A report from the New Syndicalist blog, discussing the recent Deliveroo riders' strike in Manchester.
The below article was written in the build up to, and immediately after the first strike of Deliveroo workers in Manchester, and the first strike I’ve organised. In recent months, Deliveroo workers have been on strike in Birmingham, Bristol, Cheltenham, London and Nottingham over poor pay and worsening conditions. A number of these strikes have been self organised by the riders, and others have been supported by the IWW and IWGB. I’ve always thought it important that organisers and workers reflect on their personal experiences and try to draw out lessons from this. There is no real conclusion to this article, as it documents a struggle which has yet to run its course. You can help me write one by organising Deliveroo riders in your city or town until we win.
The build up:
A rider was given an IWW Couriers Network leaflet by our members, who do weekly outreach in Manchester city centre, and have been doing this for about a year and a half. Whilst we’d picked up members and contacts through this, we’d never really been able to mobilise a significant number to take action, or gain an understanding of who the social leaders in Manchester’s riders were and meet them.
I was contacted by the national courier’s network organiser on the 1st Feb, who informed us about a rider who’d received one of our leaflets and wanted to organise a strike in Manchester. Myself and the national organiser were added to WhatsApp group of 50+ riders in Manchester. This ballooned over the course of the build up to the strike to over 130 riders and supporters from across the country, although only a minority expressed interest at the start.
To ascertain who was keen to take strike action, we organised a meeting on the 4th. This meeting was also to plan and discuss what they wanted to do. Every organiser will know the worried dread – the feeling only one person will show up to the meeting you’ve called. 11 did! The majority of these riders, like a lot of the full-time riders in Manchester, were first or second-generation immigrants, predominantly coming from the Middle East and Eritrea. The meeting was held in English while simultaneously being translated into Arabic and maybe even another language I didn’t recognise! They talked about their issues with Deliveroo, and action they’d taken before – one rider described a march on the boss they’d tried, although had ended up divided and weakened by a Deliveroo manager. They talked about times they’d tried to organise strikes before, but nothing had come of it. This should be a reminder to us all that working class self-organisation does exist, and happens today in Britain – we need to find and support it where possible.
They voted for 5 demands:
- £5 a drop, £8 for double orders.
- £10 an hour waiting time.
- £1 per mile travelled.
- No deliveries outside of the city centre zone.
- Allow motorcyclists equal access to orders as cyclists.
The majority of these are demands that have been common across couriers strikes in the UK recently – from the recent Bristol and London strikes to the ones held in solidarity with fast food workers taking action on October the 4th.
The riders voted for strike action on the 14th, between 11am to 3pm outside the Deliveroo Manchester office, and for the IWW to support this. No postal ballot needed, as there’s no trade union laws to stop “self employed” workers taking action – just a hands in the air vote (and then later emojis on Whatsapp!). Proper inspiring, proper romantic old school socialism brought into the 21st century. Although I should say don’t listen to me for romantic advice – organising a strike on Valentine’s Day is unlikely to impress your partner! Riders in Bournemouth, Leeds and York (IWW) and Bristol, Cheltenham and Horsham (IWGB affiliated) also voted to take action on that day.
We had 10 days to spring into action, and mobilise for the biggest – and most important – action we’d ever taken in Manchester!
Our branch meeting on the 6th was one of the best attended, and most productive meeting we’ve ever had. Every member came away with tasks to do to prepare for the day – new members writing up press releases and leafleting riders, members getting materials ready for the day. An organiser’s dream! We were messaging every left group in Manchester to share and support the action on the day, to an overwhelming positive response. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of “Oh the TUC, the Labour Party won’t support us” etc. The majority of these groups were really keen to share and promote the event, and a massive shout out to Stockport Momentum and Manchester Trades Council (as well as other groups) for turning up on the day!
In the run up to the strike, we contacted media across Manchester and the UK, promoting the event. We got positive coverage from the Morning Star and the Institute of Employment Rights before the strike, which really boosted riders’ morale. We only got coverage from local papers after the strikers blocking the road and getting police attention – a lesson for anyone doing press releases!
