The anatomy of a gig-worker union drive

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Foodora worker and organizer Ivan Ostos. Image: Tess Siksay

Organizing app-based gig workers can be a bit like herding cats, if the majority of cats were also on bicycles, worked irregular hours, and didn't know each other. 

When it comes to organizing these workforces, the lack of proximity to one's fellow workers poses a unique challenge that many would see as an insurmountable barrier. Through a lot of pavement pounding and community building, Foodora workers and the union that represented them -- the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) -- reached their coworkers one conversation at a time beginning in the summer of 2018. In May of this year, Foodora left the Canadian market for good, but those involved in the Foodora union drive see their efforts as precedent setting for the rest of Canada's app-based gig economy.

In August 2019, Foodora workers cast their votes on union certification, but the ballots remained sealed while the issue of Foodora's classification of its workers as independent contractors went before the Ontario Labour Relations Board. This February, the board ruled that Foodora workers are in fact dependent contractors, a designation that gives them the right to organize and certify a union. Before the union certification votes could be opened and counted, Foodora announced its departure from the Canadian market, initiating bankruptcy proceedings and ceasing operations on May 11.  

Despite its departure -- the timing of which several former workers tell rabble they find suspect -- Foodora workers still intend to pursue the union certification process so that they can fight for compensation for the thousands of workers across the country who are now out of work. In addition to severance pay, their reclassification as employees means that Foodora workers could also be entitled to outstanding overtime pay, vacation pay and minimum wage. 

The labour board decision was precedent setting in its own right, but the Foodora union drive also sent a simple message to other app-based gig workers: that despite the many challenges, formal organizing can be done. 

The design of app-based gig work, such as the food delivery that Foodora workers did, is such that workers have no need to ever interact with one another. They sign on, work, and sign out all from the app. The only people they need to interact with during their shifts are the restaurants they pick up food from, and the customers they deliver to. 

"The challenge was finding people, and I think that's been the biggest difference in terms of the organizing we've done in the past compared to this," says Aaron Spires, a national union representative at CUPW who is responsible for external organizing. "How do we effectively find these workers that in some ways don't come into contact with each other? Or if they do, it's like trains passing in the night?"

Starting to organize

CUPW wasn't always involved with the Foodora union drive. In the summer of 2018, some Foodora couriers who did know each other started talking about unionization. They had concerns about the working conditions, particularly for those couriers on bicycles in downtown Toronto, where the possibility of accidents posed a very real threat to workers' safety. But the bigger concern was the company's lack of response to workers' complaints and to suggestions for how to improve their working conditions and the company's business model. 

When Ivan Ostos broke his arm after being in a bike accident while on a delivery for Foodora, he was asked by Foodora if he could complete the delivery. That injury left him unable to work for five months, without any way to make ends meet during that time. 

"I know first hand the worst aspect of this industry, just how precarious it is," Ostos says in a phone interview. When Ostos got involved in union organizing, he would approach other Foodora workers he encountered during his own shifts and strike up casual conversations about the issues they might have on the job. 

Some drivers, for instance, felt the company was letting them down when it came to the number of parking tickets they would receive while on deliveries. Bicycle couriers felt the company offered them no protection in the case of an accident on Toronto's busy streets, something that bike couriers could "imagine happening to any of us," says Lauren Lesarge, a bike courier with Foodora since 2018. When Toronto was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, couriers felt they should have been given basic personal protective equipment like masks and gloves to be able to do their jobs safely, but driver Umar Asghar said no such equipment was offered. 

After making that first connection, organizers would ask for a worker's contact information so they could maintain that relationship and continue the conversation. In the early days of the organizing process, recruiting workers to their cause was a careful balancing act. When having these talks with workers, organizers would only bring up the union once they were sure that the worker would be willing to join, "or at least not snitch to the company about it," Ostos says.

Approaching a union   

This made for a longer, slower organizing process, that eventually plateaued after a few months. In January 2019, the leaders of the union drive realized they needed some assistance, and decided to reach out to CUPW. 

CUPW taking on a food courier delivery union drive makes logical sense, says Spires, in the sense that "delivery is delivery." Ostos says the foodsters felt they had an ideological alignment with CUPW, too. Spires says external organizing is something CUPW believes strongly in, noting simply, "if you have a boss, you need a union." 

After CUPW was brought on, the drive went into high gear. 

"When we came on to expand it, it was a concerted effort to be on the street finding people doing deliveries, picking up food, and giving them an elevator-pitch organizing conversation," says Spires. "If we knew the cars would be stopping somewhere we'd run up, or we'd have bikes ride alongside a courier to talk to them as they were doing their deliveries. We had to be a little bit creative."

When CUPW and Foodsters United eventually decided they would go public with their campaign, Spires says that it was a calculated risk. "We announced publicly that we were organizing sooner than we normally would have" with any other kind of traditional union drive. 

But, the need to reach more workers eventually became more important than the need to keep the drive covert.

Going public 

After taking the drive public on May 1, 2019, Ostos says that at that point, even if though the company would engage in anti-union messaging, the relationships the workers had built among themselves were stronger than the relationship Foodora had with its workers. The organizers felt confident that most of the workers would stay supportive of their cause. 

Spires agreed. "The nature of this type of work or these types of companies is to atomize people," he said. "The thing that beats bosses and workplace isolation is solidarity and building relationships." 

CUPW was the union drive's formal partner, however other Toronto-based workers rights organizations were supportive of the cause, including the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), and the Workers' Action Centre (WAC) which houses that organization. 

Many app-based gig workers are racialized and migrant workers, points out Sarom Rho, who has worked as a Foodora courier, and also works as a labour organizer with MWAC. Understanding who made up the Foodora workforce assisted in the planning of their campaign, she says. 

"We knew that many of the racialized and migrant workers like international students may not live downtown, and when they were working the downtown shifts, would come in through different transit avenues," Rho says. This led the campaigners to ensure that they weren't downtown-centric. They handed out pamphlets to people getting off at Union Station with bikes in hand, and advertised on Toronto transit. 

Other app-based gig workers looking to organize are "going to come up against the same challenges" that the Foodora union drive experienced, especially in terms of reaching their workforce, says Spires. One of the ways to overcome that, he said, is to do some kind of mapping of the city to identify where workers can commonly be found, and make sure you're establishing a presence in those places. 

Foodora workers may have had an advantage when it came to their union organization efforts, though. Foodora entered the Toronto market through its purchase of Hurrier, a Toronto-based food courier delivery service. 

The Hurrier workforce "was more of a tight-knit group," says Ostos, simply because it was a smaller company. When Ostos started with Foodora in 2016, that sense of community carried through. "The Foodora guys were kind of a scene," he says. "That is why two or three years later, when people were starting talking about a union, there was that base there. They were also people who had been there for some time."  

Now, however, that community is stronger than ever, and spans across the Greater Toronto Area. For now, Ostos says the union's focus is on supporting Foodora workers who have lost income in the wake of Foodora's departure through fundraising. 

Others who were involved in the drive would like to see similar organizing attempts within the context of different app-based delivery systems. "Foodora's gone, but we still have our community. We are still here to help other couriers … We still want [what's] right for people and we still want to help them," says Lesarge.

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Tess Siksay​

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