Sunday May 31

EXCERPT FROM Riding for Deliveroo: Resistance in the New Economy: Deliveroo Workers Strike in Brighton

At the meeting, six reps were elected to lead the organizing effort. I was one of them. We had an idea of what to do next. We’d start small, getting a membership database together and setting up a union WhatsApp chat. After recruiting a few more people, we would start some action, building slowly. Our idea was to all stop wearing the uniform. We’d cover over the logos on our box and take their branding hostage. Then, maybe, we could think about calling a demonstration. We were going to take it very slow.

The rest of the workforce had a different idea. Brazilian moped riders who’d heard that a meeting had been held and a union branch formed decided that the pace needed to be forced. Their WhatsApp group chat was the origin point of calls for strike action on the first Saturday evening in February. When the message started getting out there into other chats and being discussed at the zone centre, other riders seemed to agree that action had to be taken soon. There was no time to waste. Before long, details were being communicated back and forth, and the strike was gradually endorsed by more and more of the workforce. A strike committee of union and non-union cyclists and moped riders was established, which would meet a few days beforehand to plan things. The nascent union backed the strike as soon as we heard about it. The whole thing was kept secret: Deliveroo wouldn’t know anything until the app came crashing down.

There was only one problem: I was going to be away. I had a family commitment which meant I was going to miss the strike completely. I’d have to keep up with everything via WhatsApp and Twitter on the train home. I was gutted to miss it. It was all anyone was talking about.

The day came, and over 100 workers met at Jubilee Square. I saw photos of the zone centre more packed than ever before. There was no space, just mopeds and bicycles everywhere. IWGB officials, including the general secretary Jason Moyer-Lee, came down from London to support the strike. Along with the reps, they began to hold an exceptional general meeting of the branch to set our demands. After just half an hour, the app was in meltdown. Restaurant workers later told union reps that orders had been delivered 3 hours late, and that order volume had collapsed by over 50 per cent. Food was stacking up in the kitchens, and no one was turning up to deliver it. The emergency general meeting voted unanimously to unionize and make three demands of the company: (1) a pay rise to £5 a drop; (2) a hiring freeze; and (3) no victimization of union members. Deliveroo was given two weeks to respond.

After that vote, the strikers set off across the city in a giant convoy of mopeds and bikes.

After that first strike, everyone’s mood changed. Workers started to decorate their backpacks and boxes with huge motifs. They spent loads of effort on converting the Deliveroo logo into a modified poster with an angry, scratched-up Kangaroo-worker and the slogan ‘Deliveroo a living wage’. We took back the advertising space for ourselves. Conversations at the zone centre were buzzing with people telling stories about the strike. People like me who’d missed it were hanging on every word.

Deliveroo’s immediate response was to send down managers to set up one-on-one meetings at a chain cafe which overlooked the zone centre. Some workers booked sessions to discuss the demands of the strike. I didn’t bother because I felt like they wouldn’t change anything unless they were forced to negotiate, and, anyway, I was at work during the day. It seemed like the only purpose of the whole thing was to diffuse the anger directed at the platform. Some riders took in a laundry list of complaints and got hardly any concessions. A few union reps attended together in an attempt to convert the discussion into collective bargaining, but the Deliveroo representatives refused.

It wasn’t just Brighton workers who were excited by the strike. Workers in Leeds who had been organizing with the IWW took heart from our example. They had begun organizing in similar conditions to us, as their pay declined. They were an hourly paid zone, and many of them were facing cuts to their regular hours week-on-week. In December, rumors of a move to a full piece rate had led to a concerted effort to organize.

They built a union base of around thirty workers. Then things started to go wrong. Two of the main union organizers in the city had their contracts terminated, and five more organizers had their fixed hours cut even further. However, they didn’t give up. They launched a campaign of strikes and demonstrations demanding the changes were reversed. As a result, the terminated organizers were given their jobs back, and the rest had their hours returned to normal. The local manager moved on to become the area manager for York.

