Red Sky Thinking in the Platform Economy – Courier Organising Beyond Pay and Workers’ Rights

The below text was written by Sam Sharp, IWW Lead Courier Organiser and distributed at ‘My Boss is not an Algorithm’ conference, Barcelona April 2019. We hope to follow this article with a write up of the conference by IWW riders who attended.

As is the tradition for workers unions, our struggles are often focused on two things – pay and legal rights. While both of these aspects are important, and we should continue to fight for both higher pay and better legal protections, we should not limit our activities to these two areas.

The platforms we work for seek a full re-organisation of society, where they become the universal intermediaries, extracting a small ‘rent’ from each and every social or economic relationship. While defensive struggles around pay and rights are necessary for our own survival, they can only slow the process which has been set in motion.

We, as couriers, are often seen as guinea-pigs for this whole-sale re-organisation, and we see the ‘gig-economy’ model expand into other sectors. The nature of our work lends to this – it is easily broken into separate ‘jobs’ (orders), and our geographic dispersal makes strict control structures difficult. We are also extremely visible to the public – taking over the streets with our branded gear, moving advertisements for the re-invention of work.

If we, as a workers movement, seek to genuinely challenge these business models, and the ‘platform capitalist’ plan for the future, we need to think big, and think broadly, about where the terrain of struggle is, and develop a positive collective vision of the future we want.

This pamphlet is split into six themes – Freedom, Diversity, Reproduction, Environment, Finance, and Information. In each I will give some suggestions about how we can orient our own struggles as couriers, then take a look at how these intersect with the dynamics on the level of society as a whole.

Freedom

It’s great to work without a boss and without a schedule. OK there is a boss, it’s just hidden inside an algorithm, and there is a schedule, even if it’s just the flux of supply and demand.

While it is tempting to dismiss this sense of freedom as false consciousness, petite-bourgeois sentimentality, or falling for the bosses’ rhetoric, doing so can lead us quickly into condescension and nostalgia. We, as couriers in the gig-economy, understand the constraints that are present, but we still experience tangible freedoms in our work: the freedom to take a break without asking permission; the freedom to bitch and complain without a manager appearing over your shoulder; the freedom to use our own vehicle, to take pride in it, to enjoy driving or riding it; for some, who aren’t entitled to work legally, it might be the freedom to work itself.

So, we shouldn’t dismiss or denigrate these desires for freedom, for less alienated forms of work, but should take these demands and run with them. What we should refuse is the trade-off provided by the platforms. They say we choose between rights and freedom, between pay and security, we tell them we want all of the above!

With the spectre of automation hanging over workers everywhere, and the rising consciousness of ‘bullshit jobs’ that provide no apparent social value, the question of liberating our time for the things we love, the things that matter to us and our communities, is a question for all of us.

A world without work might be a few decades away, but we can, right now, put out a clear message – Society won’t be reimagined to fit your new model of work. Work will be reimagined to fit our new model of society!

Difference

Couriers are a diverse bunch. Cyclist or moped, white or brown, man or woman, native or migrant, live alone or supporting a family. We have all chosen this field of work (within whatever limited set of choices), but the reasons for our choice, the particular freedoms we desire, or the extra burdens placed on us, can be different.

It is easy to settle for a subsection of couriers and prioritise our organising efforts around their specific desires and demands. For example, in most UK cities our organisations are dominated by cyclists. There is absolutely no problem with campaigning around issues that specifically affect us as cyclists – i.e. the condition of bike lanes, our access to good quality safety equipment, etc. But, the ‘cyclist’ demographic tends to intersect with a bunch of other differences and privaleges. Cyclists are more likely to be students are more likely to be be white and to have British, or EU, passports, and are less likely to be supporting a family.

Our bosses understand and exploit the vulnerability of many of their workers. They expect that casual student-workers, seeking to earn a bit of pocket money, won’t kick up too much fuss over low pay. They expect that marginalised migrant workers are unlikely to organise to demand rights. We need to prove their expectations wrong!

