Couriers Strikes, Unions and Co-Operatives

Some strategies that we're taking, and some that we could take

June 7, 2021

I wrote this short post to pull together a few things which I’ve been reading about recently.

Couriers Fighting Against Dystopia

The ‘Gig Economy’ is often talked about in dystopian terms, of disappearing worker’s rights, of the domination of monolith platforms like UberEats and Deliveroo over disposable workers. In the face of this, couriers have been coming up with innovative and exciting new strategies to oppose it.

Wobbly - an app for decentralised union organising

The “fight” strategy took the UK by storm during a series of battles in 2018/19. All over the country, a plethora of grassroots, DIY groups organised themselves like unions. Made up of both Deliveroo and UberEats couriers and without hierarchy or centralised power typical of many modern unions, they federated into major strikes, even with workers from McDonalds and Wetherspoons during one particular action. Seriously impressive, right?! Perhaps put to one side by Covid, the movement is still fresh and energetic and will no doubt spontaneously reappear in the future, as these things are wont to do.

John Evans, former Deliveroo rider and co-founder of tech co-op Code-Operative has been working on an application. The “Geordie Kropotkin”, as he is known by his friends, noted that the action is organised primarily over WhatsApp, a tool vulnerable to exposing the telephone numbers of everyone involved, and poorly adapted to the needs of union organising - lacking features for federated communication with other groups or tools for collective decision making. The resulting app, Wobbly, is designed with security first, protecting the identity of its members, and with usability in a federated context.

CoopCycle - a worker-owned alternative

Whilst industrial action can improve the conditions of work, it ultimately can’t change the fundamental relationships with the employer. Worker’s co-ops present an alternative to UberEats and Deliveroo, providing the courier service on a platform fully owned and controlled by the workers who provide it. Imagine changing your working conditions directly, as the boss, instead of needing to strike to improve your conditions. To labour the point, the couriers choose their own pay.

CoopCycle is a federation of 60+ co-ops (at the time of writing), local courier co-operatives pooling tools so that they can compete with hierarchical platforms. Sharing the software needed to run a courier’s co-op and the platform of the users, the workers manage the platform they share.

For the uninitiated, this is what’s known as a Platform Co-op, and it’s a worker-owned alternative to the monolith platforms that we’ve become quite used to, and who have been in the news again and again for creating monopolies and often for downright sinister working conditions. Other platform co-ops exist in a number of different industries, for example cleaning, taxi and freelance development. If you’re interested in starting a new one, Coops UK might be a good place to start.

Software Developers and Co-operative organising

So here we have an example of software developers helping to create the tools to organise union action in a platform context, and an example helping to create the tools to organise co-operative alternatives to these platforms. Like John I’m a cofounder of Code-Operative, and I organise in other co-operatives and networks of those co-operatives.

To me the intersection between class war, workers and platform co-operatives is pretty clear. I imagine a well-organised network of workers pooling our resources together to approach groups of unionised workers and helping to start new co-operatives, and co-ordinating co-operatives to unionise and support workers. I don’t view co-operatives as utopian or fundamentally revolutionary, but I think that they can be a great way to improve the conditions of our lives, and the level of control we have over those conditions.

A poster by the IWW union depicting a clock and the slogan 'Time to Organize'

Semantic Web

I mentioned during the introduction to Wobbly that the federation of these unions is an objective of the app, and of the federation between hospitality workers during a particular phase of the 2018-19 strikes. Likewise CoopCycle represents the federation of co-operatives, using a single set of tools in a single platform.

One of the main reasons to write a linked-data application, and in particular to use Solid, is to make it interoperable. Interoperability means that the user can use different front-end applications to access the same data, and can access different data sources using the same front-end app, without needing the developers to write extensive API support for each.

In this context, writing Wobbly so that it’s interoperable would mean that different unions could federate with eachother’s instances without needing to have One Big Platform, that their users could move freely between these instances and services without being tied to a single application or forced into using it. Similarly it means that CoopCycle could federate with other similar initiatives, or even to expose data to other apps, for example some sort of Alternate Reality adventure (why not?).

Final note

If anyone has some ideas following on from this, the energy to go do something, and equally any criticism of the article or the way I’ve written it, then please contact me and let me know :-)