Here's Why UberEats Couriers Went on Strike in the U.K. This Month

An organizer with a couriers union discusses the ongoing campaign to improve the gig economy.
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An UberEats rider cycles through London on February 16th, 2018.

An UberEats rider cycles through London on February 16th, 2018.

From London to Glasgow to Cardiff, hundreds of couriers who deliver food for UberEats went on a one-day strike earlier this month to challenge what they say are unacceptably low wages offered by the ride-share company. In London, workers and supporters occupied Uber's United Kingdom headquarters. In Cardiff, they rallied with smoke flares and songs. Elsewhere, couriers expressed solidarity with employees from McDonald's, TGI Fridays, and the English pub chain Wetherspoons, all of whom were also on strike. Although protesters' demands for £5 per delivery (around $6.45) have yet to be met, Uber has apparently taken notice, offering select £2 bonuses.

The strike, which also targeted UberEats' European competitor Deliveroo, was organized by the Industrial Workers of the World's Couriers Network. Founded in Chicago in 1905, the IWW is an international labor union that has often sought to organize sectors overlooked by other unions. Earlier this year, a courier and card-carrying IWW member in Cardiff convinced two of his coworkers that the union's tactics, which rely on non-hierarchical democracy and direct action, could be useful in organizing their industry. Together with help from their local IWW branch, they created their own branch, called the Couriers Network.

Today, the IWW Couriers Network has chapters in eight cities across England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. While the chapters can operate independently to deal with local issues, they can also work together to address national or international concerns. To date, the network has won shorter wait times for couriers awaiting their orders from particularly slow restaurants; larger operating areas, so couriers are eligible to receive more assignments; hiring freezes, to reduce competition among couriers; and the repeal of a discriminatory policy preventing couriers from delivering to sex workers.

Pacific Standard spoke with Chris Fear, lead organizer of the IWW Couriers Network, about the group's start, strikers' demands, and what the future holds for their campaign.

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What is your role within the IWW Couriers Network?

It's my responsibility to coordinate couriers who are organizing across the four countries of the U.K. The IWW Couriers Network is a federated structure of mini, grassroots city unions that are affiliated with the wider IWW. Each network is entirely free to join.

I'm an UberEats bicycle courier myself, in Glasgow, and I've been working for them for about a year and a half. I, like most couriers, actually enjoy the basic work of delivering—you're getting paid to ride a bike after all—but what we don't enjoy is the precarious working conditions, the lack of rights, and the lack of a guaranteed income. We hear from a lot of people that if we don't like these problems, why don't we just get another job? But in the U.K., it's not as simple as that. For many, couriering is a job of last resort and an essential means of making money.

Why did couriers choose to organize?

The IWW has historically been a union that organized precarious workers—workers that other unions thought were "unorganizable" or too much effort to try and organize. Organizing workers in the gig economy is the next logical step for a union like ours, with a long history of organizing in similar, piece-work style jobs. This strike is a pretty historic moment for the union and the U.K. as a whole. It is the first nationwide strike that the IWW has ever organized and the first-ever recorded national strike of UberEats couriers in the U.K.

Couriers chose to organize because it became clear that gig economy companies have little respect for their workers and are not engaging with their demands for change in good faith. Couriers have seen successes in Europe and increasingly realize that collective action and forming a union is one of the only ways that we'll gain long-term change in the industry.

The final straw for the strike was the imposition of a wage cut of 40 percent for London UberEats couriers, meaning that couriers are barely able to make minimum wage. Couriers across the country are aware that, if this is allowed to happen in London, it could happen anywhere in the U.K. A huge wildcat strike in London broke out in response to this, and it's compelled people to fight for better conditions.

Thus far, what has the IWW Couriers Network been able to accomplish?

Union action has seen significant reductions in waiting times in problem restaurants, along with extensions to operating areas and hiring freezes. Recently, in Cardiff, a union-organized boycott and demonstration outside an UberEats "feedback" session saw UberEats forced to directly negotiate with a union rep. We've also forced Deliveroo to take out a discriminatory clause in its working advice for couriers that targeted sex workers.

We've been able to achieve these goals by listening to the demands of our riders and by letting them lead the process. We're focused on mobile, hard-hitting direct action tactics that have been proven to get results. Our organizing principles of direct democracy are also a major strength when it comes to helping us achieve our goals. Everyone in the network is a leader and everyone makes decisions in a non-hierarchical structure. This invests everyone in the process.

What were the couriers' demands in regard to the recent strike?

Our demands are relatively simple. "They're for a £5 minimum payment for each delivery we make to cover the cost of being self-employed and our delivery equipment. We're also demanding that Deliveroo's and UberEats' restaurants improve conditions for their own staff.

Why connect the couriers' struggle with those of fast-food workers at McDonald's, TGI Fridays, and Wetherspoons?

The network had been looking to connect the two struggles for a while. There can often be a tension between couriers and fast-food workers because of the nature of the job: We are often another customer that overworked and understaffed fast-food workers are expected to serve, and we want to get our orders quickly because we're not paid for waiting times.

At the end of the day, though, we have a lot in common. We are both being exploited by multi-million-dollar corporations. We both want a wage that we can live on. We both do physically demanding work. We might be on different sides of the counter, but we are very similar. We decided to reach out to the unions that were striking with the offer of us striking in solidarity, and they were very happy for the support. As an old IWW song says, "Solidarity forever."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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