The latest news from the Uber/Ola strike in India appears to show that the strike is both spreading and becoming more militant: Drivers in Bengaluru, which is in Karntaka, a very long way south of where the strike appears to have started, have announced their intention to join in. Meanwhile, up in Indirapuram, which is in Uttar Pradesh, just east across a state line from Delhi, “unidentified protesters” stopped a scab Uber and burnt it out, although the driver escaped unharmed.
A few thoughts on what this all means: One of the really interesting things about the Uber/Ola strike, beyond the level of self-organisation and militancy it’s showing, is how it fits into some kind of global wave along with the Doha and NYC strikes – and, I would argue, the attempts at organisation among Uber/UberEATS staff in the UK, which have ranged from employment tribunals to wildcat strikes.
When hearing about massive, intense struggles in places like China or India, it’s easy for people in the West to think (something along the lines of) “this sounds cool, but it’s not really anything to do with me” – to assume that these struggles are responses to extreme social conditions utterly unlike our own, and so there’s not really anything we can learn from them. A lot of the time, there’s probably some truth to this – it’s not like the UK has a vast population of peasants who’re likely to kick off when the central government tries to take their land, and while there are plenty of jobs here with terrible conditions, there aren’t many where the conditions are Foxconn terrible. But it’s not totally true of the Delhi, or NYC/Delhi/Bengaluru/Doha strikes – there are important ways in which cab drivers working through apps in India, the US, Qatar, or the UK have more in common with each other than they do with people working traditional jobs in their own countries.
Something that seems really important is the way that these jobs combine a degree of independence and freedom from supervision that’s rarely found elsewhere, with the shared experience of having a common condition and economic relationship. Managers can undermine the development of workers’ solidarity and self-organisation in all kinds of ways, from barking at people to shut up every time they have a non-work-related conversation through to developing personal matey relations, but most of these tactics depend on having at least some level of face-to-face contact. They can’t be effectively replaced by an app.
But at the same time, this relative independence is accompanied by an awareness that there is a shared boss somewhere out there: despite all the rhetoric of “self-employment” and “driver-partners”, people can see that they’re not independent small traders with their own businesses competing against each other, but they have a shared employment situation and so, potentially, a common enemy. This combination seems to have an explosive potential – quite literally, when it comes to Rahul Kumar’s cab.
The other crucial element is the time and space for these workers to use their freedom from supervision to actually talk to each other. In India, drivers have mentioned how they would often drive an entire workforce out to the same locations and then hang around chatting in the same car park all day before making the return journey, which sounds not too different from how Deliveroo or UberEATS workers will often have a shared hangout spot; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, so far, the highest levels of militancy we’ve seen in this sector in the UK have been among food delivery cyclists or moped drivers, who’re inherently less cut off from each other and the outside world than actual cab drivers.
So, an important question is: as app-based pseudo-self-employment spreads, where else – other than the car parks of Gurgaon call centres or the parks most convenient for cycling to and from trendy restaurants – do workers have the time and space to hang around and discuss things without any snooping supervisors, foremen, team leaders or line managers?