The urban dimension in food delivery struggle: The story of the Riders Union Bologna

This interview with Maurilio Pirone is available as a podcast or in written text form.

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Picture: A Riders Union Bologna assembly, in 2018 (from the Riders Union Bologna Facebook page)

How does the urban space and urban politics shape the relationship between food delivery platforms and their riders? In an article published in Social Europe at the end of June, Maurilio Pirone explores this question through the experience of the Riders Union in Bologna, which he was a founding member of.

The Riders Union was an inspiring example of workers’ self-organisation. Beginning with strikes and blockades in Bologna, the riders quickly realised they had to build alliances with riders in other cities and take their demands to politicians in Rome. 

Pirone is now a junior researcher in the Inca project at the University of Bologna, and a member of the ‘Into the Black Box’ collective. In this podcast, the Gig Economy Project speaks to Pirone about:

01:36: The story of the Riders Union in Bologna

18:59: The urban dimension in food delivery struggles

36:08: The contemporary dynamics in the Italian platform economy and Italian politics


The Gig Economy Project: How did the Riders Union in Bologna get started and how did it develop?

Maurilio Pirone: At that time in Italy, in 2017, the food delivery platforms were spreading through the north of the country, in cities like Bologna, Milan, Turin. In that period I was studying at the University of Bologna and I was trying to find some side jobs to afford my living costs. 

The echoes of some struggles, from the UK and Germany, were resonating in my country and some collectives in Bologna were interested in this. In Turin some riders organised the first meeting, hosting some riders from Germany, so in Bologna we started to look at what was happening, have some informal gatherings and talk to some colleagues in front of restaurants while we wait for orders.

The turning point was an event in November of that year. There was this storm in the city, it was so difficult to to move around and you know people were very worried about their condition, because at the time there was no insurance coverage in case of accident. We started to chat on WhatsApp about this and decided we will not continue delivering in these conditions, it’s too dangerous.

It started, and all the people working as food delivery riders agreed that it was not worth to deliver in these conditions and we started also to question to ourselves: ‘How do we move this forward?’ At the end of November there is ‘Black Friday’ so we decided that we are going to organise a rally in the city centre then we transformed it into a march. It was close to Christmas so we went in the main square of the city. 

Then we decided to prepare a letter to the local administration asking for them to organise a meeting between us and the platforms. Because we had already tried to get in touch with them physically and it was impossible, they said ‘you have to talk with rider support’ or ‘just send an email’, so we were insisting on the idea that it was a collective process not just one to one. The local administration organised this collective meeting, and that’s how this story started.

GEP: One of the interesting things about the Riders Union campaign was the slogan, ‘not for us, for everyone’, which suggests an awareness of a universal struggle for workers’ rights in the digital age, it’s not just a localised dispute. Was that the feeling of the riders at the time?

MP: Almost immediately we said that we were struggling for improving the conditions in our companies in the food delivery sector but we had the impression that this was not just you know a sectoral problem. We were aware that the platforms tends to a long way wave of precaritisation of the labour market in Europe. They profit from grey zones in labour regulation, they profit from local administration support in terms of searching for investments, and nobody was caring for workers. Also, traditional unions were not giving too much attention to what was happening in the food delivery sector. So we started this struggle aware of the fact that we were just a part of a larger problem in terms of labour rights, but with the hope that also other sectors would join us in this struggle.

How were you able to organise a national workers assembly of riders in Bologna in 2018?

MP: It came step-by-step. First, from protesting in our city; we blocked some restaurants, we blocked the streets, we organised strikes always in creative way sometimes. Also, at that time some companies had some local offices in the city, so we tried also to occupy these offices and we asked for meetings with the managers. 

However, we became aware that there was a gap, between the fact that we were working in the city and the digitised management of this job. We started to see the same process was going on in other cities – Milan, in Turin, Rome, Florence – so we we started to build connections with these other collectives. It was clear that it was not possible to fix the problem just in our city. Maybe it was an excuse, but the platforms said ‘we will talk only at national level’. So we said ‘okay, let’s build up national level organisation’. 

So we started to have national meetings with our colleagues from other cities. At the beginning, this was all self-organised collectives in all the main cities. And then things changed, traditional unions tried to establish their presence in this sector, claiming that they were the main unions they were representative more than us even if they had no formal members in many cities. But they were the ones who signed national contracts in the logistics sector, and under Italian law, if you are a representative in the logistics sector you are the one what is authorised to sign a national contract. So they tried to exclude us, in a way. 

