Worker resistance and the gig economy: lessons from the Sheffield courier strike
Guy Cowman-Sharpe - Doctoral Researcher, Department of Politics & IR
Christopher Leach - Undergraduate, History & Politics
For eight months, platform workers in Sheffield organised the longest strike in the history of the gig economy. History and Politics student Christopher Leach spoke to striking platform workers as part of a Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) project.
From November 2021 to July 2022, couriers working for Just Eat subcontractor Stuart Delivery went on strike in Sheffield over a 24% base rate pay cut. This industrial action consisted of declining orders from major restaurants listed on Just Eat (including MacDonald’s and Greggs) as well as physical picket lines. While centred in Sheffield, the strike spread to towns and cities across the North and Midlands and achieved national media coverage.
Platform work consists of signing up to an app-based platform and completing tasks for payment according to a piece-rate pay scale. One of the most common forms of platform work is food delivery, through applications such as Uber Eats, Just Eat and Deliveroo. These companies have transformed the food delivery market, with the number of platform-to-customer food delivery users forecast to reach 13.1 million in the UK by 2024. In the UK an estimated 4.7 million workers are employed in platform work (approximately 1 in 10 adults), a figure that is thought to have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the rise of digital technologies and extension of platforms, the process by which workers create value is rapidly changing – as are the methods of worker discipline. “Algorithmic management” systems distribute and assess work on digital platforms based on data, such as customer ratings, location or time taken to complete a task. If workers fail to meet the required metrics for a platform, they risk their account being deactivated with limited right to appeal. These data-driven management practices have been described as “digital Taylorism”, a fine-tuning of the labour process to realise as much profit as possible.
Platform work is typically described as “precarious” for two reasons: firstly, that the piece-rate pay system means a great fluctuation in the amount a platform worker makes per job they do; secondly, platform-based companies have historically classified their workers as independent contractors meaning that they are not afforded the same securities and protections as employees. This practice is a grey area in employment law, with several ongoing legal challenges seeking to clarify the status of these workers.
It was a cut to the pay system that provoked couriers in Sheffield to take action. Stuart’s base rate of pay (the amount paid for the first half-mile driven) decreased from £4.50 down to £3.40. This pay cut, alongside new onboarding programmes limiting the availability of orders to pick up, led drivers to increase their hours to maintain their incomes. “I know drivers who get like three hours’ sleep a night and are down at MacDonald’s working the rest of the time. They’re constantly on orders”, one participant stated; meanwhile, Stuart Delivery CEO Damien Bon was awarded a £2 million pay rise in 2020.
The flexibility to work when and where one wants is hailed by platforms as the primary benefit of platform labour. One participant recalled that when starting to work for Stuart Delivery, “the perks of working for yourself…is such a draw”. But with the change to the base rate, this appeal quickly faded: “so yeah, the job changed dramatically because it’s just not what it was. Now…it’s like any other job, it’s a rat race.”
In the face of such precarious conditions, platform work has led to a range of new tactics used by workers to organise industrial action as a response. One tactic developed in the Sheffield strike was the targeting of partner restaurants. As Stuart Delivery does not have an office presence in Sheffield, targeting partner restaurants through refusing deliveries and picket lines put pressure on a specific element of the supply chain and helped to raise awareness by creating a physical presence at restaurants.
Activists from Sheffield’s student body and the University and College Union turned out to support pickets, encouraging drivers to not accept deliveries from targeted restaurants. Politicians at the local and national level offered words of support for the strike, with 35 MPs signing an early day motion condemning Stuart Delivery. Donations totalling £50,000 were made into the strike fund.
In addition to traditional pickets, direct action tactics were used by drivers to supplement strike action. Restaurant drive-throughs were blocked by couriers and supporters, couriers and activists attended shareholder meetings of companies involved and organised sit-ins at the headquarters of Greggs. These direct-action tactics bolstered awareness of the campaign across different nodes of Stuart Delivery’s supply chain.
Space and organising in the platform economy
Lacking the physical workplace of the factory or the office, workers involved in the dispute developed online networks to facilitate and coordinate action, primarily through WhatsApp groups. Strike committees were set up from these WhatsApp groups, providing a physical space for couriers to meet with activists and discuss strategy for the dispute. Coordinated days of action were organised in May 2022 as a result of these committees, involving couriers in towns and cities across the UK, holding demonstrations and leafleting in city centres. A social media campaign was also launched, helping to spread awareness and raise funds from supporters and other trade unions.
At the time of writing, the Stuart pay cut has yet to be reversed. Despite the ultimate failure of the Sheffield strike, evidence from Fairwork (a project based at the Oxford Internet Institute) suggests that while problems persist, collective action on the part of UK platform workers continues to improve the conditions afforded by digital platforms. The networks formed during the Sheffield courier strike are still in place today – discussing the use of WhatsApp as an organising tool, one participant told us that “people are still in contact…meaning whenever there is a problem, they’re still connected.” While algorithmic management places new constraints on the labour process, platform labour allows the space for new innovative practices of organisation and resistance.