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(c) New Internationalist

Uber drivers of the world, unite!

Labour
Unions

In the final weeks of 2018, a minor crisis was unfolding in a warehouse in West London. A shipment of conveyor-belt parts intended for the British Virgin Islands had not shown up. The van carrying the parts from a factory in Spain to London, via France, had been held up by the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) and the shipment missed its Caribbean-bound cargo flight.

The powerful and contradictory ‘yellow vests’ mass movement against Emmanuel Macron’s government has two core tactics: rioting and blockades. The obstruction of roundabouts across France proliferated to the point that it caused a chain reaction, preventing shipments from moving reliably from A to B. The interrupted passage of the conveyor-belt parts bound for West London was of no particular significance for the global circulation of commodities – but their fate shows up the intense vulnerability of our global economy’s extended supply chains. Increasingly, workers are starting to use that vulnerability to their advantage.

The logic of logistics

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the Italian grassroots unions Si Cobas and ADL Cobas have made extensive use of strikes and blockades to build worker power in the chain of distribution centres that form the backbone of the Italian economy.

Their organizing has proved so effective that state and company bosses have turned to repression. In 2017 Aldo Milani, the national co-ordinator of the Si Cobas union, was arrested and imprisoned on what were widely seen as bogus corruption charges. In response, logistics workers went on strike and a large demonstration was held outside the prison where Milani was being held. Three days later, with parts of the national supply chain paralysed, he was released. Italian logistics workers have taken advantage of the logistical vulnerability of modern capitalism to develop the kind of class power that can break a comrade out of jail.

This is not the first time workers have targeted the logistical weak points of capitalism. In the early 20th century, the internationalist union Industrial Workers of the World organized itinerant agricultural workers in the US by taking over the country’s freight-train system. They turned box cars into recruiting centres, and ultimately won huge wage increases for a workforce that had previously seemed firmly out of reach. In the UK, the London dock strike of 1899 catalysed the development of the ‘new unionism’, which led to decades of working-class organization and action.

While it may not be a new tactic, this new trend towards action in the warehousing sector is taking place when capitalism’s logistical vulnerability is more pronounced than ever. Some 20 million shipping containers make 200 million journeys per year, with workers co-operating across borders to move commodities across vast distances. When these containers are unloaded, the contents are often put straight into huge warehouse complexes on the periphery of urban areas by tens of thousands of low-paid, exploited and precarious workers. What’s more, the development of a doctrine of ‘just in time production’ means that many companies maintain incredibly low stock levels, and rely on the precise delivery of goods in order to continue work. The margins for error are tiny. The ‘new terrain’ of capitalist circulation is a tinder box.

Bad gigs

Even in the most advanced technological contexts, such as the warehouses of mega-retailer Amazon, these tinder boxes are starting to catch fire. In Italy, Germany and Spain, the last few years have seen workers in Amazon distribution centres co-ordinating strike action. But the struggle goes much wider than warehouses.

The growth of internet retailing and the so-called ‘gig economy’ both rely upon an increased ability for capitalism to deliver goods and provide services in very specific places at very specific times. The last mile of the supply chain is becoming increasingly important for companies such as the food delivery app Deliveroo or taxi service app Uber. This last mile is also now the subject of an increasingly global battle over wages and conditions.

Uber drivers in San Francisco, London, Bangalore and Johannesburg share a common employer. Or rather a common enemy

When the gig economy rose to prominence, many commentators noted how isolating its work could be. In most countries, workers for apps like Deliveroo and Uber are not legally considered employees, but rather self-employed ‘independent contractors’. As a result, they have highly limited (if any) access to rights such as the minimum wage, sick pay, holiday pay, union representation and security of employment. In many ways, they are hyper-precarious. Some commentators argued that the growth of platform capitalism pointed towards a future of work without unions. But workers are proving the analysts wrong. They may not be forming unions in the traditional sense, but they are finding ways to get together and fight back. In the case of food delivery platforms, text-chats via mobile phones have been the impetus behind a transnational wave of strike action. This has seen everything from repeated violent confrontations between workers and the police in China – where strikes by food-delivery workers made up 11 per cent of all industrial action in the service sector in the first half of 2017 – to an ongoing Europe-wide clash between workers and their employer-platforms in at least seven countries.

The transnational spread of struggles against platforms is becoming the rule rather than the exception. Before Uber, it would have been hard to imagine how taxi drivers in San Francisco, London, Bangalore and Johannesburg could have shared interests. However, the centralization of platform capitalism, along with the way these companies monopolize and grow, means that these drivers now have a common employer. Or rather a common enemy, given that Uber refuses to admit that they employ any of the drivers.

Migrant vanguard

Across all these struggles, migrant workers are at the fore: Somali workers at Amazon in Minnesota; North African workers in logistics in Italy; Zimbabwean Uber drivers in South Africa; Bengali, Eastern European and Brazilian workers at Deliveroo in London, or the many other migrant worker groups that have found new ways to wage class struggle, on and off platforms. European politicians often advance a form of xeno-racism by claiming that migrant workers bring down the wages of ‘native’ workers. In the logistics sector and the ‘last mile’ of platform capitalism, the truth is exactly the opposite – migrant workers are leading the fight for the entire working class.  

As capitalism becomes ever more reliant on the co-operation of workers across borders, the workers’ movement is becoming ever more international. Whether through the physical link of shipments or the digital link of the platform, workers are co-ordinating their action across borders. But despite the differences from what has gone before, the winning methods are the same: direct and militant collective action based on maximizing leverage at the point of production. The workers’ movement needs to recognize that far from posing a threat to other workers’ conditions, migrant organizers are leading the way, providing much-needed examples of successful struggle that need to be celebrated and followed.

Notes from Below is an online socialist publication which uses workers’ inquiry to understand capitalism and the struggle against it from the shop floor up.

New Internationalist issue 518 magazine cover This article is from the March-April 2019 issue of New Internationalist.
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