On the other side, especially in most small cities, in the towns, it was more difficult to have self-organisation, riders asked for more traditional support. But we decided to create a open space for everybody: it was not important which kind of union you were part of, we organised this space for convergence for all the riders. It was important for us that all the riders could decide. 

That is how we organised a very big strike, especially after a fake contract was signed by the main companies, I’m referring to Uber Eats, Deliveroo, Glovo. They signed these contracts with a right-wing union, UGL, in 2020, that established that the riders were autonomous workers, they had to be paid through piece work, etc. So we refused this kind of agreement and we organised a large national strike assembly, with different local units from different unions.

 And finally we made this collective agreement, a trilateral agreement, between the local administration, unions – including the Riders Union – and some local companies. And this agreement was based on the idea that it was necessary to give riders a fixed amount of working time, because previously there was this competition to obtain shifts, staying all the time on the application and searching for working time. We required a fair payment, linked to national contracts in logistics sector. And we required the health coverage, because there was a lot of incidents and injuries with no assistance. After our struggle Deliveroo and other companies introduced private insurance, but it was so limited to a few kinds of injuries so we wanted the national coverage. 

Then this moved to the regional level, we started to have some meetings with the governor of the region. But this passed quickly and we started the national bargaining with the different ministers of labour. Then there was a law that was approved based on the idea that riders have to have the same rights as employees in terms of a wage, social protection, rights. However, there was a possibility to avoid the law in the case of a national agreement between the companies and the unions. That’s why these main platforms I mentioned formed a trade association, Assodelivery, and signed the agreement with the right-wing union while we were at the table with the minister. 

So not only did they cheat us, but also the minister in a way. Some courts have found that this agreement with the right-wing union is illegal. 

GEP: Let’s talk about some of the wider concepts in the article. You relate the experience of the Riders Union in Bologna to the role of urban space in platform work struggles. Can you talk us through this idea?

MP: We have a double-side of the urban dimension. On the one side, we are talking about food delivery, so it is a sectoral platform. And also they furnish local services; it has to take place in a geographical space. And in this sense it is not like other types of platform work, like content moderation for example, where the work can be done in Indonesia or India. So in food delivery platform work, the urban dimension is fundamental. 

It’s also fundamental in the sense that you have a network of users, and the network-effects are key to these companies; the larger the network of users the larger the possibility to have a strong business. Then in the cities you have a supply of labour: migrants, students, people in their third or fourth job, especially after the pandemic we have seen a shift in Italy from some other jobs to the food delivery sector. Now you even have some people of 50-60 years old working in this sector. 

So on one side this is a fundamental aspect for the platforms, the urban dimension, and on the other side it’s important for the organisation of the workers. One of the reasons that we had this global wave of protests in the food delivery sector was that it was easier for workers to meet and organise: just from simply waiting outside the restaurants, or just from looking at the different colour of the delivery boxes. So the possibility to meet was very important to organise the struggle, and think also about the practises; blockades, strikes, you know there are ways to protest, and they are all based on the urban dimension of the labour. 

Then the point is how to build up connections, alliances, assemblies, because it’s clear it’s not easy to win in a single city. The companies hold their position, wait for some riders to change their job, for the protests to weaken a bit, then they continue their business as usual. So we learnt that it was important to enlarge in spatial terms, not only in terms of time, because it was not easy to hold the protest for three, four, five months. 

GEP: I think there’s a number of challenges with food delivery strikes: first to build a critical mass of riders, because the platform can easily just register new people on the app who the strike will be unaware of and have no contact with, especially in a big city like London, Paris and Madrid. It’s potentially a bit easier to identify who is the labour force when you are in a town or a small city.

Another challenge is the difference between food delivery and ridehail/taxis in terms of their ability to disrupt the urban space. In Barcelona, for example, they regularly organise ‘a slow march’ of cars which creates gridlock in the centre of the city, they’ve also done things like picketed train stations and airports, and these are really disruptive to transportation. In food delivery, it’s not so simple to understand how you can disrupt the city in that way.

MP: In the Riders Union in Bologna, we changed the composition of the riders almost three times each year. That means there was a high turnover, and this became a problem for two reasons. First, because new members of the union were more prone to discuss ordinary problems, like the bike condition and use of the app, than large initiatives, like the national bargaining of a law or a contract. But this is normal, you need time to create a consciousness of the struggle. 

There’s also a need to link the previous struggles and the new members. Sometimes it created a break between those who had been there for a lot of time and those who were new, so we began to realise we needed an organisation. This was a bit of a problem because we did not want to change the open nature of this space of self-organisation. This was one of the issues by the time that the Riders Union in Bologna ended.