We need to be aware of the privileges and forms of exclusion in all of our organising. While it might make sense to argue for specific demands of a section of couriers (whether bike lanes or childcare support), we need to make our organisations open to all. We should talk to those without work papers about how we can support them, and how they can be involved without risking deportation or inprisonment. We should talk to parent-couriers about how their childcare commitments effect their ability to work, and women-couriers about any harassment or prejudice they face. We will be stronger if we can channel the whole diversity of demands, dreams, and desires of the workforce.

While the far-right is on the rise, and global migration is only set to increase as climate change destroys crops and makes swathes of land uninhabitable, this is a crucial time to build resilient bridges of solidarity that can provide an alternative to the nativist and nationalist ‘protectionism’ offered by the right.

Reproduction

Like all workers, the work doesn’t stop when we get home. We need to get our bodies and brains back in a state to work again the next morning. On top of this, we need to charge our phones, our lights, maintain and fix our vehicles. All of these take time and money, none of which our bosses pay for.

On the one hand we can (and should) demand payment and allowances for this work and these costs, but we can also develop collective strategies for supporting each other and sharing the work of reproducing our selves and our equipment.

The Leeds Couriers Network, for example, have bought spare battery packs and bikes, which are stored at a friendly cooperative social centre in the city and can be borrowed by members in times of need. Nottingham Couriers have set up a mobile kitchen to feed themselves and the local homeless community. In Helsinki, the riders have been demanding funding for a space to get out of the cold and fix their bikes. All of these help us share the burden and the risk amongst ourselves, and develop tangible forms of mutual aid.

As well as the burden of reproduction that is placed on us, we can understand our job as feeding into the reproductive cycle of other workers – the food we deliver is a part of their reproduction. And, while there’s a common perception that our customers are ‘lazy’, or have more money than sense, we know from experience the diversity of those we serve. The mother who gets home from work to a house of hungry children, or the disabled man who struggles to prepare food for himself.

There is real social value to much of the work we do, the reproductive infrastructure we provide. By thinking broadly from the perspective of reproductive work, and how we can set up infrastructure of solidarity, we not only strengthen ourselves as couriers, but give strength and resilience to wider working class communities, and begin conversations about the value of different forms of work, and how they interrelate.

Environment

Being out in the fresh air, maybe working our muscles, is another big benefit of the job. It’s nice to spend an afternoon exploring a whole city, discovering new shortcuts and learning new areas.

But the environment we work in is dangerous. Not only do we have to navigate dangerous streets, but we do so under time-pressure set by the boss, encouraged to take risks if we want to make rent. From our bosses perspective, these risks are our problem. The whole gig-economy is based on a logic of securing reliable revenue streams while passing risk down the chain onto individuals (leaving the state, or local authorities, to pick up the slack). If there’s no work, we don’t get paid. If we break a leg, we’re off work with little or no support. If we get our phone stolen, we have to pay for a replacement.

We share these dangers with others, in particular other road users. These other road users might also be ‘at work’, but if not are quite possibly either on their way to work, or going about the reproductive work that gets them ready for work the next day, such as driving to the shops, or going for a bike ride to relax, or the work that produces the next generations of workers, such as getting the kids to school.

In most cities, there are already groups and organisation’s struggling for safer streets, for better provisions. Often, these groups feel they have been shouting at a brick wall for decades, with little support. We can add a new angle to these struggles – The streets are our workplace!

There are complexities and contradictions that come with these struggles. For example, a new ‘emissions charge’, intended to reduce inner-city pollution, has led to a protracted battle by Uber Private Hire drivers in London, who see it as an attack on them – they are expected to pay, and see no compensation from Uber for this payment. We must be very clear that environmental measures should not increase the burden on workers.

We must relate our struggles around our work environment to the wider struggles for democratic control over public spaces. From cycle infrastructure to public toilets to spaces to sit and relax – we share our workplace with the public at large, and should put ourselves at the front of struggles for democratic control of these spaces.

If we are to tackle the global environmental problems while avoiding green-authoritarianism, creating models of grass-roots democratic control of our shared spaces will prove invaluable.

Finance

We know that our bosses are not currently making a profit. What does it mean to be ‘exploited’ when your boss is basically subsidising you, paying you more than they receive for the work you do?

