £6 or more for every £4 they give us. Compared to some strikes, we’ve had a reasonable amount of positive media coverage, and support from the broader labour movement. But it could be much more.
More established unions and Labour party branches could mobilise significant numbers to support our demonstration. Crucially, they could powerfully organise contributions to our strike fund to support those who need it to strike.
We’ve raised almost £1,400 in just over two weeks – a good start and we’re very grateful to all the donors. But with several hundred couriers, it isn’t enough by a long way.