Gig Economy Project: From Gig Worker to Union Leader – Interview with Alex Marshall

Alex Marshall is President of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB)

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The Gig Economy Project spoke to Alex Marshall, new President of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and former delivery courier, in the first Gig Economy Project podcast.

This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Foundation Menschenwürde und Arbeitswelt  

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Last year  the Gig Econommcy Project had spoken to Alex about the experience of being a medical courier for The Doctor’s Laboratory during the pandemic. Three months into the pandemic, Marshall, along with nine other TDL couriers, were sacked, in what was a clear attack on union organisers.

Marshall became IWGB President in November last year after eight years working as a courier in London. The IWGB is one of the main unions for organising gig economy workers in the UK. In November, the union won an important court victory for health & safety rights for gig workers. The union is currently running a ‘Clapped and Scrapped’ campaign demanding a fair process for app-based workers to appeal unfair dismissals. In this podcast, GEP co-ordinator Ben Wray talks to Marshall about all this and more:

– 1:56: Alex’s eventful 2020

– 8:54: A new generation of trade union leadership

– 12:21: IWGB: Organising the ‘unorganisable’

– 16:00: The evolution of the gig economy

– 21:30: The IWGB’s health & safety court victory

– 24:44: Algorithmic control in the gig economy

– 27:21: Stuart Delivery strike in Plymouth

– 29:40: Digital platforms’ over-supply of labour

– 35:10: The importance of internationalism

We plan to produce more podcasts with gig economy organisers, researchers and workers across Europe in the months to come.

An abbreviated text version of this interview

You had a very eventful 2020, going from being on the front-lines of the pandemic as a medical courier, to being sacked, and then becoming IWGB President. Tell us about that experience.

Alex: My journey into union organising is as a courier, not with a trade union background, I sort of fell into it through being exploited in the gig economy. I was sign-posted to a trade union after I’d exhausted all the options individually to try and improve my terms & conditions at various different couriers companies.

I ended up at the Doctor’s Laboratory, where we were ferrying specimens to and from hospitals. There’s about 150 workers there and we managed to get trade union recognition, I think we were the first gig economy workforce in the UK to achieve that. These workers never had paid holidays, never had a pay rise, never had pensions – we managed to win all that.

Then when the pandemic came in, we began to get Covid specimens around London and we could see that this was spreading. We continued to do our jobs during lockdown, picking up mainly Covid specimens at hospital wards and drive-throughs. My company used the pandemic as a smoke-screen to usher out some of the most active trade union members in the country.

On 1 May, Workers Day, they said we were going to be made redundant, which sparked a huge campaign, ‘Save the TDL10’, which went on for a month. Unfortunately at the end of it we lost our jobs, but it was an amazing campaign. We even organised a picket line outside their HQ in Sydney on the other side of the world. We still have a court case against TDL in October over trade union detriment and whistleblowing, but the big picture is our work at TDL can be used as a benchmark for how to organise. It’s already helped me recruit so many more people into the union.

In November I got elected as IWGB President, which has been an absolutely incredible experience; so many workers are experiencing similar things to what I have.

Do you think it’s important that a new generation of union leaders know the experience of the gig economy?

Alex: I think it’s important, though not essential. It’s hugely helpful when I’m organising that I’ve had that journey. When you are talking to people and trying to get them to take that leap of faith, the fact that I’ve taken that leap of faith, it does make it easier to have that conversation, with whoever it is.

The most essential thing you need to have is that desire and that passion for justice for workers. Different approaches work with different people. My rough and ready approach might work with workers in the gig economy who need to be incredibly aggressive otherwise these billionaire companies will just slam the door in their faces, but in other workplaces this might not work as well, and a different form of leadership will work there.

Myself and the new General Secretary, Henry Chango Lopez, who used to be a cleaner working in a university in London, the coupling of us together works really well. We know where we’ve come from and we know the raw experience of these workers. Our desire to organise has come from necessity – the need to survive.

The IWGB is a new union that organises a lot of precarious workers. What is the IWGB model?

Alex: Some of the areas we organise in – cleaners, private hire drivers, couriers, delivery workers – these are areas where in the trade union movement things weren’t really happening. The IWGB started organising in these areas and that’s put to shame a lot of the big unions, because we’ve not only done that in places where it was thought that you couldn’t organise, we’ve been getting big victories as well.

The model is to be radical, to be aggressive, and direct action. We do a lot of case work but a lot of what we do is about empowering workers to know what their rights are and what they can do in the workplace. As the unions grown it’s become more and more eclectic in terms of who we represent. We have yoga teachers, foster carers, game workers, charity workers. There are definitely common themes: in a lot of our branches there is precarity, bogus self-employed status, and often areas with little to no history of union representation.

How do you see the evolution of the gig economy?

Alex: It’s important to stress that as the IWGB we are not anti-gig economy, we are anti the way this mode of working has been utilised to strip workers of rights. We don’t agree that flexibility has to come hand in hand with zero rights. These people aren’t independent contractors they are actually workers. In the UK we have this middle category of workers where you remain self-employed but you can get a pension, a minimum wage, paid holiday – you can get certain securities.

