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Labour Unionism In The Age Of The 'Gig' Economy

12/09/2016 15:54

As the Trades Union Congress (TUC) meets in Brighton this week for its 148th annual gathering, it faces in one way or another essentially the same challenge that it has done since it was first founded. Jobs, work and employment take place as ever under capitalism but capitalism is constantly re-configuring the way jobs, work and employment are organised.

The 'gig' - or 'on demand' - economy is now the most obvious example of this and part of how the proletariat with regular, secure full-time employment has increasingly been changed into a precariat dependent upon low paid, insecure and irregular work.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in delivery companies in London using couriers and drivers to ferry legal documents and meals around the capital's streets. These workers are not even offered 'zero hour contracts' because these are not employed by the companies they carry out the work for. Instead, they are self-employed 'independent contractors'. With self-employment, the workers are not eligible for sick pay, holiday pay and have to pay their own National Insurance. They also have to pay for their own means of transport and the cost of running this as well as their means of communication (like mobile phones). Such self-employed workers are not guaranteed a minimum level of work or a minimum level of earnings.

It has been a fledgling, tiny non-TUC union that has been setting the pace in standing up to this new form of labour market exploitation. Before the Deliveroo strike hit the headlines last month, the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) had quietly been winning higher and fairer payments at a series of courier companies in London, whether that be Mach1, eCourier or City Sprint, through a series of flashmob actions and social media campaigns. The union was set up as a split from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or 'Wobblies' in 2012.

For a union with only 1,000 members, the action at Deliveroo became the icing on its cake because it showed what a bold and assertive minnow of a union could do in contrast to more conservative, longstanding and bigger counterparts of the TUC.

'Gig' economy workers are believed to be atomised from each other as they work alone so that they are difficult to organise. They are also in competition with each other for work so that any compulsion to band together is undermined. Yet at Deliveroo the introduction of a new payment structure showed how a collective grievance could be turned into a springboard to successful collective action.

The new structure increased the pay per delivery item but removed the hourly guaranteed earnings. Couriers saw this as an attempt to reduce their income. After six days of increasingly well reported and energetic protests outside the company's London headquarters, Deliveroo agreed to only introduce the new payment structure in a limited number of pilot areas and maintain the existing payment structure. The success of this collective action then inspired couriers a week later at UberEATS in London to protest in a similar fashion when the company began to remove its bonus system of payments.

The couriers applied pressure upon Deliveroo in the form of damage to its brand and reputation in the eyes of customers and investors through their social media activities. But it was been the old-fashioned nature of the collective action to halt and disrupt the operations of the business that was critical to explaining the success. Specifically, the Deliveroo couriers were able to take collectively advantage of the company's use of a 'just-in-time' system of operations.

Under this system, the good or service - and its delivery - is required immediately with their being no slack in the system as a result of stockpiles. In the case of Deliveroo, it was couriers not working in the early evenings when food deliveries from restaurants are at their peak that was the critical juncture.

Such collective actions are traditionally called 'wildcats' given there is no notice given to the employer of the strike. And, under current legislation, there is no need to have a ballot for action or give notice because, technically, these workers are not employees and so are unable to strike. All they can do is to withdraw their willingness to provide contracted services.

So whilst there is mileage in social media campaigns and protests (as practiced by the IWGB as well as the much bigger and older Unite and the GMB unions) as well as in changing employment law by taking cases to Employment Tribunals (as again the IWGB, Unite and the GMB are doing), only the IWGB has stuck its neck out to make the seemingly impossible possible - mobilising self-employed workers scarred by insecurity and vulnerability to fight for their rights in militant collective action.

This example should be well studied at the TUC this week because it potentially holds some vital lessons on how and why the fortunes of organised labour could be revitalised in the neo-liberal economy.

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