Writing the manual on gig worker organizing

The CUPW campaign at Foodora in Toronto is combining conventional and unconventional strategies to reach each and every gig worker where there is no fixed workplace.

Image: A Foodora worker signs a union card on their delivery bike.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) is breaking the mold of gig worker organizing, with workers who deliver restaurant food to home customers for a company called Foodora.

Foodora operates like many other app-based employers, assigning work through an algorithm. Workers sign into the app, get assigned a restaurant to pick up from, and a customer to deliver to. They are classified as “independent contractors” even though their terms of work are thoroughly dictated by the employer.

What is remarkable are the organizing methods that CUPW is bringing to this nontraditional workplace. Some unions and even seasoned organizers have expressed doubts about whether gig workers can be organized, at least with traditional methods. Attempts to organize rideshare drivers have focused on legal challenges to their misclassification as “independent contractors,” and on media-heavy pressure campaigns.

The Foodora campaign is different. The union adopted the classic approach of talking one-on-one to every single worker. In such an unconventional workplace, this required using creative strategies for finding workers and having those conversations.

Issues

Foodora workers face a number of issues. One of the major grievances is scheduling. Unlike with some rideshare apps, delivery workers – some of whom deliver on both bikes, and some in cars – cannot just toggle the app on and off when they feel like it. Instead, four-hour shifts are put up for bid once a week, on Wednesdays. Workers are divided into three blocks, getting first, second, or third pick.

Chris, a courier, explains: “If you don’t get to bid in the first round of shifts, you’re stuck in a place you don’t want to work, working hours you don’t want to work.” That can include an area far from the city center, where distances are greater and orders less frequent.

For this reason and others, the union is arguing that workers’ classification as independent contractors is bogus. (Instead, they are seeking “dependent contractor” status.) For example, workers are not allowed to choose between different delivery errands. The app assigns them one, and if they decline it, they are put on a forced break.

Chris says this is just one way that the company deliberately punishes workers, but defers responsibility by blaming it on the app’s algorithm.

Pay is another issue. Workers are paid $4.50 per delivery, plus a dollar per kilometer, but they are not paid for pickup travel. So, after delivering food to a customer, they are assigned their next pick up, and their travel to that pick up is not paid. Nor, of course, is the time they spend waiting for elevators, waiting for customers, or waiting on food orders in restaurants.

The company claims that workers are averaging $21 per hour, but Liisa, an outside organizer with the campaign, says this cannot be true. “In some conditions” – as when inclement weather affects travel time – “I’d say it’s humanly impossible to make above $20 an hour.” Workers are at the mercy of how busy it is that day. And there is no guaranteed, base wage in the center zone. On a slow day, a courier may make less than minimum-wage, or nothing in an hour. In the outer zone, where there is a guaranteed, base wage of $16, earned income and even tips are applied against that.

All of this makes it difficult to rely on steady income from week to week, and to live in one of Canada’s most expensive cities.

In addition to this, there are health and safety issues, especially for bike couriers, who get hit by cars or otherwise injured on the street. Liisa says there is little protection for them. “The company tries to paint itself as generous for paying the bare minimum into workplace safety insurance,” she says, but when workers try to file for compensation, they are unable to get much, in part because of the way that income and hours worked are averaged for claims. “One of our injured workers right now is getting $70 a week. And that was after three months of fighting [for compensation] and waiting. And she was working full, full time as a courier.”

Organizing strategy

The most impressive aspect of this campaign is the organizing methodology, especially in light of how non-traditional the workplace is. There’s no brick-and-mortar worksite, or even centralized dispatch, where workers begin or end of shift. As Liisa puts it, “You can’t just go outside the factory gates and wait for people to come out.” There is no common break room, and no posted schedule. There is no stack of paychecks or name tags to look through. There is no company directory or employee email list. Workers cannot see each other through the app. So the first step of gathering a complete contact list and reaching out to every single worker is a huge challenge.

Chris says the campaign started small, among the bike couriers. A handful started reaching out, first to people they knew, and then to others beyond that: “‘I’ve seen this person around, and they seem cool.’” They held meetings in the park on Monday nights. It was “very driven by friendship groups,” he says, along with some outreach on social media. Then growth plateaued.

When CUPW got involved, the core of the approach became on-the-street outreach. Aaron, a campaign strategist, says that organizers began by identifying where the concentrations of restaurants are. They camped nearby and learned to spot workers. “The company doesn’t have a requirement for uniforms, but they [give workers] better gear – a better courier bag, a better winter jacket,” Aaron says. “So you see someone with that courier bag, and you flag them down: ‘Are you delivering for Foodora?’”

