The Potential Power of Mass Action for Gig Workers

The gig economy presents a significant opportunity for capitalists to counteract the decline in the rate of profit. In response to the profitability decline since 1997, which was exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, capitalists aim to increase the intensity of work and tighten labour discipline to extract more surplus value from workers. Gig work capitalists take advantage of workers’ job precariousness, and they enjoy the absence of unions, which enables them to heighten this trend. The clear solution to this exploitative relationship is public ownership of the platform, which after all is a means of production similar to the machinery in a car factory. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to develop a political strategy and a set of tactics with transitional demands that will unite gig workers themselves, unite them with other workers, and together resist the capitalist offensive.

Who are “Gig Workers”? 

Gig workers execute specific, often one-off tasks for individuals or firms via digital labour platforms through short-term contracts. They can perform their duties via location-based platforms like Uber, Lyft, and SkipTheDishes, or web-based freelancing platforms like Upwork, Freelancer, and Amazon Mechanical Turk. The percentage of gig workers in Canada has nearly doubled in 15 years, rising from 5.5% of all workers in 2005 to around 10% in 2020. Approximately 250,000 Canadians participate in gig work via digital platforms, with ride-sharing and delivery services being the most common.

Gig workers confront a multitude of challenges, including misclassification, inadequate pay, the risk of delayed or non-payment of wages, erratic schedules and income, unsafe working conditions, and restricted access to conflict resolution. Misclassification poses a significant problem for gig workers since they commonly share several features of an employee, but are often categorized as independent contractors, which deprives them of the right to form a union, the gateway to workers’ rights that were gained historically through workers’ struggles. As a result, they lack essential benefits such as provided by labour standards law, minimum wage protection, and safeguards against unpaid work hours while searching for gigs or waiting for task assignments on e-platforms.

Furthermore, firms such as Instacart, DoorDash, and Shipt have been testing “black box algorithms” that implement random and opaque modifications to workers’ pay rates and performance evaluations, which may adversely affect their earnings. Additionally, there are algorithms that observe and monitor the actions of workers.

Gig workers also encounter the hazard of delayed or non-payment, particularly for those who solely work online, since tasks can be accepted or declined without compensation. The erratic schedules and income inherent to gig work make it challenging for workers to budget, which worsens their job insecurity. Furthermore, gig workers bear the sole responsibility for their own health and safety at work; they may be uninformed about their rights or how to file a complaint with the Ministry of Labour.

The Trudeau Liberal government took some steps to acknowledge these predicaments. On March 22, 2023, the Minister of Labour, Seamus O’Regan Jr., released a “What we heard” report on gig work that aimed to examine the impact of these work arrangements on workers’ rights and protections. He conceded that gig work does not offer workers the labour rights and fundamental job safeguards to which they are entitled. The government committed to revising the Canada Labour Code to safeguard gig workers.

Nonetheless, the strike-breaking Trudeau administration should not be trusted to remedy this situation. It is imperative that labour activists take concerted action to ensure social justice is achieved.  It is vital to consider what role the Canadian Labour Congress and unions can play in organizing gig workers and developing robust labour organizations.

Novel Ways forward to Labour Militancy

Let us begin by dispelling the erroneous notion that gig workers are a passive group of people who do not resist. This is not only untrue in Canada, but also around the world.

Recall the historic triumph of Foodora workers in 2020. They were battling low pay and safety hazards that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite being on the front line of the crisis, couriers were not provided with protective health gear.

In February 2020, the workers achieved a significant victory when the labour board ruled that Foodora couriers had been wrongly classified as independent contractors, which prevented them from unionizing. This decision enabled couriers and their prospective representatives, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), to continue the struggle to unionize Foodora workers. Although the outcome for Foodora workers was ultimately negative, their success in organizing, with the support of a socially progressive union like CUPW, demonstrates the potential of organized labour militancy to bring about significant improvements in wages and working conditions.

Gig Workers United, with support from the CUPW, has taken on the task of challenging the Doug Ford Ontario government’s Bill 88, which provides gig platform workers with pay below the minimum wage and allows employers to wrongly classify gig workers as independent contractors, among other deficiencies. The Digital Platform Workers’ Rights Act, a contentious bill introduced by the Ford government, aims to raise the pay of Uber, Lyft, DoorDash drivers, and other couriers to $15 per hour. However, this increase would only be applicable when a worker is actively transporting someone to their destination, and not when they are waiting for food at a restaurant or for an order of any kind, time for which they would not be compensated.

