This summer Deliveroo riders in London went on a landmark wildcat strike in response to the sudden imposition of new contracts. At 10am on 10 August Deliveroo sent an email to its ‘contractors’: accept the new pay-per-delivery pay structure, it read, or you will be ‘unassigned’. The riders immediately started organising, and at 5pm the same day a group of them assembled to protest outside the London Deliveroo HQ.
A few weeks later some London UberEats workers mounted a strike under similar circumstances: from a starting point of £20 per hour the food delivery arm of Uber had consistently slashed wages until it reached just £3.30 per delivery, and drivers originally attracted by the competitive wages found themselves struggling to earn even the national minimum.
As we speed towards the inevitable ubiquity of digital platforms and ‘peer-to-peer’ servicing we need to recognise that soon all of us could be ‘independent contractors’ carelessly freelancing at the provide-side of an app – and that the attacks on workers’ rights made thus far by the big dogs of the digital platform economy are a sign of things to come. We need to establish the options at hand to protect workers in the so-called ‘gig economy’ and in doing so protect our wages, our working rights, and the fair distribution of the wealth we create.
The union option.
To illustrate the options digital platform workers have with traditional industrial action we can take three case studies.
First, the Deliveroo riders who organised themselves and were then reached out to by the couriers and logistics branch of the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB is a young union founded by members of Unite and Unison frustrated with undemocratic exclusion).
Second, the UberEats contractors who followed the Deliveroo riders’ action a few weeks later, in collaboration with IWGB and its sister union United Voices of the World (UVW is another young union predominantly comprised of migrant workers).
Third, the App-Based Drivers Association (ABDA), a self-formed group of Uber drivers in Seattle who contacted union behemoth Teamsters 117 and have achieved ground-breaking legislation for the right to organise and have maintained an average Uber taxi rate nearly double that of the rest of the US.
1. Worker organisation.
Dawn Gearhart, representative of the ABDA at Teamsters 117 in Seattle, credits the successes won by their contractor/union collaboration to a highly organised core team of drivers. She attributes this partly to previous successes from industrial action that have instilled confidence in the workers, and the strong core of east and west African refugees who make up the association and are able to use strong communication links at a community level as well as within the group itself. The wildcat organisation of Deliveroo and UberEats drivers in London, who began establishing links through messaging apps, meeting points and by stopping each other on the street, is also credited to smart and eager organisation at a worker level.
London UberEats drivers won no concessions and Deliveroo contractors a conciliatory but insubstantial ‘trial period’ offering after their strikes; Seattle ABDA has won battles against Uber and remains a strong organisation. Margaret Dewhurst, chair of the couriers and logistics branch, comments that Deliveroo riders in north London and IWGB have maintained and are strengthening ties but that their links with UberEats drivers are failing because of a high turnover and the disparate organisation of the drivers. Success correlates to the degree of worker organisation, and therefore this must be the primary concern moving forward in the industrial organisation of digital platform ‘contractors’.
2. Union links.
The Deliveroo contractors arrived at HQ to protest without having notified the press, and without concrete demands. The IWGB stepped in and helped focus the productive anger of the workers, and continues to work to unionise and organise Deliveroo drivers in north London.
The Teamsters form one of the biggest and oldest unions in the USA – costs not met by ABDA are absorbed by the 1.6m union members whose in-house legal team and communications department play a strong collaborative role with ABDA. Uber – internationally – refuses to bargain collectively (Deliveroo tried this tactic in London), and thus the victories won by the ABDA have been won by changing laws, not in-house working conditions: this would be impossible without the support of a massive union.
Both groups of ‘contractors’ have benefited from responsive unions – but why is the small IWGB bearing the brunt of the organisation in the UK? Where is GMB? Dewhurst suggests that perhaps the big unions are scared of ‘union red tape’. They must be aware of the need for solidarity both in the more abstract sense of defending workers against the sustained attack by digital platforms on workers’ rights, and more specifically as digital platform businesses encroach into all sectors – a lesson the grocery workers represented by Teamsters 117 learned when Uber started delivering groceries in their area.
The cooperative option.