“We had a constant street presence,” says Liisa. “It was waiting outside of busy restaurants. Waiting in areas where we knew cars would be stopping, and then running up to them and trying to have a 30-second organizing conversation with them before the light changes.” The union actually trained and drilled the organizing committee – entirely made up of Foodora workers themselves – on how to have an organizing conversation in thirty seconds. It also trained them on how to have conversations with workers waiting on an order, in a restaurant. Liisa says, “we also had one called ‘the ride-along’: ‘Hey man, can I ride with you to your next order?’ Which is an extremely awkward thing to propose, but very effective in terms of getting to know people.” At peak times, organizers would go out in teams of two or three, and wait outside of busy restaurants, at busy intersections, “and literally chase people down on the street,” she says.

The objective of these conversations was to always get a phone number, to enable more contact with the worker.

After getting workers’ contact information, they would be invited to a sit-down conversation to talk about their issues – “How do you feel about working for Foodora? Is there anything you want to change?” — and eventually asked to sign a union card. There were other forms of follow-up as well. Workers would be invited to weekly meetings, or issue-specific meetings. A strategic part of the outreach was to offer concrete help to couriers and drivers: “We’d hold ‘know your rights’ workshops,” Aaron says, “bike repair workshops, ‘how to fight parking tickets,’ tax workshops. These are all issues they face because they are labeled independent contractors.” They also always asked for contact information for more workers.

These methods proved critical in expanding the campaign through Foodora’s diverse workforce. “You have the committed bike courier crew,” says Liisa — people “who came out of the old bike messenger world, of delivering paper, and then transitioned to delivering food when that became a thing.” But drivers come from a different demographic – they are a “very racialized workforce” with “a lot more women, and a lot of international students, who are trying to make ends meet while also going to school and supporting their families back home.”

As with any successful organizing campaign, a key strategy was to identify leaders, especially among the different ethnic communities and social groupings working for the company, and to specifically try to bring them on board the campaign, and use them to reach more members.

Still, these methods could not be guaranteed to reach every Foodora worker. When recruitment plateaued again, organizers made the decision to go public. Going public “before submitting cards to the labor board is something you don’t normally do in a campaign,” Liisa notes, but “we needed to flush out the rest of the courier [and driver] base.” Workers did a group ride through the streets of Toronto, then marched on the director of Canadian operations with their intent to unionize.

After that, the campaign purchased ads on transit in the corridors where couriers would be working, or traveling to work — this required first mapping out where couriers primarily lived and worked. Organizers also launched “a digital online presence” inviting workers to reach out. But street outreach also continued, with conversations now more up-front: “Have you heard about the union for Foodora workers?” And all new contacts were followed up with one-on-one conversations.

In short, the approach combined traditional and non-traditional methods. Liisa notes, “It was definitely like, ‘no one has written the organizing manual for this kind of industry.’ We were sort of flying blind, but also asking couriers who have organized elsewhere. But also figuring it out as we went along.” Aaron estimates that, in the end, “I think that we made at least some form of contact with every worker.”

Asked why they chose the approach they did – especially when others are relying more heavily on media recruitment for gig or app-based workers – Liisa says, “If you want the long-term effects of people building capacity to actually change the industry, there’s really no substitute for being on the ground, and developing relationships, and recruiting people into a committee.”

Chris says there were a number of such committees – for recruitment, internal engagement, women and trans workers, and so on.

What’s next

A union election was held August 9 through 13, via electronic vote. The results have been sealed as both the union and company await the labor board’s judgement on a number of legal matters, including whether Foodora workers are independent contractors. Those decisions may be months away.

In the meantime, workers intend to keep up public pressure on the company – in a campaign that may shape the future direction of gig working, and organizing, in Canada.

“Even if we’re not certified,” Chris says, “I think we’ll continue organizing.”

What is important is that CUPW saw an opportunity that other unions may have dismissed. Aaron recalls being at a meeting a few years back among a number of union officials and staff. When the subject of gig workers came up, “one of the people from one of the larger unions in Canada said, ‘We just need to ban these companies. We can’t organize them. We just need to ban them and that’s how we’re going to win.’” Aaron says, “That’s stuck with me this entire time, because it shows there’s a lack of vision by a lot of folks in the established labor movement. I do think that if you put your mind to it and actually try to figure it out, you can actually build power among this disparate workforce. I think about that a lot and I think I’m glad that guy doesn’t work for my union.”

Liisa echoes that sentiment. When she began organizing Foodora workers, she says, she “heard a lot of comments from people in the labor movement: ‘oh that’s crazy, how are you going to get people?’ And I said, ‘You have to see the plus side of it. There’s no employer watching. You can have conversations with people on the street! There are all these other sides of it where it’s an amazing opportunity for organizing.’”

Asked how the campaign feels from his perspective, Chris says, “I haven’t been in any other big organizing campaigns. There are a lot of things that are unique and exciting about this campaign, but fundamentally, workers are workers are workers.”

Marianne Garneau

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