The way it has evolved is that these digital platforms started up and the government didn’t respond initially, and they just boomed and became so powerful. We see that even if there are huge court victories for workers they are still managing to spend so much money to bend the rules to suit them. What we are seeing around the world is gig workers at different stages of their battles. You have places where there’s court battles, in other places there is direct action; there are boycotts, strikes.

What we are thinking is that you can’t rely on governments or tribunals; the change that we need so workers can support their families and get some stability is going to be through direct action. We need to put pressure on from all angles – including targeting investors – until they start giving workers what they want. And what they want is basic things – it’s to have holiday pay, it’s to not have to work 70 hours a week to get by, things that the workers movement had won many years ago.

Given that, will the court victory that IWGB won for health & safety rights for gig workers actually lead to a change on the ground?

The victory was that health & safety rights should be extended to all workers not just employees. It means that these companies have to provide workers with personal protective equipment (PPE). It means they can refuse to do work if it is unsafe, without it negatively affecting their ability to get work through the digital platform. So it’s a massive victory, but in terms of enforcement it’s the same old: they can pass these laws in court, which will just kind of sit there, then it’s up to unions and workers to organise to make sure they are actually being enforced, because governments aren’t going around making sure workers are being delivered PPE. Even if laws are passed, it seems these huge companies still get away scot-free unless you really show them up.

There is also the question of whether the algorithms these platforms use should be regulated. We have seen in a recent court case in Bologna it has been found that Deliveroo’s algorithm was discriminatory against workers because it moved them down the ranking system if they are sick or on strike.

Alex: I think it’s really interesting. As soon as Deliveroo cottoned on that people were on to them, they completely changed things. They are still set-up in a really opaque way that means you just have no idea how jobs are being allocated. Stuart delivery still has a visible ranking system, where you get a rating and you are more or less likely to get jobs depending on the ranking. If you miss a day’s work because you’re sick or knocked off their bike, your rating can go down. We’ve also heard when people are taking wildcat action or trying to do boycotts, they have people who are working who are scared to take strike action because they believe their rating can go down which can lead to them being fired. So it’s something we should definitely explore.

There was a strike in Plymouth on Thursday [14 January] of Stuart delivery couriers. What was behind that?

Alex: We have some members in Plymouth who were part of what was going on there. Plymouth is a microcosm of what is going on in every city and town in the UK. They are frustrated because more and more people are resorting to take-away deliveries [as the UK is in lockdown], so you’d expect these delivery couriers to be quids in. But what they’re seeing is their pay is staying the same or decreasing, because the companies hire more and more riders.

In Plymouth they have raised the issue with the area manager and they said: ‘We’ve seen a 50% increase in business, why haven’t I seen a 50% increase in my money? We can more than handle more jobs.’ The manager said: ‘We’ve decided to keep bringing more people on, and you’ll see that your pay has not really changed and we’ve decided that in January and February there is going to be a whole lot more work, and we’re going to hire a whole lot more people.’ The workers said enough is enough, and downed tools for the day. I think it had a devastating effect on Stuart in Plymouth; McDonalds and KFC had to close their doors to delivery.

It was great that they showed without their workforce, these guys have nothing more than an app. As soon as more riders wake up to this, that is when they will be really in trouble.

The over-supply of labour on these apps, which forces wages down, must be a major issue in the context of a recession.

Alex: It’s crying out for regulation, because these companies are just licking their lips. Something like a pandemic is absolutely perfect for them, to prey on people’s desperation. They were doing that anyway – they offer a low price for a job and it gets rejected and rejected and rejected until someone is desperate enough to accept £2 to go however far, at whatever time of night into a dangerous place. Throw a pandemic in there, where people are desperate for work, and they are just driving down the cost of labour.

In October-November time, Deliveroo did this big song and dance about putting 15,000 new riders on the road. “We’re creating 15,000 new jobs” – that costs Deliveroo nothing. All it means is more people standing around waiting for work. But they want to look like they are booming, especially as they approach their IPO. So it is the perfect storm for these companies to aggressively expand.

For us, our membership has increased 44% in the couriers branch since March last year, but that’s been coupled with the driving down of wages but also the huge spike in unjust terminations. That’s why we have launched the ‘Clapped and Scrapped’ campaign. All these key workers were clapped in the UK from March all the way to summer but they were still suffering the same exploitative conditions, and they were still being terminated for no good reason whatsoever, given no chance to appeal, no chance for representation. They get a text, and that’s it they’ve lost their livelihood. So that’s why we have launched this campaign to get a fair appeals system put in place, and it’s gathering more and more momentum.

How important is internationalism to building a strong movement of gig workers?

Alex: It’s so important for it to be happening all over the world. There’s all these different skirmishes going on internationally and it’s all under the umbrella of exploitation and fighting for better pay and conditions. It’s how do we co-ordinate the struggle to hit these multi-national

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