Firstly, we need to think about how profits work for a company like Uber or Deliveroo. They grow using what business school types call ‘network effects’. For each restaurant that signs up the platform becomes more valuable for each of the customers (because they have more choice), and each customer makes the platform more valuable to each restaurant. So, the more members on the platform, the more valuable the platform is for every member. Conversely, once a platform is established at a certain side, it is really hard to compete with, because to have the same value, your platform needs to be as big as the incumbent. This means that where there are network effects there tend to be monopolies.

These platforms make economic sense on the assumption that, by subsidising the industry now, they will one day be in control of a piece of crucial infrastructure, and through that control will be able to extort money from somewhere. Our labours in the present are not about making profit in the present but about building this infrastructure for future profitability. The current investors, and the potential investors from upcoming IPOs, are betting on this vision, and our pay comes from their bets. As such, we can still talk about ‘exploitation’ by a loss-making company, the ‘surplus value’ we produce is just calculated on aggregate and deferred into a speculative future.

While we must demand higher pay, better protections, for control over the hiring process, and so on, our arguments fall flat if we don’t confront head-on the nature of their business model, and the end-game they are preparing for, which appears to be a turf war between competing fleets of robots.

While the abstract and distant nature of ‘profit’ in this industry complicates our struggles, it also gives us a basis to organise on a truly global level, to provide solutions at the scale of the problem. When Uber Taxi drivers strike in LA, or in Bangalore, is resonates with the struggles of Uber Eats couriers in Glasgow. Not only do we share an enemy, but we share an app, share a work experience, share the frustrations, and, increasingly, share organising models.

It is the nature of capitalist expansion and innovation that what appear as global webs of exploitation are simultaneously global webs of cooperation. We may currently be unwitting philanthropists, cooperating on behalf of their revenue stream, but the material basis is there for us to seize this cooperative potential for our own ends, on a scale never seen before.

Information

Our bosses are, first and foremost, in the data business. They achieve their startling growth by learning to represent the world and it’s movements as figures in a database, combined with the ‘libertarian’ Silicon Valley spirit that sees regulations, like censorship, as ‘damage’ to be routed around.

Both this reduction of the work we do to data points, and the avoidance of fought-for protections obviously have a damaging effect on workers, customers, and others in the supply chain. We are all forced to conform to a robot-schedule with the all-seeing-eye capturing the minutiae of our daily lives. All this data, this control, is increasingly centralised in data-centres, far from our oversight or control.

On the other hand, the technology itself doesn’t necessarily lead to this. If we can plot data on our own activities, our own productivity, we can become stronger people, learn more about ourselves, our needs and our limits. If we can digitally model society and distribute work and resources to where they’re needed the most, these efficiency gains can reduce the work society needs to do, and as such benefit the whole of society.

Again, we find the seeds of utopia within the dystopian monoliths that grows around us. The task, for us, is to build narratives of individual and collective empowerment that hijack and upend the narrative set out by our bosses and their investors.

One set of struggles is be over the ownership of our data. Certain laws and regulations, such as GDPR can give us tools to begin this process, as has been shown by the great work of the UPHD and the Workers Information Exchange in the UK, who have used Uber’s own open-source tools, and personal data requested from Uber via GDPR, to map and plot the journeys taken by London Uber drivers.

Another set of struggles is to build relationships of solidarity between the ‘self-employed’ workers and the technical workers of our companies. Recent months has seen an upsurge of militancy among software developers. Often, these struggles are around the nature of their product, rather than the work conditions themselves, such as Google employees protesting cooperation with US Immigration enforcement.

We should seek to build alliance with technical workers, not just for immediate solidarity around our workplace struggles, but to set out a vision of how technology can be wielded for the good of global humanity.

The terrain of our struggles is not limited to our bank accounts, our statute books, the streets we travel, but extends the global economy as a whole. The global intermediaries that form the digital sphere are not only our common enemy, but will form the basis of the internationalist proletarian consciousness that can see us through the storms to come.

“It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.” – Pre-amble to the IWW Constitution

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