Globally, gig workers are organizing themselves in non-traditional ways, reshaping labour militancy on a new terrain — compared to more conventional occupations of the working class.

The gig workers’ movement is thriving and leveraging technology and social media platforms to establish solidarity networks and coordinate labour actions that cross international borders. Through unconventional methods like wildcat walkouts, motorbike and bicycle strikes, and clandestine organizing via WhatsApp, they are shaking the status quo. They exchange knowledge and insights to challenge the algorithmic control that governs their work, drawing from the experiences of fellow gig workers around the world and sharing strategies for effective resistance.

According to Callum Cant at the University of Oxford, gig work creates unique vulnerabilities for employers and opens up opportunities for workers to take action. While apps replace direct supervision and management, peaceful conflict resolution is often not possible due to the inhuman algorithms that govern the work. Without traditional managerial intervention, gig workers face a different set of challenges. However, by logging off from the app or circumventing the technology, workers can limit their employer’s options to manage them.

Union Democracy … to Build Trust

Although gig workers are using innovative tactics to engage in labour militancy, their revolts tend to be brief and disbursed. They often lack a willingness to collaborate closely with established unions to develop a sustained and widespread labour activism. One significant factor, as pointed out by Jamie Woodcock from the University of Essex, is their distrust of existing unions and union leaders.

In a historic move, workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York voted to establish the first labour union for the company in the US last year. This monumental achievement gained worldwide attention, making them the first Amazon workers recognized by the U.S. National Labour Relations Board as being part of a union. The grassroots movement was bolstered by several strike actions and represented a significant defeat for Amazon, which had staunchly opposed unionization efforts.

Although the Amazon labour Union operates autonomously from mainstream labour organizations, this strategy has incurred a cost that jeopardizes the union’s endurance over time.

Despite a surprising victory one year ago, the sole union representing Amazon workers in the United States has since encountered various conflicts and setbacks, leading long-time supporters to question its ability to endure. The principal predicament lies in a dearth of resources, as the union continues to rely on funding from external organizations with erratic donation patterns. Reports suggest that the union’s finances are unsteady, constraining its expansion efforts. For instance, at an Albany, New York warehouse, the union lost an election by a significant two to one margin.

Distrust among gig workers towards conventional union leadership is a complex matter that intersects with the demographics of the gig economy. The gig workforce consists primarily of young individuals who view hierarchical structures as being irrelevant to their distinct working circumstances.

Union leadership has increasingly become separated from the rank-and-file, leading to a disconnect between the leadership’s agenda and the lived experiences of gig workers. Furthermore, the leaders’ inability to mobilize beyond their traditional membership base amplifies this disconnect. Among the gig workforce, delivery riders comprise a significant portion and tend to hail from the lowest socioeconomic strata of society. Often, these riders are migrants, refugees, and individuals without access to formal employment opportunities.

The gig economy has introduced a fresh set of challenges, necessitating innovative solutions to adequately advocate for and aid gig workers. Rather than disregarding the grievances of gig workers, unions should acknowledge and embrace the distinct challenges of gig work and develop suitable strategies to confront them.

Taking a proactive approach entails reaching out to gig workers, establishing trust, and advocating for their rights. Larger unions can play a crucial role in supporting gig workers’ organizing endeavors by providing financial resources for hiring full-time organizers, covering all associated costs of organizing, offering legal support, and providing any other necessary assistance to enable effective worker organizing. By doing so, unions can have a significant impact on enhancing the working conditions of gig workers, who have been historically susceptible to exploitation and discrimination.

Rebuilding and reinvigorating our unions entail creating a more democratic, flexible, and responsive union that meets the needs of gig workers. To accomplish this, unions must concentrate on building trust with gig workers and ensuring their representation in union decision-making. This necessitates democratizing unions and developing structures that facilitate gig workers’ participation in union decision-making, even before bargaining unit recognition is won, as well as fostering a sense of belonging among gig workers that will promote long-term unionization efforts.