The day before the strike, two of us went around as many restaurants as we could, informing them of the strike, and asking them to turn their Deliveroo accounts off for the period of the strike. We let them know that orders were likely to be extremely late, with 50-70 riders on strike at least. For them, it’d affect their reputation with their customers. Obviously for us, them turning off the apps meant that any strike breakers wouldn’t have work, and Deliveroo would have reduced profits during that time. The links we’d made with hospitality workers in the years before hand had been helpful with this – we had workers contact us beforehand asking whether or not we should turn the app off. On the day, there was an overwhelmingly positive response from hospitality workers – we visited 30 restaurants and takeaways in Manchester, and the majority decided to turn off their Deliveroo accounts. It’s amazing what you can get away with as a white guy in a shirt and tie – on the news that Deliveroo would be on strike one worker had to hide her glee when she thought we were from Deliveroo. When we told her we were from the union, she burst out in support, following us out of the restaurant pledging her support. We posted about this on Facebook, and were approached by one of our members who asked how he could help in between leaving uni and meeting his parents for dinner. One quick email and printing session later, and he’d covered another 25 restaurants on Oxford Rd. An example of “distributed organising” in 20 minutes!
At 10.15, Manchester branch activists met at our office in Partisan, 20 minutes from the picket. As we were leaving the office, we were stopped by a woman who wanted to know what our signs were. We explained, she smiled and told us her daughter wasn’t working today because of the strike, and asked to take a picture to send her and her son who used to work for Deliveroo in Manchester. After, we were stopped by other pedestrians asking us what the signs were. All were supportive. The best reason to be late, to be honest!
At 11 am, we assembled at the top of Redhill St, waiting for riders and supporters to turn up. Turns out Deliveroo strikers have worse punctuality than lefties! I was told by one of the lead riders that we’d also be picketing their St Peter’s Square office (a much more central location) – news to me, but good news! The first 45 minutes or so were so awkward – all the strikers were in one group and most our members and supporters were in a separate one. Reminded me of awkward school discos!
After some cajoling by myself, the leading riders and other activists, at 12pm we moved from the top of Redhill Street to picket their Redhill St office, only to be met by a locked iron gate of the refurbished old mill that’s now home to Deliveroo and other startups in Manchester. We were informed by security that Deliveroo had sent all their workers home for the day before our strike! Redhill St is Deliveroo’s hub, where they ask riders to attend if they have any problems (usually asked to email them etc). Clearly didn’t expect 40 riders and their supporters to turn up with problems of low pay, precarious jobs and demanding a collective solution. Still, migrant precarious workers locked out of a mill in Ancoats made for a great photo opportunity – a real throwback to the 1800s!
I didn’t know that hipsters were into ironic “vintage” industrial relations too!
After we sent a delegation in to confirm the offices were vacant, we set off en masse for Manchester’s other Deliveroo office.
At 1pm we left Redhill Street, marching down Oldham Road and Portland Street to St Peter’s Square. It was great feeling to take the streets, marching down the road unopposed with riders so often viewed as part of the background in Manchester streets. The police tried to stop us, but with half of us on bikes and half of us on foot they couldn’t decide whether we should be on the road or the pavement! Regardless, we headed to Deliveroo’s central Manchester office, now protected by Greater Manchester Police. One of the riders commented “It’s not a strike if the police haven’t turned up.” – the best words you can hear on Valentine’s Day?
For the next two hours we chanted and demonstrated, leafleting passers-by and enjoying ourselves. It’s one of the few strikes I’ve been on where I’ve seen people smiling and enjoying themselves, and it’s one of the lasting memories I’ll take away from this. At the end one of the riders gave Deliveroo an ultimatum of 2 weeks to respond to our demands, and if they weren’t satisfactory, we’d strike again. I gave my first speech to a group of striking workers, telling them that their strike had inspired workers in 5 other cities to take action that day too, to their cheers and applause. I told them we’d be there by their side for as long as they wanted to take action, and that I had no love for Deliveroo, but all the love in my heart for them. We shook hands and parted ways. As we walked off, we passed one of the Eritrean riders translating what had been discussed to other riders there. To our amusement, we were told by one of our riders that Deliveroo was offering boosts for riders immediately after the strike. Looks like we had an effect! That evening another rider told us restaurants had been telling him Deliveroo had hired security for restaurants to protect them from the strikers – it’s a shame they can’t spend that money on meeting the demands on their workers.
Lessons to be learned:
Organising a strike is hard work!
To gain these contacts took months of leafleting, and was built on the hard work done by our members in Wales, Scotland, London and Bristol. In Manchester, we were only able to do this due to a number of activists having flexible or part time jobs – short notice meetings at 11am, collecting printing between 9 to 5, supporting the riders on a work day on the picket can’t be done by people working 9 to 5 jobs. Increasingly I think it’s more important that the IWW experiments with part time or full-time paid organisers to get around this, as I can’t see this being sustainable any other way.
