The Fast Food Strikes Put Britain's Exploited Service Workers On the Offensive
Combined walk outs have shown its possible to fight back against bosses even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Deliveroo couriers striking in Bristol. Couriers often switch between different platforms, and grievances are felt across the sector, so the UberEats strike was joined by couriers working for Deliveroo (Photo by Thomas Katan)
Uber bosses are used to having their East London offices besieged. After all, it’s happened four times in a month already. First it was the UberEats couriers on strike, then it was a group of supporters who snuck into the lobby, then the UberEats couriers on strike again, and finally, on Tuesday, the Uber taxi drivers.
Both UberEats couriers and Uber taxi drivers have taken part in their first ever national strikes in rapid succession. But these kick offs are just one part of what has been a month of revolt across the service sector. In total, workers have been on strike at four companies: Uber/UberEats, McDonalds, Wetherspoons and TGI Fridays.
The biggest single confrontation in this month was the 4th of October “Fast Food Shutdown” – a day of joint strike action, coordinated by workers at all four companies. Food services is the least well organised sector in the UK economy, with just 2.9 percent of workers in a union. Most workers in the sector just move to another job when they face problems in the workplace. But not this time. As one group of Wetherspoons workers put it: “it’s time to stop running away”.
It all started with a midnight walk-out from two Wetherspoons pubs in Brighton. From there, action spread around the country. There was a morning picket at Brixton McDonalds, followed by a rally in Leicester square supported by the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. Solidarity demonstrations and UberEats strikes were spread all over the country, with huge moped convoys driving round Bristol, Cardiff and Glasgow.
The primary issue at stake in every single one of those actions was simple: wages. By demanding £10 an hour, £5 a delivery, or £2 a mile, these workers have gone against the tide. Average real wages in the UK have contracted by 0.3 percent annually since 2008 – meaning that most people have taken a pay cut every single year since the recession. Mexico and Greece are the only OECD countries performing worse. It’s the worst decade for pay since the early industrial revolution – when workers’ rights were non-existent and joining a trade union would get you sent to Australia.
In the face of this long-running crisis, workers organised into five different unions (IWGB, IWW, BFAWU, GMB and Unite) teamed up and took on their bosses together. Bosses like Tim Martin – founder and chairman of Wetherspoons pubs – worth £448 million and accused by striking workers in a recent bulletin of being a “shitlord”. He’s refusing to pay his workers £10 an hour, while the company rakes in tens of millions of pounds a year in profits. Wetherspoons has said it had been reviewing pay, with increases of £20 million last year and £27 million for this year.
Of all the workforces involved in the fast food shutdown, it’s the couriers who have the most innovative organising model. Using WhatsApp groups as a structure, they have spent the last two years waging a guerrilla war against their platforms.
The most recent round of strikes came after changes which UberEats says will see couriers earning more during busy mealtimes. The company says this is based on feedback from couriers, but riders claim that it’s really an attempt to cut wages the rest of the time – by reducing the minimum per-delivery rate from £4.26 to £3.50.
Workers have responded with wildcat strikes across the UK and further afield. But the more conventionally organised workforces have also been having their own successes.
Spoons workers walked out for the first time in the company’s history. They’ve already begun to win concrete victories at the pub chain, despite Tim Martin’s moaning about “gunboat diplomacy”. In response to their ballot for strike action, a national pay rise was brought forward six months, some youth rates eliminated and night shifts paid at a higher rate.
The shutdown also saw McDonalds workers on #McStrike for the third time. They have already been successful in forcing pay rises, but the expansion of the strike to include a new restaurant in London shows they still want more. McDonalds still insists that the strike action was not widespread or growing.
TGI Fridays workers also began taking strike action over the reallocation of tips to back of house staff in lieu of a pay rise. Waiting staff say they sometimes ended up £200 a month worse off as a result. TGI Fridays said its pay rates were reviewed regularly and were at or above the minimum wage. It also said team members were allowed to keep all tips they received. But following their first strike in May, some restaurants have now been out on strike seven times. Just a few days before the shutdown, their pressure resulted in one of the only substantive announcements of an otherwise dead Tory party conference – new fair tips laws.
Inspired by the scale of the fightback, Uber taxi drivers have now joined the struggle. Their first ever strike, organised by the United Private Hire Drivers, a branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), began on Tuesday 9th October. Demanding more money per mile and a reduction in Uber’s commission, they called on customers not to cross the “digital picket line” and not open the app. The action brought together hundreds of workers and supporters in London, Birmingham and Nottingham. Uber has said it is continuing to look at ways to help drivers increase their earnings.
Workers in low paid jobs are at the sharp end of the crisis of 21st-century capitalism. Falling real wages are just the most obvious symptom of a more general illness. But these workforces have proven that workers can fight back, even in difficult conditions. Platform and service workers are, together, pushing the workers’ movement onto the offensive. It’s the many versus the few – and the many are getting organised.