It’s true what you say about the dimensions of the city. Bologna is not a big city, it’s half a million if you consider the whole metropolitan area, but the city centre is quite small, it’s quite easy to meet. That’s different from cities like Berlin, London, Milan or Rome. I met colleagues in Berlin and it was clear that it was not easy to create an urban assembly, for example. 

But once you reach a good level of organisation, I think riders can be very effective. I remember during our strikes we targeted some restaurants that we knew were most used by customers of the applications. They were not small, local restaurants; they were large, international franchises, like McDonalds. They became accustomed to our struggle. When we started to strike, they immediately turned off their app for ordering. I believe we achieved a good, strong power of struggle. 

But the point is that this is not enough. It’s not enough to strike and be strong in just one city. Probably one of the points where we failed was not to build up a stronger national alliance. We did not succeed in formalising a strong alliance – I think this is one of the most important points for workers in the same sector of platform labour. 

I think the struggles of the riders succeeded in also stimulating policy makers to have a focus, but it’s not enough that they propose and negotiate laws and agreements between them. The risk is they have solutions that are disconnected from the base of the workers, so it’s important to go on with forms and processes of organisation. 

GEP: In the article you develop the idea that municipal politics can be important to riders struggles. Usually when we talk about the role of politics in the platform economy we talk about national legislation or about even EU legislation. Why do you think the municipal level can play an important role?

MP: Politically, the municipal level is the closest to workers and unions. I think we are witnessing a demand for more political action in the platform economy and it’s clear there is an imbalance between the power of the platforms in economic and technological terms and the power of the workers. The workers are very precarious, with low levels of access to the technology, both for workers trying to access the algorithm of the employer and in terms of co-operatives. It is difficult for platform co-operatives to compete in this sense with the big players. 

So there is a demand for the political actors to be political actors, to not be entrepreneurs of the territory. There is a famous article from David Harvey which forecasted municipalities moving from the management of the resources to the entrepreneur-lisation of the resources; attracting finance, capital, platforms to invest in the city and eroding the level of public access to the city. 

I also think the local level is important because it’s easier for policy-makers to understand what’s going on. Politicians in Brussels and national parliaments are not attached to the ground in many cases, they often don’t know what we’re talking about and they’re absorbed by political negotiations. 

The problem is that in Europe, local administrations have few powers. It may vary according to the country, but in Italy they cannot for example intervene in productive activities or labour regulation, only health and security aspects. I think we have to empower multi-level governance, it’s important to have a greater role for local administrations in the process of regulation. 

GEP: What about the contemporary dynamics of the platform economy in Italy?

MP: We have a polarised market. On one side we have some companies that base their business model on employees; Just Eat and also some national platforms. This is important because it demonstrates that it’s possible to give some rights to riders, even if this process is not complete, because they apply the national logistics contract but with some derogations. On the other side, we have platforms like Uber Eats, Deliveroo, Glovo, who are basing their business model on self-employment, which is clearly a problem if we look at social and labour protections. 

So what is happening? A big player like Uber Eats is quitting this market. I think this reflects a general trend, because some aspects that favoured the growth of food delivery are changing. I am referring first to inflation, which is eroding consumption to an extent, but I’m also referring to the interest rates, which is impacting on the possibility of venture capital to fund their investments at low or zero cost. We know all these food delivery companies based their idea on a ‘growth-before-profits’ approach, so they grew in an unbalanced way. They wanted to become the leader in the market and then cover all their debts. 

This model is in crisis, so the companies are making choices: they are choosing between the markets where they have the possibility to gain a leadership position and the markets where they cannot. Uber Eats evaluated that they cannot do it in the Italian market, which is why they are leaving. The trend I see is that we will see less companies on local or national markets. This could be important, because the strong competition between companies was a factor that pushed the salaries down, and with less competition there could be a possibility for workers to bargain more. 

Furthermore, in Italy the agreement that Glovo, Deliveroo and Uber Eats signed with the right-wing union is close to expiring. This opens the possibility to push for a different collective bargaining agreement. We will have to see, but this could be a turning point. 

GEP: Has the new far-right government led by Georgia Meloni sought to influence the platform economy at all?

MP: At the moment, no big changes have happened. We know for sure that they are searching for a partnership with some big tech companies, for example Elon Musk was recently received by our government as a head of state to discuss important affairs. It’s clear that they are quite attentive to getting the support of these big companies. We know for sure that the minister of labour now is more orientated towards the deregulation of these kind of jobs. The right-wing union which signed the agreement with the food delivery platforms has an influence at this level. 

Generally this kind of government is more attentive to tax reductions for companies, which will affect also the possibility of having public services and improving labour rights. 

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