In this context of increasing national pressure, the IWGB in Brighton organized a number of ‘Ride with Us’ demonstrations. These demos all stuck to a similar pattern. Workers and supporters rode around some of the most popular restaurants in the city. At each stop, we’d have a speech outside, block the road for a bit, and send a delegation in to try to get the restaurants to sign up to support our demands. This only really worked when we talked to regular workers rather than supervisors, but it was good to have pressure on the supply chain as well as on Deliveroo. If their restaurant partners started giving them grief about their workplaces being disrupted, that gave us more leverage.

One of my good mates came along to support one of these demonstrations on one of the worst bikes I’ve ever seen. It was a huge steel Dutch style bike, designed for a country with no hills. It was shared between his housemates, and they took turns using it to get to work without paying for the bus. They were all skint and didn’t have the money to get it repaired, so the chain was basically one long piece of rust. It would fall off at regular intervals, whenever he went over a speed bump. It had a big woven shopping basket on the front, into which he had strapped two big flags. He looked like a muppet, but it was good to have him there. We met at the zone centre, then set off on a tour of the city. Someone set off a smoke flare as we were climbing up Trafalgar Street towards the station, and the burning embers landed on my bare arm. I had a flag in my other hand, so I couldn’t brush them off, I just had to grunt and wobble my way up the street whilst my skin sizzled. The demo wound around the south Laines, before turning back and heading towards where we started. I was part of the delegation of workers that went into a posh restaurant. The orders from there nearly always went up a massive hill into Hove, delivering to quite fancy family homes. They had a habit of making you wait in the underground parking garage that connected to their kitchen for anything from 5 to 45 minutes. Those waits meant we lost out on orders, and during a peak period could totally sabotage your earnings for the whole night. All in all, it wasn’t my favorite restaurant. As we went in, we were met by a panicked supervisor.

He hurried over to us, looking like he thought we were about to start breaking things. When I tried to explain what we were doing, his mood changed. We wanted something from him. He looked like he enjoyed saying no. I lost my patience, and more or less told him to shove it. We must have made that restaurant tens of thousands of pounds, if not more, by lugging their food across the city whilst being exploited to the hilt. For months, this loser had seen groups of workers gathered outside the door in the freezing cold because they had no work. And now, when we finally came to them and asked for them to just put their name on a piece of paper – that was too much. We were learning that even ‘independent’, ‘local’, and ‘authentic’ businesses were still businesses. Their supervisors and bosses still valued a close relationship with Deliveroo over the conditions of the people who worked for them. A hipster burger restaurant responded in exactly the same way, and another rider lost his rag at them.

The final big demonstration we held during my time at Deliveroo was ‘Precarious Mayday.’ It happened in the middle of the snap general election campaign. Theresa May and the Tories thought they were on their way to wiping the floor with [Jeremy} Corbyn’s Labour. After all, they called the election when they were twenty percent ahead in the polls. In fact, they were in the process of making a historic mistake. The idea behind the demo was to bring together students and workers to make a bigger political point about how work wasn’t just bad for Deliveroo riders, it was bad for everyone. Given the context of the election, it seemed like people would be listening. The three main blocks were Deliveroo riders, precarious academic workers, and supermarket shelf-stackers. It was a pretty broad coalition, with everyone from a soon-to-be Labour MP to anarchists making up the numbers.

A few weeks later, I was in my mate with the terrible bike’s living room. We were watching the election results. As soon as the exit poll came out, we were in a state of shock. It looked like the Tories were going to lose their majority. I went to the nearest Co-op and bought a load of extra booze. The newly left-wing Labour party, who were meant to be headed for total disaster, had actually increased their vote share by 10 per cent.

CALLUM CANT is an activist, writer, and sometimes Deliveroo driver, but less so now as a PhD student in a London University. He is also an member of the ACORN Tenants Union in Brighton, England.

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