In the gig economy, it is no secret that delivery riders, and ride-hail drivers are beginning to resist exploitative practices by labour platforms.
The Leeds Index of Platform Labour Protest has identified protests all over the world, with an increasingly internationally linked class struggle mobilising against the business models and algorithmic management methods of Uber and others.
In Germany, action taken by a grassroots collective of workers at the Berlin-based grocery delivery company Gorillas— the Gorillas Workers Collective (GWC) – rather than a legally recognised union, has now revived the debate in Germany over the right to strike.
Gorillas – a ‘unicorn’ and its riders
Gorillas entered the German market in May 2020, its first ‘quick commerce’ grocery delivery company, that promised to deliver supermarket goods to customers’ doorsteps within 10 minutes. ”Pickers” assemble the shopping requests from warehouses set up all over Berlin, handing them over to “riders” for transport to the customer.
Gorillas has become known as the fastest growing “unicorn” – a privately owned start-up company valued at over £1 billion – in Europe. Its delivery riders have been identified by the company as key to its success. Yet, dissatisfaction amongst these riders is rising, and the GWC has led the resistance and action.
Whilst the riders are employed on fixed-term contracts and therefore have the rights of employees, the list of their complaints is long: late, too little, or non-payment of wages, insufficient work clothes, poor equipment and maintenance of the delivery bicycles, disregard for break times, and physical overload due to overly heavy backpacks.
The first protest, in February 2021, was a work stoppage, with riders spontaneously ceasing work because a lack of appropriate work clothes made it impossible for them to deliver goods in cold winter weather. Following the unlawful dismissal of a rider in June 2021, the predominantly migrant workforce decided to strike and publicly blockade Gorillas warehouses demanding the reinstatement of their colleague.
The GWC has also conducted an unprecedented media offensive, seeking to dismantle the myth of the “community-based” and progressive platform start-up. The company’s slogan “we deliver in 10 minutes” was transformed into “we organize in less than 10 minutes“.
Business-friendly news outlets have begun to question Gorillas’ ability to remain attractive to investors in the light of reputational damage. Further strikes have followed throughout 2021, leading to several warehouse closures.
A break with traditional German trade unionism?
The GWC protests have been harsher and more militant than earlier waves of protests at food delivery platforms Foodora and Lieferando in Germany. In total, Gorillas workers have taken part in five ‘wildcat strikes’, in which action is taken by workers without being sanctioned by a recognised trade union. Although they have a certain historical continuity, such wildcat strikes remain the exception in German industrial relations since WWII, with a strike in Germany today only being considered legal when it targets the conclusion of a collective agreement and when it is called by a legally acknowledged trade union beforehand.
In observing the Gorillas action, two things have been notable. First, the protests have shown that the structural power of workers is unusually high for a workplace in the platform sector. The company-owned warehouses were used by the workers as strategic nodes to bring business to a partial standstill. In terms of associational power, these spaces also served as meeting points for organising protests and building solidarity. This lies in contrast to “classical” food delivery processes where workers are isolated from each other. This spatial dimension might explain the unusual pace of the workers´ organization in the Gorillas case.
Second, during the protests, it seemed largely irrelevant to the riders whether their means of struggle and action is compatible with German industrial action law. Workers have followed their impulse and used what they perceive as necessary to exert pressure on the employer. In conversations during the blockades, it became clear that this was due to a lack of knowledge of the procedure for industrial action in Germany.
In part, this could be because many striking Gorillas workers come from parts of the world where trade union resistance is not typically channelled institutionally.
Although there is limited published research on this, commentators discuss the preference for direct action as an “import of labour struggle traditions”. This recalls that the notion of industrial legality is never static and always has to be reflected in the light of its regional context and past materialistic struggles.
The role of current labour law
Nonetheless, knowledge of industrial relations processes in Germany and knowledge might be critical to the success of action in this case. According to several riders’ accounts, the company often only reacted to communication attempts when extracts from labour law were quoted to prove Gorillas´ neglect of their legal employer’s duties. Yet, cynically, after another wave of strikes and several warehouse closures in October, the company used the same laws to prove the “illegality” of the strike activities as a reason to fire about 350 riders.
Riders have gone to the labour court to claim that these dismissals were unlawful for three reasons: because they were not written down; that workers were fired without warning; and that the initial labour contract was not valid because it was signed via an unpermitted electronic signature system. Interestingly, riders’ lawyers are also planning to challenge dismissals based on individual’s right to strike contained in the European Social Charter.
Looking at what has been achieved so far, the conclusion might be that there is a compelling interplay between institutionally anchored and outside-the-box means of industrial action. The GWC’s “illegal” industrial rule transgressions, its radical and confrontational language on Twitter and Instagram, and the media attention it attracts, can be understood as a necessary response to a business model that disregards social costs in pursuit of aggressive growth and expansion.
Despite the company’s attempts to prevent it, riders have managed to elect a works council and have secured wage increases. Several dismissed workers have already won cases in the labour courts and the company has been forced to reinstate dismissed riders through an injunction.
Maybe Europe’s fastest growing unicorn is on its way to becoming a unioncorn.