We also needed to go out of our comfort zone – the Whatsapp group was chaotic at first, and had riders of all backgrounds there, not just the lefty activists we’re used to talking to. Organising over Whatsapp, and organising workers in the “gig economy” brings with it new and unique challenges. More than half of the off-topic conversations I can think of wouldn’t have happened in person meetings – at least I hope not! We had strict Muslims, guys promoting their mixtape, guys posting porn or chatting shit in the group all mixing together. A massive change from the 5 grumpy old trade unionists in the back of a pub, or 4 student activists complaining in a social centre that myself, and I imagine a lot of readers are used to. I found it really hard to know where to intervene here in terms of the macho behaviour some of the riders put forward in the chat. How do you challenge, over Whatsapp, the inadvertent (or intentional) misogyny produced by 20+ years of macho behaviour from people you’ve never met, or only met once? As leftists, we believe in unions, and strikes, as a transformative process for the class. Whilst I could see this happening in front of my eyes in terms of their understanding of class, I found it hard to see this in terms of other beliefs held. I’m not sure there’s an easy answer for this particular situation. As much as possible, we tried to keep this focused on the strike at hand to mitigate these issues. One notable moment was when a rider sceptical of the strike posted a Ben Shapiro (an alt right Youtuber) video in the chat, and the negative reactions the video got were amazing. Scab DESTROYED by REACTS and STRIKERS!!! It was a small, but very real lesson to the internet left that’s so worried about the alt right on Youtube.
We also couldn’t go into this with the standard approach of recruiting workers to the union “We can represent you in grievances and disciplinaries, if we get 50% membership we can get a recognition agreement which means X, Y and Z will be better.” So much of this doesn’t apply to self-employed workers, regardless of whether they legally are limb b workers or are genuinely self-employed. We had to meet these workers where they were at – they were willing to take action and wanted as many people as possible to get involved.
But it’s worth it!
The working class is out there, and ready to fight – from migrant riders organising marches on the boss, to a whole strike at short notice, to hearing one of them say “Our unity is our union, and our strength!” (the best Valentine’s day present anyone could wish for!) or “It’s not a strike if the police don’t get called” and seeing the group gradually understand more and more the basic principles of a strike – unity, mass participation, support from others, workers as leaders was amazing! A strike is the best education a worker can get in seeing where their interests diverge from their bosses’ – we tried to talk to Deliveroo at one office and were locked out, at the other police prevented us from entering the building they were in.
Ask for help:
There is absolutely no way I could have done what I did without the help of organisers in the IWW Couriers Network, and the help and advice of experienced trade union and community organisers in the build up to the day. Dividing tasks between riders and members on the day and in the build up was crucial to organising the strike. I can’t thank these members and my friends enough, and a short paragraph in this article is nowhere near the recognition they deserve. The riders knew that the help we provided was crucial. Their previous, self-organised attempts at action hadn’t gone as well as this.
Put workers in charge of their own fight:
From picking the strike date, location, demands, and what we did on the day, Deliveroo riders were in charge of their own struggle. They were the ones leading the chants and giving speeches, they were the ones deciding what we did on the day – our members and supporters were there to back them up, provide them with resources and advice. Frankly, I don’t think they’d have felt as confident or up for it if they weren’t in charge of their own struggle, and we wouldn’t have had as many involved if they weren’t in charge. It takes a huge amount of trust in workers to do this – there were so many times where I doubted they’d bring enough people for us to make a difference. I was wrong. I’ve never been more glad to be.
Media is important:
Press coverage from Morning Star and Institute of Employment Rights, as well as That’s Manchester and local journalism students was really important in boosting our confidence in the build up to the strike. It’s a shame it wasn’t covered more widely, but it’s to be expected by media owned by, and ran by a class with interests opposed to ours. All the more reason to support independent working-class media!
But we can make our own:
The Manchester Evening News only wanted to cover us after we blocked Portland Street. Photos of our leafleting and outreach before the strike and live streaming of the picket was crucial to let people know about our campaign. If people see you preparing for a protest or strike on Facebook and Twitter (we posted pictures of us leafleting riders, giving letters to restaurants, making placards etc), they’re more likely to turn up to an event, as they think it’ll be good. Unions of a similar size, organising similar constituents (I’m thinking ACORN, IWGB, UVW etc) have learned this lesson really well. It’s time for us to catch up – and quick!
The left is helpful:
Knowing we’d bring 20 to 30 supporters along on the day, as well as media contacts, placards, loud speakers really buoyed riders confidence in the build up to the strike. As a union we played a vital role in pushing riders in other cities to take action alongside them, which again boosted their confidence.
But working class leaders are vital:
We couldn’t have done this without a few key riders, who know who they are. Workers that other workers look up to, listen to and follow are important. Get them on board, and you have a company on the run and a city that’s stopped to listen to you – if only for a few hours.