The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Couriers Network was formed in January 2018 to support precarious workers in the gig economy. The thinking behind the network was that it would be a loose structure that could unite couriers as workers without them having to formally join the IWW and pay union dues. As these workers were classed as “self-employed” and would not get the normal benefits of union membership – such as individual representation or legal support to defend employment rights – this seemed to us to be quite reasonable.
Obviously any courier was free to become a dues paying member should they choose but this was not a precondition for them to be involved. We did however encourage the leading rider-organisers to join the IWW which would enable them to build relationships with experienced organisers beyond the Couriers Network, take up training opportunities, claim back their organising expenses, etc.
From the IWW perspective the Couriers Network was about helping the most precarious of workers to self-organise, rather than about building union numbers and increasing union income. We hoped and intended that, by coming together to defend and promote their own interests and practising worker solidarity, couriers would learn the benefits of unions. Many riders were sceptical and suspicious of unions at the start. They had little knowledge of what unions were and seemed to envisage the union as a third party that would at best solve problems on their behalf, and at worst would interfere in their business and drag them into conflict. So this was about gaining trust, about assuring riders that they themselves were the union.
We were definite from the start about couriers taking the lead in the network and that IWW organisers (non-riders) would be there in a secondary role to give advice and support, and for the union itself to provide the necessary resources for the campaign. The idea was that the Couriers Network would be a loose and flexible association that reflected – and was responsive to – the nature of the gig economy itself.
Starting in Cardiff and then Glasgow, the Couriers Network made some real progress in a few short months and there was soon a network presence in several cities across the UK. We organised around grievances that were expressed by riders which were mainly low pay per drop, unpaid restaurant waiting times, health and safety – basic bread and butter issues – rather than the legal question of worker status. We found that few riders had any interest in worker status and that the majority of those who had an opinion wished to retain the perceived freedom of “self employment”. So for the Couriers Network, worker status was put on the back boiler as an issue.
With regard to working conditions, we found it very difficult to address issues as there were no bosses to deal with and the companies themselves refused to engage with us in any way. In many cities, there were also no Deliveroo or UberEats offices where we could make our presence felt.
As a union attempting to engage with an employer we found ourselves basically dealing with an app and with bot responses from hugely powerful multinational corporations with apparently limitless resources and an evident willingness at times to tell lies to the media in order to get away with their exploitative employment practices.
Unable to challenge or negotiate with bosses, we were forced to be as creative as we could. Some ideas were effective. The union challenged restaurants on waiting times and we were able to put direct pressure on those who made riders wait too long or who did not treat riders with respect. Riders confirmed to us that there were definite improvements in these areas.
Another tactic was controlling the narrative of events. When there were mass rider dismissals just before Christmas 2018 based on spurious allegations of riders stealing food we were successfully able to put Deliveroo on the back foot by getting the story in the press. We tried to follow this up with riders submitting Subject Access Requests demanding the information that had been used to dismiss them. As expected, SARs that were submitted did not produce any evidence of rider dishonesty. However we were unable to encourage more than a small fraction of dismissed riders to submit them. On the whole, dismissed riders came to the Couriers Network asking us to get them reinstated. They did not want to get involved in any campaign themselves – or even to submit SARs with the template we provided. While we sought to empower self-organisation, riders wanted the IWW to provide a service on their behalf.
Ultimately, our options as a union were limited by the nature of the gig economy. Riders sometimes seemed uninterested in improving their working conditions and could be hostile to local rider-organisers. The other side of this coin was that when riders did get riled up about working conditions they themselves would agitate strongly for strike action. Striking was always on the agenda due to an absence of other viable options. As organisers we often found ourselves either trying to persuade riders to consider if there were other ways of achieving their goals or hanging desperately to the tiger’s tail as they went into full strike mode.
The Fast Food Strike #FFS410 (TM IWW Couriers Network) was an action coordinated with other unions in the food industry. The IWW led, mobilised and facilitated a mass strike of an estimated 1000 riders in 10 UK cities. Against advice from organisers in other unions we insisted that couriers, as self employed workers, could withdraw their labour freely and that restrictive employment law regarding industrial action did not apply. As far as we were concerned, this was turning the logic of the gig economy against itself.
But on reflection the strikes themselves had an overall negative impact on the Couriers Network. For our few key IWW organisers – who also had day jobs – and for our key rider-organisers the Fast Food Strike was a huge ask, and several individuals experienced burnout and breakdown.
