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Is this Sheffield strike the most exciting workers' movement in the UK?

Gig economy workers in the city are beating their employers at their own game in a long-running fight for better pay and conditions.

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Couriers blockading KFC's drive-through at Queens Road on 6 February.

IWGB.

It's 1:30pm on a Sunday in early February and a dozen couriers are blockading KFC's drive-through on Queens Road. The managers at the branch panic – they weren't expecting a protest – but for the most part the customers are sympathetic.

After half an hour the drivers move on to McDonald's down the road, stopping up operations with banners, flags and pink smoke flares, while cars back up along the drive-through and car park. The branch's manager is reportedly on good terms with local couriers, and was seen making a tense phone call to company headquarters as the drivers brought the business to a standstill in a matter of minutes.

The blockades are the latest in an ongoing series of actions coordinated by the Independent Workers of Great Britain union (IWGB), which some have called the most exciting workers' movement in the UK.

The couriers work for Stuart Delivery, a London-based company ultimately owned by the French postal service, that provides subcontracted delivery services for takeaway app Just Eat in towns and cities across the UK.

In December the company changed the pay structure for drivers in Sheffield, with the base rate falling from £4.50 per delivery to £3.40. Union members are demanding a base rate of £6 per delivery, as well as paid waiting time between jobs.

Since then, and as a result of the strikes, Stuart have promised to introduce paid waiting time from April – but only after couriers have accepted a job and have spent at least 15 minutes waiting for food to be prepared, and they won't say at what rate.

Now Then asked Stuart what the rate would be, but they did not respond.

Organisers at the IWGB want paid waiting time to be introduced immediately at a rate of £15 an hour. They say they will escalate their actions to pressure the multimillion pound company into making concessions.

"Up until now these companies have operated with relative impunity – they have lost this or that fight in the courts but they've been able to fend off worker organisation so far," activist Ed Maltby told Now Then.

"I believe this strike is historic because it’s about ending the ability of gig economy platforms to ride roughshod over workers' rights. We are innovating and breaking new ground."

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Couriers and activists picketing McDonalds on Queens Road.

IWGB.

IWGB's tactic is to hurt big brands like McDonalds and KFC, which they hope in turn will cause Just Eat to put pressure on Stuart to reach a pay deal with the couriers. The union say the company could do this tomorrow if it wanted.

Over 34 days in December and January the campaign targeted six McDonald's across Sheffield, effectively shutting down their delivery business from 5pm until at least 8pm, their busiest time.

Some branch managers simply switched off the Just Eat system rather than let orders go cold waiting for a reduced number of couriers. The IWGB have heard rumours from staff that the action cost the fast food giant between £300,000 and £1m.

“We’re very strong as a strike because we can pick and choose when we work, and we can reject jobs or cancel jobs if they’re taking too long,” courier Bryn Atkinson-Woodcock told Now Then. “That’s our strength.”

The gig economy and the plight of the precariat

Since the rise of Uber ten years ago, consumers are increasingly used to the idea that they can order taxis, takeaways and even grocery items at any time of the day or night.

The army of couriers who power these services are not permanently employed by companies like Just Eat. Instead they're offered individual jobs through an app, which they can either accept or decline.

This is a delicate balancing act. Gig economy companies want to lock workers into their system so that they feel compelled to take on jobs and provide a reliable service for the likes of McDonald's, but not to the degree that the courts might define them as permanent employees who therefore must have employment rights.

This has led to the rise of an entirely new social class – often called the 'precariat' – which SOAS economist Guy Standing has said is defined by "unstable labour arrangements, lack of identity and erosion of rights." But Standing also believes they are the new "dangerous class", analogous to the proletariat in Karl Marx’s time, and carry “transformative potential”.

“Most drivers used to work eight to ten hours a day – now they work 10 to 12 hours,” Atkinson-Woodcock told me. “What people say is that drivers have to work a bit more to earn the same. We already work seven days a week for 10 to 12 hours, so there’s no more hours in the day. We know we’re taking home far below minimum wage.”

In a landmark ruling in February last year the UK supreme court declared that Uber drivers should be considered employees of the company and were therefore entitled to workers' rights including paid holidays and a minimum wage.

Other gig economy companies are keen to avoid this outcome. The Sheffield strikes exploit the fragility of this system – by keeping their workers at arm's length, the companies expose themselves more readily to strike action. Couriers don't have to ballot to strike like they would at a regular employer – they just have to turn down new jobs. And when these small actions are coordinated and organised by a union, they become a powerful tool.

'Strike waves' from Sheffield

The IWGB strikers have now turned their attention to a northern English institution, Greggs, with coordinated action starting in Sheffield towards the end of January and Chesterfield a week later.

Since then, workers have stopped the majority of deliveries between 1pm and 3pm at four branches in Sheffield, with noisy picket lines designed to put a dent in the Newcastle-based company's everyman brand.

In Woodseats, another organising hotspot, Just Eat orders from KFC, Subway, McDonald’s, Costa and Kaspa's Desserts grind to a halt between 1pm and 4pm every day, with each outlet picketed by two or three couriers.

Managers at Stuart have attempted to end the strike. IWGB members say that on 4 January the company invited a handpicked selection of workers to a "roundtable" at Sheffield's Jurys Inn to "resolve issues" and put an end to the action.

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Activists outside McDonald's on Queens Road.

IWGB.

But union members caught wind of the meeting and picketed it, arguing that couriers should be able to choose their own representatives for negotiations with the employer. According to the IWGB, the meeting was cancelled by text message and Stuart bosses left the hotel via the fire escape.

Organisers are now planning another day of action blockading drive-throughs – they won't reveal where – and say that the organising taking place in Sheffield has inspired a growing movement of gig economy workers across the country.

"Sheffield is radiating out strike waves," said Maltby. "There are strikes ongoing in Chesterfield and Middlesbrough, and organising is going on in Sunderland, Blackpool and other cities."

The IWGB campaign is already the longest-running gig economy strike in UK history. The coming months will show whether it leads to any meaningful change for couriers in Sheffield and across the country.

After attempting to gamify the workplace, 'disruptive' companies like Just Eat and Uber are finding that workers around the world are taking on employers at their own game – and winning. In aiming to circumvent workers' rights, the new companies of the gig economy, who once looked set to strike a death knell to the union movement, may have inadvertently shifted the balance of power between bosses and workers for good.

Now Then have contacted Stuart Deliveries for comment.

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