To effectively mobilize and organize those who are frequently marginalized and disenfranchised, such as part-time workers, gig economy employees, precarious workers, zero-hours contract workers, and individuals classified as independent contractors, a fundamental shift in approach is essential. Specifically, we must replace the conservative bureaucrats who have traditionally dominated labour negotiations and decision-making processes with class struggle militants who can lead more openly, more accountability, and from the bottom up. Doing so will assist unions in addressing the stagnation or decline in membership, and the growing disillusionment, and regain strength by leveraging the influence of gig economy activists.

In January 2022, the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCWC) reached an agreement with UberEats that permits the union to offer representation to roughly 100,000 Canadian drivers and couriers in the event of account deactivations or other disputes with the company. It is worth noting that this agreement does not amount to unionization. CUPW has lodged a complaint against this agreement with the provincial labour relations board, arguing that the workers were misled by the employer.

To truly strengthen the unity of the labour movement, there needs to be a common perspective across unions, with a shared goal of building empowering unions that exercise leverage against employers. Simply relying on agreements based on the goodwill of bosses is not viable.

Its deal with United Food and Commercial Workers Canada “enshrines Uber’s current business model, under the progressive guise of allowing its workers to unionize,” argues Uber Eats delivery courier Jennifer Scott. She is the president of Gig Workers United, backed by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Both unions were signatories to the Gig Workers’ Bill of Rights, which calls for “full employment rights with no carve-outs.” Source: Viewpoint, Photo: Gig Workers United,

Need for a Targeted, Focused Sectoral Strike

Prioritizing sectoral strikes in our labour agenda is of utmost importance. Firstly, sectoral strikes provide invaluable opportunities for union activists to exchange experiences, acquire technical skills, and explore innovative ways to exert influence in traditional workplaces. Furthermore, this collective action promotes class solidarity and educates all participants, including the wider public, about the shared needs of workers that are fundamentally opposed to the interests of their employers. In addition, these strikes highlight the necessity of self-reliance among workers.  Lasting change cannot solely rely on government intervention due to the possibility of legal protections being withdrawn or policies being weakened with a change of government, even a shift within a given regime.

Effectively organizing sector-wide strikes necessitates a well-planned and executed strategy. A class struggle unionism approach offers numerous options to consider. The following are some ideas that labour activists should regard:

The approach could have two dimensions. Firstly, the strike should focus on a specific employer and location, such as UberEats operating in Toronto.  A major restaurant chain could be targeted as a picket location. Labour unionists and allies could be directed to support gig workers at their picket line in front of the restaurant. Campaign materials should be distributed to create awareness among customers who frequent the business. Additionally, gig workers can be mobilized to distribute messages through social media and messaging applications such as WhatsApp, Discord, and Signal, among others. Customers can also be invited to join a boycott of the targeted restaurant chain and UberEats.

Secondly, the strike may be limited in time — perhaps a two-week-long strike, to mobilize resources from existing unions to support the campaign — without breaking the bank. For instance, striking workers can be compensated for their time picketing without depleting their income. Compensation can be paid from existing unions’ strike funds or via a new time-limited contribution above union dues. Focusing the strike within a specific time frame strengthens class solidarity without depleting the much-needed strike funds that serve as a strong buffer for the ongoing fight against greedy bosses.

It is essential to identify and target the supply chain linkages within which gig worker industries are located. For example, food delivery workers work in close collaboration with restaurant workers as potential strike targets, not only the company that the delivery workers work for but also the main customers of these restaurant chains. Gig workers also contribute to the viability of manufacturing, including car factories and technology firms, which tend to be unionized, a stronghold of labour.  Targeting these industries and supply chains can leverage existing power.

The gig economy is intricately connected to the broader economy through supply chains that link smaller platform companies to larger corporations where unions are stronger. These smaller companies provide critical services such as cleaning, security, and more, to factories, warehouses, airports, hospitals, schools, and other industries where the labour movement is more established. While a strike by a single platform may have a limited impact, a coordinated strike that halts the entire supply chain could interrupt an entire segment of economic activity.

For this reason, organized labour must go beyond mobilizing its existing membership base and embrace a social movement approach that defends the interests of the working class as a whole.

A win for gig workers would not only be a triumph and a source of motivation for Canada’s working people, but it would also create new opportunities for building a broad and dynamic labour movement that challenges capitalist rule. 

(by YK / April 15, 2023)

Photo: Gig Workers United (Source)