When Gig Economy and Fast Food Workers Band Together

James F. Kelly October 16, 2018

Protesters demonstrate outside a McDonald's restaurant in Brixton in support of striking fast food workers on October 4, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

October’s Fast Food Shut­down” will be remem­bered as a piv­otal moment in the cam­paign to orga­nize hos­pi­tal­i­ty and gig econ­o­my work­ers in the Unit­ed Kin­dom. Work­ers from McDonald’s, TGI Friday’s, JD Wether­spoon, Uber Eats and Deliv­eroo walked out on their jobs to demand bet­ter wages, full employ­ment rights and union recog­ni­tion. This unprece­dent­ed coor­di­nat­ed nation­al strike sug­gests a new indus­tri­al alliance is in the mak­ing where many least expect­ed it.

The night before the strike, every Labour mem­ber of par­lia­ment received a memo from par­ty lead­er­ship com­pelling them, as a mat­ter of respon­si­bil­i­ty, to join local pick­ets. The work­ers who gath­ered in west London’s Leices­ter Square were joined by shad­ow chan­cel­lor John McDon­nell, who promised that a Labour gov­ern­ment would meet their demands.

The mes­sage to every exploita­tive employ­er in this coun­try is that we’re com­ing for you,” McDon­nell said. We’re not tol­er­at­ing low pay, inse­cu­ri­ty or lack of respect. We will mobi­lize as one movement.”

Pre­car­i­ous work­ers are emerg­ing as one of the most for­mi­da­ble forces in the grass­roots move­ment behind Jere­my Cor­byn, whose unex­pect­ed rise to par­ty leader has revi­tal­ized Labour’s activist base. A new polit­i­cal con­sen­sus is being forged and the Labour Party’s will­ing­ness to stake out a place on the front lines of work­ers’ strug­gles has imbued a young move­ment of food indus­try work­ers with a sense of hope and opti­mism in deeply uncer­tain times. And with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a no-deal Brex­it on the hori­zon, the prospect of the oppo­si­tion climb­ing its way into pow­er seems less of a wide-eyed polit­i­cal fan­ta­sy by the day.

The momen­tum behind the fast food shut­down was built on the time­ly con­ver­gence of two strug­gles. Two weeks before a joint strike backed by Unite, the Bak­ers, Food and Allied Work­ers’ Union (BFAWU), and War on Want, Uber Eat’s couri­ers brought traf­fic to a halt out­side the company’s UK head­quar­ters, to protest changes in the company’s wage struc­ture that amount to a 40 per­cent pay cut. Uber Eats and Deliv­eroo couri­ers, who are sup­port­ed by the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World and the Inde­pen­dent Work­er’s Union of Great Britain, decid­ed to join the ini­tia­tive in what was a his­toric dis­play of sol­i­dar­i­ty between food ser­vice and gig econ­o­my workers.

We’ve known that plat­form work­ers are a poten­tial­ly mil­i­tant work­force. How­ev­er, the poten­tial for them to lead an alliance with fast food work­ers was always a dis­tant pos­si­bil­i­ty,” says Cal­lum Cant, a for­mer Deliv­eroo rid­er and author of the forth­com­ing book, Work­ing for Deliv­eroo. Accord­ing to Cant, the vital­i­ty of this move­ment is large­ly thanks to the fact that Thatch­er-era trade union laws aren’t applic­a­ble to self-employed gig econ­o­my work­ers, leav­ing a wider range of tac­tics at their disposal.

Sol­i­dar­i­ty strikes, sec­ondary pick­et­ing and wild­cat action are all sta­ples of food plat­form work­er mobi­liza­tion. Their spon­tane­ity and flex­i­bil­i­ty has allowed this alliance to become a real­i­ty,” he tells In These Times.

Near­ly a decade of Tory aus­ter­i­ty has tak­en a dev­as­tat­ing toll on the British pub­lic. Increas­es in life expectan­cy have stalled, the num­ber of chil­dren liv­ing in pover­ty has risen sharply and work­ers are suf­fer­ing through the harsh­est pay squeeze since the end of the Napoleon­ic Wars. Many of the strik­ing work­ers are sim­ply fed up with their wealthy boss­es who reward them­selves with record salaries and lav­ish bonus­es while they remain trapped in a cycle of debt and finan­cial uncer­tain­ty with no end in sight.

We’re tired of being exploit­ed and work­ing extreme­ly hard with­out hav­ing much to show for it at the end of the day,” says Chris Hep­pell, a 29-year-old chef at a Wether­spoons pub in Brighton.

Chris tells In These Times that he and his col­leagues often felt pow­er­less, explain­ing, We knew some­thing had to change but we didn’t real­ly know we can do any­thing about it.”

Unions face an uphill bat­tle in the food ser­vice indus­try, where only 2.9 per­cent of the work­force is union­ized. But after Chris and his col­leagues wit­nessed the first ever McDonald’s strike in the UK last fall, they decid­ed to join their cam­paign for a £10 an hour liv­ing wage. On the night of the nation­wide action staff at two Wether­spoons pubs in Brighton went on strike for the first time in the company’s history.

To say that work­ers in this indus­try can’t orga­nize is a lie. These work­ers are proof of that lie,” says Ian Hod­son, nation­al pres­i­dent of the BFAWU, one of Britain’s old­est unions.

The grow­ing appetite for online food deliv­ery ser­vices is fuel­ing what UBS ana­lysts pre­dict will blos­som into a $365 bil­lion glob­al indus­try by 2030. Yet the work­ers that the lead­ing lights of plat­form cap­i­tal­ism rely on strug­gle to make ends meet. Deliveroo’s oper­a­tion of dark kitchens” where chefs dish out name brand food from cramped win­dow­less met­al box­es, does lit­tle to silence crit­ics like the Arch­bish­op of Can­ter­bury, who recent­ly described the gig econ­o­my as the rein­car­na­tion of an ancient evil.”

The Uber Eat’s strike is just the lat­est in a wave of mass col­lec­tive action by food plat­form work­ers across the UK and Europe sparked by the 2016 Lon­don Deliv­eroo strike. Work­ers are demand­ing £5 a drop, £1 per mile trav­elled and no vic­tim­iza­tion of strik­ing couriers.

Mean­while, Uber is said to be in ear­ly talks to acquire Lon­don-based start­up Deliv­eroo, its food deliv­ery arm’s main rival, which was recent­ly val­ued at £2 bil­lion. If recent events are any indi­ca­tion of a chang­ing mood amongst gig econ­o­my work­ers, Uber’s poten­tial monop­oly over food deliv­ery plat­forms may have the unin­tend­ed con­se­quence of con­sol­i­dat­ing resis­tance to its exploita­tive busi­ness model.

This new fast food alliance knows its strug­gle is transna­tion­al and has tak­en inspi­ra­tion from the Fight For $15. Should a Labour gov­ern­ment come to pow­er these work­ers are con­fi­dent that their voic­es will be at the cen­ter of a social­ist project to trans­form Britain.

In These Times asked Chris if he had a mes­sage for boss­es like Wether­spoons chair­man Tim Mar­tin, who is worth £448 mil­lion. He replied, Lis­ten to your workers.”

James F. Kel­ly is a UK-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing social move­ments, work­ers’ rights and tech­nol­o­gy. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @jamesf_kelly.
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