Numerous other strikes in individual cities over the course of 2018 and into 2019 notably followed a similar pattern. A first courier strike in any given city was generally successful with majority support from riders and mass demonstrations. Attempted follow up strikes were another matter entirely and were markedly less well supported by riders. As union organisers we had seen the strikes as a way to build solidarity and a sense of potential collective power over the medium to long term. We had not realised that riders expected immediate tangible results from strike action and we thus failed to inoculate them as we should have. There were a few cases of rider-organisers who led successful first strikes in their cities becoming demoralised and giving up organising when a follow up strike failed.
Where the Couriers Network worked best was where we had strong rider-organisers working closely with IWW organisers and branches. However, for different reasons, these relationships did not develop as well as we had hoped in more than a very few cities. In some, the branch was willing and able but there was little interest from couriers, and no rider-organisers came forward. It proved next to impossible for external IWW organisers to overcome distrust and to build relationships with riders without rider-organisers. In other cities we had agitated couriers and rider-organisers seeking IWW support but the local branch lacked capacity to give it.
Courier communities are generally tight. Rider-organisers needed to be respected by couriers otherwise there was widespread unwillingness to engage in constructive discussions and consider possibilities for collective action. Where this respect was lacking, rider-organisers were ignored or even abused by other couriers and it seemed that training and support from the IWW was not really able to overcome this problem.
One illustration of the insider/outside dynamic comes from the online chats which were a major organising platform for the Couriers Network. Occasionally, fairly dubious comments were made by couriers that were, for example, misogynistic or homophobic. These would generally be dealt with by the couriers themselves which is obviously ideal. However there was one instance of a particularly nasty sexualised image of a female Deliveroo executive being posted by a courier that was received positively by other riders within the group. An IWW organiser privately messaged the individual who had posted it to suggest that women riders in the group might feel uncomfortable with it. All hell then kicked off within this group with the lead riders doubling down on the image and portraying the IWW as outsiders interfering in their community – that someone had been privately messaged was itself portrayed as underhand. That was the end of the relationship between riders and the IWW in that city and we don’t think that rider organising progressed any further following that incident.
The Couriers Network is currently dormant. Riders across the UK seem to be increasingly pushing unions away and self-organising without external support that they often perceive as “3rd party”. The strikes that the Couriers Network organised were built fairly openly and publicly in order to maximise support and to make the strikes as effective as possible. Getting restaurants to switch off their apps proved to be an effective virtual picket line. But the new wave of self-organised strikes seem to be organised in secret, as surprise strikes – possibly to deter riders from nearby locations coming in to undermine the strike.
We have learned lessons from the Couriers Network campaign. One of the main takeaways is that there is no substitute for internal organisers. This is true in all campaigns, but particularly within tight knit communities such as courier workforces. External organisers are treated with suspicion and unless you are a paid organiser you don’t have the time to earn trust. We should have identified more leaders and leaned on them harder to become organisers, building a solid team as a foundation for the network. We should have got our bespoke courier organiser training ready at an earlier stage and ensured that it rolled out to as many branches of the network as possible to develop these organisers.
Couriers had little time to attend union meetings and most communication was in WhatsApp groups that could at times be problematic and dragged down by the persistent negativity of just one or two individuals. We could have found better ways to include riders in constructive discussions and to participate in decision making. More rider-organisers working in the courier community face to face would have really helped.
We also learnt that strike action based on false hopes of immediate results will only lead to disillusionment and damage the campaign in the longer term. We needed to be better at communicating realistic and achievable goals. There is nothing worse than over-promising and underachieving. Even though IWW organisers made no such promises, perhaps we should have realised that for workers new to unions and collective action, expectations should have been better managed.
The IWW Couriers Network could have been less reactive and used a better long term strategy, although we were ultimately trying to work towards that. We could have targeted actions in cities where there were physical offices and staff, and the IWW could have paid couriers’ travel to get there – playing to the strengths of the unclear legal status of couriers’ industrial action to bring back outlawed tactics like “flying pickets”. All in all, much better national coordination was required. A number of our city courier networks ignored the basic national structures the IWW had put in place – a national lead organiser, communications channels and meetings – and each city doing its own thing has obvious drawbacks in spite of an adaptability on the ground. Many of these things could have been addressed and improved but leading organisers at the core found themselves overwhelmed by the speed and scale of the events and were, therefore, forced to act in a much more reactive way.
By Pete Davies (IWW Organising Department Chair) organising [at] iww [dot] org [dot] uk
This article was first published by New Syndicalist