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From the Docks to Deliveroo

Modern trade unionism was born through the organisation of insecure, low-paid workers. As gig conditions return, collective struggle must, too.

Illustration by Carmen Casado

‘My biggest worry is where my next job will come from,’ says Antonio, a fast-food delivery driver. He is one of the millions of workers in the UK in what has become known as the ‘gig economy’: a form of work based on short-term and temporary jobs, particularly those accessed through digital platforms which connect supposed ‘freelancers’ with customers.

Over the last century, many of us have come to think of ‘work’ as stable employment via an employer with a regular wage or salary. For gig economy workers, those norms — regular hours for a single employer, or even being on the payroll — are no longer a reality. Instead, workers are finding work independently, going from one job to another to scratch a living. Research from the University of Bristol back in May found that as many as half of gig economy workers don’t make minimum wage. While there might be some ‘free agents’ who prefer this type of ‘independence’, there are many more who would prefer to have ‘traditional’ jobs as employees but do this work out of necessity.

The platforms and companies that make up this economy have proliferated since the financial crash of 2008 and the upheaval of the austerity years, encouraged by a generation of politicians with little or no interest in workers’ rights. But it would be a mistake to think of gig work as something new. Historically, precarity was normal for most working people. Before the growth of trade unions in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, work was almost universally casual: workers weren’t enrolled in pension schemes, they had no employment rights, and social security for unemployment didn’t exist.

Precarity aside, conditions for most at this time were harsh: long days, no holidays, low pay, dirty and unsanitary environments. There was no labour law at this time to protect workers from the considerable exploitation they faced from unscrupulous employers. Rather, politicians were hostile: the government responded to workers’ early attempts to come together by introducing legislation in 1721 to prevent them from collective bargaining. Anti–trade union legislation — although workers’ organisations weren’t yet called trade unions — followed in the form of the 1799 and 1800 Combination Acts, which made it unlawful for workers to collectivise to agitate for better pay and conditions.

The working class in the 1800s was stratified, the two groups being artisans and labourers, just as today workers are categorised as ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’. The artisans, back then, were skilled craft workers, who were successful in restricting entry into their trades in order to protect their more privileged labour market position. The labourers — deemed unskilled, despite working to build the canals, reservoirs, and railways so important to the development of British capitalism — were often casualised day workers scrambling to get by. Many were internal immigrants moving from rural to urban locations or external migrants from places like Ireland. They received low pay working the ‘lump’ (as self-employed), or they were employed as day labourers and paid one day at a time, with no promise of further work when that day was done.

And yet, despite their insecurity, these workers contributed much to the surge in trade unionism in the 1880s. It’s true that most of the growth in trade union membership in this period took place in already organised workplaces, where workers had some semblance of power. But the contribution of the new unions was to organise some of the country’s most precarious workers, even though the absence of employment rights made the process exceedingly difficult, with employers able to hire and fire at will. In these circumstances, these workers still came together, and fought one by one for the legal changes that have since transformed the lives of millions.

In explaining the growth of the new general unions at this time, there are a few key historical events to draw on: the Match Women’s Strike in 1888 at the Bryant and May factory in East London (women played a leading role in starting the process of unionisation in this period, contrary to what one might read in mainstream labour history); the Gas Workers’ Strike in June 1889; and the London Dockworkers’ Strike, which began a couple of months later, when workers went out demanding the eight-hour day and the ‘docker’s tanner’, a rate of six pence an hour for labourers. Today it is perhaps the dock strike that provides the clearest lessons.

In the 1880s, the Port of London was a massive employer, but 90 percent of workers were employed on a casual basis through hundreds of different companies. Men would turn up daily at the dock gate to wait and see if they would be given work for that day. There was then, just as now, a favourable economic climate in terms of low unemployment, meaning these ‘gig’ workers were in demand and could find alternative employment if sacked.

The question was not whether the dock workers had grievances: they were poorly paid, just four or five pence an hour, and the work was intermittent. The problem was how to quickly and effectively organise them at the docks, where there was no tradition of solidarity or strike funds, and where most had previously been deemed ‘unorganisable’ because of their ‘unskilled’ and casualised status.

The process was begun through hundreds of workplace and community meetings, which encouraged more workers out following the start of a strike by one section of the workforce. Within weeks, over 130,000 workers in and around the docks had joined the strike. The employers tried to starve the workers back to work, but union leaders arranged collections throughout London. At one stage during the strike as many as 100,000 meal vouchers worth one shilling each were issued to strikers daily.

After five weeks on strike, with no movement of goods into or out of the docks, the employers conceded the docker’s tanner: equivalent to a 20 percent increase in wages.

The new general unions of this period represented an alternative to the sectionalism and protectionism of the craft unions in that they opened unionism to non-craft work; they also signalled a shift in approach to the form and structure of unionism. The campaign for an eight-hour day, for example, marked an effort by unions to organise all workers, rather than just craft workers, by framing organising in terms of a broad social justice movement to help it gain popular appeal. Skilled and ‘gig’ workers were brought
together in a common strategy for their shared benefit, and also connected to the unemployed, who were, at the time, protesting the impact of poverty.

If these groups of casualised workers in the Victorian period had not organised, the gains all workers have enjoyed for the last century and more may never have been won, and many more of us would now be working in the conditions commonplace in the modern gig economy. We should be under no illusions about what the growth of that economy represents: an attempt to roll back some of those victories; to push more back into precarity and low pay in the interest of higher profits.

Organising the modern gig economy is no small task, but there are points of light. While staff turnover in places like Amazon makes organising difficult, and precarious workers like Deliveroo drivers fear losing access to their platforms if they start to organise, we are seeing signs of a gig workforce building its fight against exploitation.

In the space of a year, union membership at the Amazon warehouse in Coventry has increased by 5,000 percent, a jump that can be largely attributed to picket-line recruitment. More than 1,000 Amazon workers went on strike for four days in November, bringing the total of days lost to strike action to thirty this year. Deliveroo and Uber, similarly, have faced legal challenges from trade unionists demanding that drivers and riders be classified as workers to enable them to enjoy their rights as enshrined in employment law. Last year Just Eat couriers in Sheffield, working for Stuart Delivery, went out on strike for months over a pay cut. The strike was ultimately unsuccessful, but in a sector so hostile to any kind of unionisation, the action itself represents progress that can and should be built on.

Today, the spread of precarity in all sectors of the economy — from education and transport to the arts and beyond — shows just how urgent it is that we learn the lessons of history when it comes to organising the ‘unorganisable’. Indeed, it is in the interests of those who benefit from paying low wages and keeping workers too insecure to speak out to have us believe that some sectors are simply impossible to unionise. We have to fight that belief — or we could find ourselves sliding back to the Victorian era, and faster than we might think.