Platform cooperativism is the utopian response to digital platform businesses: the basic ethos is to take the pioneering platform technology and cut out the wealth extractor. On an average order of £20, Deliveroo takes 25% from the restaurant and £2.50 from the customer – making Deliveroo’s cut double that of the contractor. Instead of unionising and fighting for workers’ rights within digital platform businesses, proponents of platform cooperativism argue that workers’ rights in the digital age are best defended by cooperatives.
The implementation of digital platform cooperatives can come about in a number of ways. The first and crudest option is to purchase a ready-made clone app which mirrors the peer-to-peer framework of apps like Uber (available online for around £1k) or contact a company which could write a tailor-made app appropriate to a given service (Juggernaught quotes around £50k). More thorough pioneers, such as ride-sharing cooperative La’Zooz or music cooperative Resonate, have decided to develop their own programs from which to operate their cooperatives. Of course, this requires tech know-how and either willing contributors or a lot of cash (Resonate expects a $5 contribution from each member, who is also part-owner; as such the cooperative equates its predicted start-up cost of $350k with 70,000 members).
Because of these factors digital cooperativism as a solution hovers somewhere in the future (unless we wait out for an altruistic investor). But realising digital platform cooperatives isn’t as farfetched as you might imagine. In the UK, Labour’s digital democracy manifesto has put aside a portion of its proposed national investment bank to fund the development of digital platform cooperatives. Furthermore, it only takes a few willing groups to develop the proper framework before the technology can be rolled out en masse. Resonate has pledged to make its framework available to other cooperatives which may need it; indeed, the goal of platform development groups like Backfeed is to make digital cooperative platforms deployable “in the same way that websites are today.”
The most exciting part of digital cooperativism is the blockchain. The blockchain is an indelible public ledger which among other things can be used for record keeping, decision making and to reward contributions according to their relative value. It is to digital cooperativism what David Attenborough is to BBC nature documentaries.
Because it is public and indelible, the blockchain is trustworthy. Cooperatives have always been limited in their application because to operate they need trust, and for trust they need to be local. For this reason unions have been a more effective tool for workers, as the effect of a single union can be felt by workers everywhere (thanks to ABDA and Teamsters 117 all taxi drivers in Seattle now have the right to unionise). But now there is a way to make cooperative management and reward allocation totally trustable on a potentially unlimited scale.
Backfeed imagines hundreds of thousands of users contributing to the same blockchain, strangers who are able to trust the central organising protocol and who are equally rewarded in direct proportion to the value added by their contribution. La’Zooz (the ride-sharing platform) rewards contribution by mile; a food delivery service could apply the very same protocol to measure deliveries, hours worked, or time spent in a management capacity.
Using the principle of unlimited scalability combined with freely-available platforms upon which to found new cooperatives, blockchain-managed digital platform cooperatives have the potential to grow even more rapidly and have even more influence than modern monoliths like Uber. IWGB is able to work with Deliveroo riders in north London, Teamsters 117 operate in Seattle – imagine a worker-owned Deliveroo which can be transplanted instantly to any city in the world.
Platform cooperativism is a tasty dream of things to come, and its utopian possibilities are just that: possibilities. Take a visit to the La’Zooz website and you are charmed with the colourful tech-hope and bold promises of an egalitarian world. Scroll down and you are confronted with an empty ‘total rides mined’ counter and the blank world map of community members. Prominent theorists of platform cooperativism such as Trebor Scholz argue we are just around the corner from a sort of tipping point, after which we fall down a cooperatively-dug rabbit hole into international workers’ equality. But when will that point come? We can all help by subscribing to digital platform cooperatives and choosing their services: you are the cooperative!
But for today we must take lessons from IWGB and Teamsters 117, from the productive anger of wildcat Deliveroo riders and the highly organised ABDA. We need solidarity from big unions to absorb organisational and legal costs associated with taking on modern giants like Uber and Deliveroo. We need highly organised workers who are willing to take the time – and risk their jobs – to re-establish legal precedents for workers’ rights in the digital platform age.
IWGB has organised a public meeting on 8 November about workers’ organisation in the food delivery sector in London. For more information on this topic, or to show solidarity, please check the event page.