How Bristol couriers struck on 4 October

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A Bristol courier activist spoke to the Clarion about the two-hour courier strike as part of the fast food workers’ day of action on 4 October.

Nationally how this came about is that there have been various strikes by gig economy workers in the last two and a half years, in Deliveroo, Uber Eats, Uber, and other smaller companies as well. How this one came about is that just over a week ago in London, Uber Eats riders were handed a 40% pay cut, which resulted in wild cat strikes across the city, with hundreds of riders assembling at the Uber headquarters in East London.

Since then the protests and strikes have continued. Before that, there had been strikes over pay with Uber Eats in Glasgow, Cardiff and elsewhere. These networks of couriers have been in communication with each other, partly through the IWW and to some extent through the IWGB. This meant that it was possible to co-ordinate nationally across different cities, and it was proposed to hold co-ordinated strike action on 4 October, as this would coincide with the already organised strikes of workers in McDonalds, Weatherspoons and TGI Fridays.

There had previously been strikes in Bristol over issues such as “boosts” for Uber Eats workers, over withheld pay, as well as over unpaid work. “Boosts” refers to variable pay depending on when and where drops are. There had been informal organising going on with riders in the city, and in particular the motorcyclists tend to be most organised. A few of us, perhaps three to four, had been wanting to co-ordinate and network riders better, so that we would have power to make bigger demands. People were invited by whatsapp groups, text, word of mouth and so on, to a meeting over planning action on 4 October.

At the meeting of six or seven riders – some cyclists, some motorcyclists – we decided that at the very least we would try to do a one- to two-hour strike, not necessarily aiming to cause major disruption, but to demonstrate to Deliveroo and Uber Eats that disruption could spread to Bristol. We were also aiming by doing this to build the network of riders, in order to build solidarity and unity. We planned to talk to as many riders as possible before the day, to gather numbers and gauge levels of interest. We also had the help of supporters who also talked to riders and went to restaurants, as well as riders spreading the word themselves.

The day before and on the day, a tactic used by riders in Brighton and London, I think originating in Paris, was to ask restaurants to turn off their app in the time of the strike. This meant that even if people were strike-breaking, it wouldn’t be possible for them to take orders. This was quite successful: the day before, 136 restaurants were taking orders, and in the hours of the strike only 21-3 restaurants were. A lot of asking restaurants to turn off their app was done by supporters.

What are the demands and aims?

There are five demands. The first is £5 per drop. For Deliveroo it is currently £3.90 per drop plus a distance fee, for uber eats it is £2.80 plus boost payment. The second demand is a hiring freeze, because both companies over-hire riders, which means there are not enough deliveries to go around for the couriers. We also demand paid waiting time, as currently we do not get paid for the time we are waiting in restaurants to collect orders. We are demanding this in line with the £10 per hour demand that McDonald’s workers are making, or roughly 17 pence per minute. Fourthly, more transparency in the app, both on how active the app is – the level of demand at any given point – as well as our pay structure.  Finally, no victimisation for any riders taking action.

How did it go on 4 October?

It was a really big and pleasant surprise. Supporters and riders gathered around a central McDonalds restaurant, both because it is central and because it is a key restaurant for Uber Eats. Speeches were given on why we were gathering and what the demands were, as well as support speeches from the local trades council and more. Both cyclists and motorcyclists talked about their work and demands. After that we held a “flying picket” or demonstration through the city to a Wagamamas in another part of town. Motorcyclists, riders and supporters took over the street, making a lot of noise and blocked a lot of traffic. We had a lot of support from people in the streets. There were around 150 riders and supporters on the demonstration.

What has the response been by the public, by couriers, and by fast food workers?

It is still quite hard to gauge. There have been some local news reports and there are plans for national reports on the strike. Support has been really positive for couriers, and also from other workers in the fast-food industry. When supporters were letting restaurants know about the strike, workers were very supportive and understanding, and sometimes even managers and owners were. A lot of couriers have come out of it feeling very energised and feeling that it is something new. There’s also an understanding of how difficult it will be to win some of these demands. Talking to some motorcyclists they generally want to win demands as immediately as possible, so I think how the next immediate period plays out in terms of the response from Deliveroo and Uber will set the tone for how riders feel about the strike.

What are the next steps?

To continue talking to riders about what demands they want to make and what steps they want to take next, and to call a meeting where this is decided. Riders have already agreed that they want to take further strike action, but the question now is when, for what, and how we should do it.

Can you tell me about any specific difficulties and opportunities that you think organising in the so-called “gig economy” brings?

In terms of the difficulties of organising in gig economy work, there is an issue of geography at least with courier riders. We aren’t in the same building, and so it can be very difficult to talk to each other, get to know each other and build that collectivity. Secondly, there is an issue – which is found in all precarious work, but I think especially in the gig economy – of very high turn-over. When deliveroo hires new riders, about 75% of them stop working within the first six months. Thirdly, it is difficult to know the density that you have on the strike. There is no easy way of judging the number of deliveroo riders. My guess is that one or two thousand have the app in Bristol, and perhaps five or six hundred actively working. Another barrier is the flexibility, in that people don’t see it as their main type of work, there are a lot of riders who don’t care so much how good or bad the pay is, compared to for example full-time riders. In terms of advantages, we have self-employed status, and so if we take strike-action, we don’t need to ballot to do so, so we side-step all of the trade union laws which normally restrict workers in terms of what action they take. Because of this, different types of strikes are possible, such as solidarity strikes and co-ordinating with workers in the fast-food industry.

How does this relate to similar struggles by couriers and fast food workers internationally?

I wouldn’t know about fast-food workers internationally, but there have been courier strikes by food-platform couriers in many countries, including Spain, France, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Hong Kong. It is positive and really important that these strikes and mobilisations have been happening in different countries, because in order to leverage enough power to make significant changes and fight back against the gig economy and precarious work, it will probably require co-ordinated transnational strike action. These strikes are really important in that when they are coordinated with fast-food workers, it means that we are organising industrially in fast-food work. This means we have more power and are more likely to win than if we were striking on different days.

It seems like quite a lot of couriers are migrant workers. How has this affected the dynamics of your campaign?

The weirdest division we have is actually depending on vehicles, so that cyclists and motorcyclists don’t tend to talk each other that much. This is emphasised by national divisions, because the majority of motorcyclists come from Brazil, whereas cyclists tend to be from the UK, but there are also some from central and eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America. This means that riders and workers tend to group themselves in terms of nationality and language. A lot of Spanish-speaking riders talk to each other and are friends. These are divisions, but also these different groupings tend to provide opportunities to bring people in, because there is already trust built between different workers. This means that once a couple of workers from that cell or grouping are on board, then it tends to mean that other workers from that grouping come on board as well. These national groupings mean that riders are informally organised already.

Have you had much support from the Labour party, Momentum and the wider labour movement?

Individuals in the Labour Party and Momentum came out to support on the day, and the Bristol West Labour Party yesterday raised over £150 for a strike fund for couriers, which has been really positive.

On the day of the rally, unions such as UNITE, PCS and the IWW came out in support, and this support was also seen in other cities.

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