Scuttle the Shuttle: Lyft, strikes and blockades

Bus blockade in Durban

A lot of discussion around Lyft Shuttle derides it for doing little more than reinvent the city bus. What this forgets, however, is that transit and distribution are the last remaining sectors in the US that are really vulnerable to strikes.

Saying "It's just a bus but without the regulation/without unions/only for people with smartphones" is very incomplete as well, and it's worth unpacking why.

Firstly, regulations and working conditions are all the eventual product of years of struggle and strike action: from the ‘Great Upheaval’ of 1877 and the 1894 Pullman railway strikes all the way to the transit strikes which hit Philly last year, strikes in the transportation of goods and people have been a staple of US labour relations.

Yet to say "That’s because workers organised into unions" also doesn't explain why transport is so prone to strike action. There are a few reasons why strikes (and unions) are so much more common in transport than they are in other sectors in the American labour market.

The first reason is this: stop mass transit and tens of thousands of other workplaces are disrupted when their employees turn up late (if they turn up at all) or their customers decide not to come out and spend money to avoid transport hassle. This creates an extra pressure on bosses to keep the service running.

The second reason: transit is mostly immune from spatial fixes. While bosses can move a car or garment factory to China, doing the same with a bus or train route obviously isn't viable. Thus, while factory workers in the US were mostly decimated in the 1970s, transit/distribution have kept going to some extent until now.

For the genesis of Lyft Shuttle, a good place to start would be the 2009 deregulation of the UK post service. This followed the massive 2006-7 strike wave in the postal service, where staggered official strikes were backed up by work-to-rules and the refusal of other postal workers to cross picket lines, leading to disciplinary action which then led to further wildcat strikes. Post just did not get delivered for weeks at a time in some cases.

The response was to allow private companies to handle some deliveries, piggy-backing off Royal Mail's central infrastructure. Firms were then able to shift postal provider if affected by strike action, weakening leverage of workers: disruption was disrupted.

Fast-forward ten years and the gig economy starts to see industrial strife as Deliveroo workers go on wildcat strike in London. The atomisation of the workforce is clearly still not entirely successful as collection points still afford places for riders to meet and discuss issues, swap contacts and organise their strike via WhatsApp. Still harder than it used to be at Royal Mail depots though.

Back to San Francisco and the Lyft Shuttle: the division between Muni and Lyft workers means if either group goes on strike, the others will be scabbing unless they do too. After all, if transit workers’ power comes from their ability to disrupt the wider economy through disrupting the transportation of people to service that economy, then the division between Lyft and Muni means that workers have less disruptive power as people find alternative routes around the city. In fact, in London, we already see similar strategies in the division of transport workers via privatisation (various bus companies and train lines as well as London Underground Ltd) not to mention their separation into different bargaining units within companies (i.e. workers on the Overground or Docklands Light Railway do not participate in London Underground strikes).

This is a reason for both groups to organize together to the maximum possible extent, not to reinforce those divisions. Even your job is in the "gig economy" and your manager is a phone app, this is still real people driving real people through real streets. Indeed, one interesting point, particularly given the use of no-strike clauses in transit union agreements and potential strike bans, as long as there are drivers, transit and distribution (even in the gig economy) remains vulnerable to strikes. After all, it’s hard to enforce anti-strike legislation on transit workers if you won't even classify Uber/Lyft drivers as workers in the first place.

Organising around an app presents new challenges to organisational models compared with organising in, for example, a bus depot. But we've seen that fail for bosses with the Deliveroo strikes. However, where organisation could break down: driverless transport. That seems to be capital’s end game. In such a situation, sabotage and blockades will bring things to a halt, but not strikes. Transport blockades are effective whether you're employed by a transit company or not, and whether the vehicles have drivers or not.

Transport blockades aren't a theoretical approach to this re-organisation, but a method that working class struggles have used in the US and internationally with increasing frequency. From road blockades by unemployed workers in Argentina 2001, to the Abahlali baseMjondolo shack dweller's movement in South Africa since 2005, to French students blockading railway stations in 2006, mobile road blocks by 2010 UK student protestors and highway blockades by Black Lives Matter protestors in Atlanta and Minneapolis last year.

So while people might be laughing at the Lyft Shuttle for not creating much of anything new, the goal of the gig economy entering public transport is another one: the reorganisation of one of the last remaining industries where workers in America still have considerable disruptive power. This reorganisation aims at the decomposition of the forms of class organisation that have traditionally given workers their strength. We need to think strategically about how we can recompose ourselves in the face of this reorganisation of our working lives to retain, and indeed enhance, our disruptive potential.


Chilli Sauce
Jun 22 2017 21:44
Back to San Francisco and the Lyft Shuttle: the division between Muni and Lyft workers means if either group goes on strike, the others will be scabbing unless they do too

While I get the sentiment, that's really quite a statement. If that's the case, would that mean that when, for example, tube workers come out on strike, London's boss drivers are all scabs?

Unless it's specifically asked for - and realistically the organization exists for it to be practical - I'm not sure other workers in the same industry continuing to work during a firm-specific strike qualifies as scabbing.

Of course when workers could potentially undermine each other's strike by continuing to work, priority number one should be to build those links and seek to act in concert. But I think that needs to be the focus of our practical and theoretical efforts. To me, the above statement just feels a bit sweeping and presupposes a level of consciousness and organisation that I'm not sure exists.

On another note, I see this article was posted by libcom. Is a re-post from another source or a bit of a group effort or...?

Mike Harman
Jun 23 2017 15:59

Article was based on a twitter thread by one of us, another one adapted it to a news article.

Note the paragraph after the one you quoted says:

This is a reason for both groups to organize together to the maximum possible extent, not to reinforce those divisions.

I used 'scabbing' as shorthand for 'undermining each others strike action', and that was taken from twitter where the longer phrase wouldn't fit in the 140 character sentence. Was also a lot closer to that second point. It was written unemotionally wink

In practice the division in the workforce for what was previously a monopoly service might undermine strike action more than a few reactionaries not stopping work. So the specific social stigma of scabbing might not be relevant, but the effect is. Similarly unless there's a road blockade (which is considerably higher stakes than just stopping work), there's nowhere with Lyft to have any kind of picket line.

I'd even go further that with a service like Uber or Lyft, it would be quite feasible that a strike is organised, and some workers in the locality don't even know that it's happening (if they're new, or just otherwise somehow isolated from the other drivers, since this is by design for these companies). If they don't even know about the strike are they scabbing? Objectively yes but subjectively not really - even with people objectively breaking strikes, unless they're specifically ideologically opposed the first course of action should be to try to persuade them to join the strike rather than socially ostracise them.

Chilli Sauce
Jun 23 2017 17:04

All that makes sense. It's just for me, scabbing is almost an objectively emotive word and it just sort of caught me, ya know what I mean? But points obviously well-taken though.