Reportage. From France to Italy, bicycle delivery workers for Uber-like platforms are celebrating May 1 with a ‘Riders Pride’ event in the streets. “We delude ourselves that we are independent,” one rider says, “but our tools of trade are the apps, which don’t belong to us.”

Digital capitalism is forcing a revival of old labor organizing tactics

“Many delivery workers seemed like they were relieved: ‘We no longer have bosses!’ The reality, though, is that our boss is now in our pocket, checking up on us at every moment, rewarding us and punishing us: it’s the algorithm of the app,” says Jerome Pimot, the national spokesperson for the Collectif des livreurs autonomes de Paris (CLAP) and a former worker for Deliveroo, the Uber-like food delivery service.

“Pacing yourself when it comes to delivery times means earning less overall,” Enrico says, worried, “so you go as fast as possible, putting yourself and others at risk.” Even more, the pay, which is already low, might be cut from day to day. There is no physical place to meet and talk to other workers in person.

These are some of the common experiences of bicycle delivery workers who work for digital food delivery platforms. All over Europe, even in Italy, they are called “riders.” Although “the term has become a little annoying; but it’s supposed to be endearing,” says Angelo from Deliverance Milan, the social union that is emerging in this field of digital work, together with the Riders Union of Bologna.

Delivery workers have been gathering at the Labas community center in Bologna, on April 15 and today, May 1, to fill the streets together with their bikes for the first “Riders Pride” event. “We will go out into the streets for all those who have no voice, who can’t go on strike, or who are forced to work because they are subjected to some form of blackmail,” they said.

This is the first demonstration they are organizing together after the judicial ruling made in Turin on April 11, which denied, for now, the status of employees to delivery workers working for Foodora. But now there is momentum, and the Italian delivery workers are not alone. “In 2016 there were three strikes, then 40 the following year in seven countries and 22 cities,” Jerome from Paris says. “In these years, workers’ collectives have sprouted up everywhere. They want to expose the narrative being pushed by the platforms.”

This is happening in France and Belgium, the UK and Germany. And now also in Italy: in Milan, Turin, Bologna and Rome, where you can see cyclists and bikers on the streets with delivery containers marked with the logos of Foodora, Glovo, Justeat, Uber Eats or Gnammo. From the Bologna meeting came an awareness of the need to come together to demand equal working conditions for all, in terms of wages and protections. “Fighting small battles is useless. We need to change the balance of power,” says Jerome, explaining how in Paris they organized picket lines to prevent orders from leaving restaurants for delivery, but always avoiding “giving off a bad image, and demonization.”

“In Brussels, we started putting our leaflets in the envelopes we delivered to customers,” adds Daniele, who has lived in Belgium for nine years and is a member of the Brussels Collectif des coursie-r-es. “We need to explain to customers and restaurant owners that the platforms are robbing all of us twice over: exploiting the work of those who are delivering, and profiting from the data they can collect.”

“Enough with calling these ‘gigs.’ They are jobs, even though part of the work is not paid,” Angelo says with passion.

“I don’t want to do volunteer work for millionaires!” Daniele says. He describes the everyday reality of gig work: in order to survive, they need at least eight or nine deliveries a day, usually at night and including on rainy days, having to wait for long periods of time (unpaid) for deliveries to be ready. Even now, few people know anything about how riders work. “It often happens that people in the street ask me which pizzeria I work for,” adds a Bologna delivery worker for Glovo. Giorgio, 28, works part time and makes deliveries in Bologna: “We created the Riders Union last fall, after a meeting in Turin,” he says. “Now there are 80 of us, from various platforms, out of about 300 overall in our city. The goal at this point is to build connections with other organizations in Italy.”

The riders in Bologna have already organized two strikes in recent months, the last one in February, when the snow had made the roads dangerous. “To fulfill the delivery times, we are forced to ride dangerously,” says Tommaso, one of the Bolognese riders. “One of our coworkers ended up in the hospital for two days. The company paid him for just those two evenings, leaving him with nothing during the month it took him to recover. That’s why we are demanding protection and an employee contract, so that INAIL could become involved.”

But there is also the economic aspect: “The pay ranges from €5 to €7 per hour, but the multinationals prefer paying per piece, with a payment of €5 per hour plus €1.20 for each delivery. The algorithm calculates the delivery times, and if you don’t fulfill them your score goes down and you get less work, and in the end you get kicked out.”

The Riders Union in Bologna, together with the municipal administration and the “traditional” Bolognese unions, have published a Charter of Fundamental Rights for digital work in an urban context. Next comes the difficult part. Even local governments can play an important role, argues Federico Martelloni, a professor of labor law and the director of the Civic Coalition in Bologna. The companies could be pushed toward accepting the principles of the Charter, “by means of leveraging the powers of the local administration in terms of public safety and mobility.”

“This type of ‘citywide contract,’” Tommaso explains, “provides for a number of safeguards regarding bike maintenance, for insurance coverage for damages in case of an accident, for supplementary allowances in case of bad weather, for privacy protection, and for a minimum wage.”

It remains to be seen how many companies will accept the Charter, and, as a result, whether this is a possible path to pursue in negotiations. There is no shortage of dilemmas being brought to light by these discussions. According to some riders, the workers themselves should be the ones to draw up a charter of rights and then define their relationship with the institutions.

If capitalism seems to be going back to how it was in the 19th century, it is the same with the ways in which workers are organizing themselves. “Reciprocity is the basis of our social union,” says Angelo. “In Milan there are bike offices, meeting points and information desks for legal and tax advice, as well as a union training course.”

“Every 30-40 kilometers, the bikes get repaired. In Bologna we have organized a service for bike replacements, and courses to learn basic repair,” Giorgio adds. All this has been done through close collaboration between riders and activists from the social centers, trade unions and civil society.

Workers are again talking about cooperation, just like in the workers’ movement when it was born. “We delude ourselves that we are independent, but our tools of trade are the apps, which don’t belong to us. To take back control, in France a year ago we created an app of our own, Coopcycle, a digital common good that belongs to those who contribute to it (the developers) or use it (cooperatives of delivery workers and caterers),” Jerome says. This is an experience that his Italian colleagues are looking at with great interest, even if one of them admits: “We would be happy even with a lot less than that.”

Experiments are being tried in law and technology, and new forms of association and struggle are making forms of organization from long ago relevant again. According to Daniele, “we must fight hard against this same-old version of capitalism, which is nothing but a form of fascism—yes, fascism! Today it’s us, and also you, the freelance journalists, but tomorrow the doctors might be next, and then everyone else.”

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