Autonomous unions, allied with trade union confederations, have shown how collective bargaining can be won by the precariat which employers seek to fragment.
Food-delivery riders’ struggles have repeatedly made the headlines in Italy in the last few years. From the end of October, the peninsula was swept with couriers’ protests.
These followed the entry into force of an agreement signed by the employers’ association, Assodelivery (which includes Deliveroo, Glovo and Just Eat), and the organisation UGL (a ‘yellow’ union for platform workers) in September. It’s an agreement workers and trade unions—the main confederations (CGIL, CISL and UIL) and the autonomous riders’ unions active in Italy’s biggest cities—denounced.
In recent weeks, there have been positive signals. Just Eat announced its withdrawal from Assodelivery and its intention to hire couriers as dependent employees from 2021. The Italian platform Mymenu introduced hourly pay increases and a new set of bonuses for its workers.
The three main union confederations signed a protocol with the logistics employers’ organisation, to extend an existing sectoral collective agreement to food-delivery riders. And the Italian Ministry of Labour hosted a meeting with the social partners to discuss the way forward, after the de facto rejection of the ‘pirate’ agreement signed by Assodelivery and UGL.
Since 2016, the couriers have been getting together and organising in many Italian cities, starting activist groups and autonomous unions—such as ‘Riders’ Union Bologna’, ‘Deliverance Project’ in Turin and ‘Deliverance Milan’—to tackle precariousness and the lack of protections in the ‘gig’ economy. Enlarging their ranks with new workers—not least the many couriers with a migrant background, who account for large shares of food-delivery fleets—workers’ activist unions have been mobilising on the Italian streets through co-ordinated log-offs, strikes and pickets, including resisting anti-union moves by the platforms.
The actions of these collectives represent an important step towards workers’ democracy in app-based ‘workplaces’. The Italian riders’ experience shows that coming together and organising is not only a means to manifest discontent but also to resist the precarisation of pay and working conditions and indeed of life itself.
At the core of collective action has always been the desire to negotiate better pay and working conditions for all. And the autonomous riders’ collectives have won a seat around the bargaining table with the main trade union confederations, the government and the employers’ association, to negotiate an improvement of their pay and social conditions. This acknowledgment of the importance of collective bargaining in such a new and ‘atypical’ sector is, in itself, a key achievement.
Moreover, through encompassing collective agreements, decent pay and conditions can be secured via solidarity, defeating the strategies of fragmentation by employers. This is particularly important within the new employment setting of platform work, where asymmetric power relationships are not offset any more by the employer-employee nexus which underpinned the traditional employment relationship.
Against this background, autonomous riders’ groups and established unions have worked to align their positions at the bargaining table, thereby creating a national coalition under the name of the RidersXiDiritti Network. Although not without bumps on the road, the coalition has maintained a solid front in the negotiations with employers and it rejected in unison the sweetheart deal signed by Assodelivery and UGL.
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The creation of a concertation table for social dialogue itself stemmed from a hot season of workers’ protests. Picking up on them, in mid-2018 the then minister of labour, Luigi Di Maio, proclaimed the government’s will to establish better working conditions for food-delivery couriers and invited workers’ and employers’ representatives to discuss possible avenues for agreements.
That national appeal to dialogue followed some progress already made on the ‘riders’ issue’ at local level: in spring that year, the city of Bologna had promoted a non-binding bill of rights for food-delivery couriers, signed by two of the six platforms active in the metropolitan area (and still in force today) after local dialogue between the social partners. The bill represented a first attempt to regulate food-delivery work by limiting platforms’ discretion over work allocation and workers’ disposability and establishing a permanent space for dialogue and bargaining among local institutions and workers’ and employers’ representatives.
As with the national dynamics which have characterised the recent victory for workers’ action against the dominance of arrogant platforms, what prompted the Bologna local authorities to deal with the riders’ issue at that time were the chains of mobilisation of food-delivery workers which had invaded the narrow city streets the previous winter—especially after a serious accident while a rider was delivering during a snowstorm.
Organising and struggles make collective workers’ voice heard. Encompassing bargaining structures for social dialogue allow that voice to endure and guarantee that solidarity prevails for the ‘collective worker’ which the autonomous riders have become.
Claudia Marà is a PhD student in the Centre for Sociological Research at KU Leuven (Belgium), working within the framework of the ERC-funded REsPecTMe project. Valeria Pulignano is professor of sociology there.