Author of the forthcoming book Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres, Jamie Woodcock, examines the radical possibilities for resistance born of ‘black box’ labour.
The six-day strike by Deliveroo drivers recently ended with two important successes. The first is that this group of precarious workers, written off by many as being unable to organise, achieved a collective victory. The second is that their struggle provides a practical example of how workers can organise autonomously in the digital economy.
The action by Deliveroo drivers was sparked by the company attempting to introduce a new payment system, removing the hourly rate and leaving only per-drop payments.[i] This represents a further attempt to shift the risks of this platform-like business model onto workers, bringing so-called flexibility at the cost of workers having a guaranteed wage. The action was mobilised on WhatsApp, drawing on existing networks and those formed at the meeting points during the shifts. The strike and demonstration outside of the Deliveroo headquarters built upon mass meetings in which workers collectively voted on demands. Throughout the dispute the drivers received solidarity from customers and restaurants – with some restaurants even turning off their Deliveroo app in response to the drivers’ action – and a crowdfunding campaign raised £10,000 for their strike fund. All of this happened outside of traditional forms of organisation, but was supported by the IWGB (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain), drawing on the experience of the couriers’ branch.[ii]
There are some other notable features about the strike that are now becoming clearer. A couple of days into the campaign I arrived slightly earlier than usual for a demonstration. Across the road there were two people also waiting, although unlike those starting to arrive in their green and black Deliveroo jackets, they were wearing UberEATS branded clothing. At first I thought this might be a cynical attempt by Uber to try and recruit striking drivers to their rival service. There had been stories circulating of Uber ordering food from Deliveroo to their headquarters and on arrival attempting to recruit them with promises of higher wages and so on. However, after a quick discussion it became clear that these were disgruntled UberEATS drivers. They had heard about the Deliveroo strike and were keen to find out what was happening. As the strike continued there were further appearances of UberEATS drivers, early evidence that there was potential for this kind of action to spread.
Last week we saw a similar spread of organising by UberEATS drivers and another wildcat strike. There are similarities with the conditions at Deliveroo: drivers are falsely categorised as self-employed, and despite the early bonus pay, also poorly paid. Only a few weeks ago there were no examples of action taking place at these kind of companies; resistance remained a theoretical possibility. While there are notable differences between delivery work and other casualised sectors of the economy, for example hospitality or call centres, there are also shared experiences of casualised conditions, low pay, and often a claim that these workers cannot successfully organise (or at least cannot be effectively organised by traditional trade unions). In my forthcoming book about call centres, Working the Phones, I have written about the experience of working and organising in these kinds of conditions.[iii] One of the key arguments I make is that resistance emerges from the labour process (the way work is organised under capitalism) in particular ways and that attempts to organise needs to build upon this. In high-sales call centres this means understanding that the astronomically high turnover of workers is a potential strength rather than a weakness: workers are refusing to cooperate with management, albeit through individual acts. For the Deliveroo drivers, although their labour is isolated across an online platform, there are still points at which they meet up to increase the efficiency of their routes. This provides an opportunity to organise away from the electronic or physical surveillance of management – much like the smoking breaks in other workplaces.
The concept of class composition is particularly useful for understanding what is unfolding at Deliveroo and UberEATS. Introduced by the Italian Operaismo, class composition was proposed as consisting of two parts. The first is the ‘technical composition’, focusing on the labour process, the use of technology, and management techniques, and was understood as the ‘sanction of the relations of force between classes.’[iv] This was developed in the context of Fordism and Taylorism, therefore focusing on the mass production factory and the role of unions. At Deliveroo this means understanding the use of software to organise the labour process, with isolated workers interacting through a smartphone app. Despite the ease with which these organise obscure the role of labour in their operations – captured in the metaphor of ‘digital black box labor’[v] – it is now becoming clear that the technical composition does not make organising impossible. The Deliveroo drivers gather at meeting points (needed to increase the efficiency of deliveries), they can be seen on roads and at traffic lights across the city, wait at restaurants to pick up food, or interact with people when they order food (as Uber have found out). Rather than just data points on a software interface, these workers are not obscured from each other or completely isolated. This is a lesson learned by Deliveroo when hundreds of drivers parked up outside their headquarters. What the strike proves is that labour is a key component of these companies – this is actually recognised by Will Shu, the co-founder of Deliveroo, who said: ‘our riders are the lifeblood of our company.’[vi] The company relies on this vast fleet of drivers to deliver food that other restaurants have cooked, minimising their own risk through technical and contractual means, while making a huge profit.
The second part is the ‘political composition.’ This starts from the position that ‘the working class is not content with reacting to the dominion of capital, it is continually immersed in the process of political recomposition, and capital is obliged to respond with a continual restructuration of the labor process.’[vii] This process of recomposition refers to the tactics, resistance, and forms of organisation of workers. The strike at Deliveroo and now at UberEATS is an exciting moment in which these workers are experimenting with new forms – which, importantly, are also having success. The model of Deliveroo and UberEATS (the ‘technical composition’) is being replicated across the economy to drive down workers’ pay and conditions, leaving traditional unions reeling in the face of falling memberships and management that are not interested in negotiating. However, the casualization of labour in the so-called gig economy also means that workers move between different jobs, often working more than one at a time. Due to the forced flexibility from Deliveroo and UberEATS these two workforces are not separate, allowing the spread of tactics and struggles between them.
Some commentators have noted that the workforce has ‘a high turnover of people and there’s low market bargaining power. If they go on strike it’s not going to bring the economy to a halt, unlike coal miners or rail workers.’[viii] However, considering the struggles of Deliveroo and UberEATS in this way risks missing the point. A strike in food delivery may not bring the entire economy to a halt, but it will certainly disrupt a company like Deliveroo, the restaurants that use its service, and those ordering takeaways. A large city like London relies on a huge number of low-paid and often migrant workers, and alternative forms of struggle like a ‘social strike’ has important potential.[ix] It may not look like the traditional picket line, but given the changes in the economy and contemporary society, that is not necessarily a bad thing. As forms of labour changes, so too will the resistance. Rather than casting the struggles of these workers in the light of institutional trade unionism they need to be celebrated. For all the theoretical discussions about the possibilities of resistance in the digital economy, here are examples emerging in practice. While the form or location of these are a surprise, the source is not: workers’ self-activity. The refusal of these workers is an important starting point, the key now is understanding how these can be generalised more broadly.
Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres will be available to buy from Pluto Press in November.
[i] I wrote about the dispute during the strike, see: wire.novaramedia.com/2016/08/slaveroo-deliveroo-drivers-organising-in-the gig-economy/
[v] Trebor Scholz, ‘Digital Black Box Labor’, http://wiki.p2pfoundation.net/Digital_Black_Box_Labor
[vii] Matheron, ‘Operaismo’
[viii] See: Hillary Osborne and Sarah Butler ‘Collective action via social media brings hope to gig economy workers’, The Guardian, 19th August 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/money/2016/aug/19/collective-action-via-social-media-brings-hope-to-gig-economy-workers