Organising outside formal unions in the app economy: updates from the Delhi drivers’ strike

The negotiations between a drivers’ union and the app-based cab companies Ola and Uber seem to have hit a deadlock for now. But the formal negotiations with union representatives are less interesting than what’s happening outside of official union structures. Another report from today gives some interesting information on how drivers are self-organising outside of union control:

“Drivers have found ways to keep in touch with each other.

Though Bansal is not a member of any union, he said he is in touch with several other drivers on the mobile phone constantly. On February 13, he was getting messages regularly that drivers must enforce the strike even more extensively since it was a Monday. Old networks help in this coordination.

“For years, before Uber and Ola came along, many of us worked together, ferrying BPO [Business Process Outsourcing] employees to call centers in Gurgaon,” said Bansal. “We would bring staff from different parts of the city, wait in the same parking lots outside the BPO offices for 10-12 hours till the end of their shifts. We kept in touch.”

When Uber and Ola Cabs launched in India, many of these drivers switched to these companies around the same time. The drivers say that they are now going through the highs and lows of the business together.

Several drivers spoke of how the absence of any structure within the aggregator companies had pushed them to organise themselves.

“We went to the Ola Cabs office on February 11, it was locked,” said Kamlesh Mandal, a driver in Dwarka. “We only have phone numbers of our account managers, and even their phones are switched off or they refuse to respond to us.”

Mandal said he has instead been contacting drivers whom he had met earlier outside Ola, Uber offices.

“Each time we go to these offices if the device is not working, or to enquire about penalties, we note other drivers’ phone numbers down,” said Mandal.

He added: “In several cars, you will find that drivers keep registers with names and phone numbers of 200-300 other drivers, as well as car owners’ numbers. We do this so that if there is any problem, we can coordinate.”

Drivers’ unions such as Sarvodaya Drivers Association of Delhi are leading demonstrations at Jantar Mantar, a protest space in central Delhi. They are pursuing a demand that Uber compensate the family of the driver who was killed in the January 22 accident. They are also negotiating with the Delhi government transport department for help in pushing the demands they are making of their cab aggregator companies.

Direct communication

Ernesto Noronha, professor of Organisation Behaviour Area at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, pointed out that direct communication between the drivers was driving their push for a change.

Said Noronha: “The idea of an ‘independent’ driver partner, as aggregator companies like to portray it, does not quite work in practice, and most drivers are experiencing the same conditions of maintaining the car as an asset even while earnings are falling.”

Noronha, who researches the Business Process Outsourcing sector, contrasted the tactics of cab aggregator driver partners with those of call centre employees who have largely failed to organise over their work conditions.

“The call center workers think of themselves as middle class and the BPO management tries to impose a cultural value that they are professionals who do not go on strikes or organise like blue collar workers,” said Noronha. “Here, the aggregator companies impart little or no training and have no regular interaction where they can try impose a culture against labour organising.””

As the app-based employment model spreads across the globe, it’ll be interesting to see whether similar forms of self-organisation develop along with it.

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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