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‘We need to stand up for ourselves’: on the picket line with striking fast food courier drivers in Sheffield

Ethan Shone spent an evening with courier drivers for Stuart in Sheffield, who are striking over a new pay model which they say amounts to a significant pay cut

“Right, what’s going on out here then?”

The shift manager at a McDonald’s on the outskirts of Sheffield city centre asks the question, but he already knows the answer.

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It’s nearing 8.30pm on a Monday evening and sideways rain lashes down on a handful of protesters who are standing outside the entrance of this branch of the fast food chain, as they have done for the last seven days.

Across the city at five other branches of McDonald’s there are more people, also standing outside in the rain, where they will stay until 10pm.

Parirs Dixon, president of the Sheffield couriers branch of the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) trade union, fields the manager’s question.

He explains that he, alongside his fellow courier drivers, is on strike, refusing to take on delivery orders for McDonald’s through either the Just Eat or Stuart delivery app, because the latter has introduced a new pay structure which has resulted in already overworked and underpaid couriers facing a significant pay cut.

The manager heads back inside but a few moments later two police officers, who’ve been parked in the nearby car for some time, come over to ask them if they’ll leave.

According to the police, McDonald’s staff have complained that the striking couriers are “impacting their profits” and have requested that they move them on.

But, having contacted a superior and confirmed that the matter is a civil not criminal one, the police depart - not before expressing their personal support for the couriers’ cause.

“Believe me,” says Khalil, one of the striking couriers, to the officers as they leave, “we don’t particularly want to be here either”.

“My young lad said I work too much,” Khalil tells NationalWorld. “Before I came out tonight he said ‘Daddy, can’t you stay here and watch Harry Potter with me?’

“I had to explain to him that I don’t want to have to work this much, but that we need to stand up for ourselves.

“He’s proud of me,” he adds, beaming.

Like many of the couriers involved with the strike action, Khalil works through the day and begins the strike at 5pm, at what would normally be his busiest time.

1000% CEO pay rise

Moving into their second week of what is already thought to be the longest gig economy strike in UK history, the couriers show no signs of letting up.

A few hours before I join the couriers on a handful of pickets across Sheffield, a meeting is held at which it is decided that the strike will carry on in its current form.

Ending the strike was not even up for consideration, NationalWorld is told - the only question was whether there would be a change of tactics.

Couriers will continue to stand outside McDonald’s branches between 5pm and 10pm every night. As well as refusing to take orders themselves during that time, they’ll also keep trying to win over the couriers in the city who have not yet joined the strike.

Though technically a picket, there are no aggressive stand-offs between unionised workers and the few who’ve decided to carry on working.

The striking couriers know all too well the financial difficulties that their fellow drivers face, and the method for converting them to the cause of industrial action is friendly persuasion, rather than militant intimidation.

One man who has been aware of the strike and broadly supports it tells Parirs and IWGB president Alex Marshall, who has travelled from London to join the picket, that he simply can’t afford to go on strike.

“I understand, I understand completely, but look, if we don’t fight now things are going to keep getting worse, and the more of us that fight the more chance we have of winning,” explains Parirs.

The conversation continues, and the driver’s concerns are somewhat assuaged when he is told that through the strike fund he can receive £50 per night by joining the picket line, and eventually he cancels the order he has come to collect.

It is less than he would earn working, but it’s enough to allow him to exercise his right to protest against his working conditions, and he’s happy enough at that.

One of the tipping points for this driver is hearing that Stuart’s CEO received a 1000% pay rise between 2019 and 2020, while he is also enraged that the pay cut which is being pushed through here is allegedly not being rolled out in London. A spokesperson for Stuart declined to comment on whether this is the case.

The latter claim proves to be a particularly incendiary one among the proud northern workers, who detect that all-too familiar hint of London-centricity in the policy.

‘Pay rise, not a pay cut’

So far the action has proven highly effective, with the popular Just Eat platform having to shut down the delivery service from every McDonald’s branch in the city for large periods since the strike began on 6 December.

The new pay structure which Stuart has put in place has seen drivers in other parts of the country lose £100-£150 per week, says Alex, despite the company’s claims that most drivers will not lose out financially.

The payment system is complex but at the heart of the dispute is a cut to the base rate of pay per drop, from £4.50 to £3.40 - around 25%.

Stuart claims that this reduction will be brought in alongside a new distance-based payment which they say will offset the rate reduction for the vast majority of drivers.

While the new pay structure was the impetus for strike action, it is far from the only issue the couriers hope to resolve through industrial action.

They have adopted the slogan “pay rise, not a pay cut” to sum up pretty concisely the thrust of their request.

If rate of pay is the primary concern for drivers, the wider working conditions they have to deal with are not far behind.

Abel, one of the couriers, explains that it is also the additional costs the drivers must shoulder themselves and the difficulties they face in essentially having an app for a boss that they also want resolving.

Couriers can be terminated without good reason, with no opportunity to appeal and no easy way to contact a Stuart representative if they believe they have been barred from the platform erroneously, which is common.

Long waiting times, which are often a result of the restaurants they collect from being busy or not using the app correctly, can also lead to drivers being punished and losing their livelihoods.

Shut down

Throughout the night a Whatsapp group gives the workers and organisers a space to coordinate, to share updates and to keep morale up - not an easy feat on these wet, cold Sheffield nights.

As the group compares notes, it becomes apparent that the encounter with police that NationalWorld witnessed was not a one-off.

It didn’t happen at all last week, but strikers at several branches are reporting similar incidents this evening.

As a majority BAME workforce with members from all over the world, there are some members of the union whose experience of industrial action in their home countries has often involved brutal police or state violence.

“A few polite questions isn’t going to put us off,” jokes one courier.

The following night, restaurant staff at several branches again try to have the protesters removed by police, who again say they have no reason to do so.

As a result, despite the protesters not actually doing anything to disrupt trade within the restaurants themselves (the strike and ‘picket’ is only focused on couriers), the Attercliffe branch of McDonalds is shut down several hours early.

The night comes to a close and the couriers head home with spirits high, despite the persistently miserable weather.

Many of them will be up first thing in the morning, to do the school run, work other part-time jobs or take on delivery work before the strike recommences.

‘Treated like serfs’

In the past week, couriers in Sunderland and Chesterfield have launched solidarity strikes with the Sheffield workers.

On the Tuesday night after NationalWorld’s time on the picket, couriers in Huddersfield vote overwhelmingly to join the strike, with couriers in Blackpool expected to do the same.

A number of MPs have voiced their support for the strike, with Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake among those who have written to Stuart in support of the couriers’ demands.

At the time of writing the company is yet to respond to Blake’s letter.

Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell is likely the couriers’ most high-profile supporter so far, sharing messages of support for the striking workers on Twitter.

Speaking to NationalWorld, he says this action is one of the “many examples now where this new unionism is winning”.

“This dispute is one of many in which workers have just had enough of low pay and insecure work and where they feel they are being treated like serfs,” he says.

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As a city, Sheffield is home to one of the most active gig economy trade union movements in the UK, and the hope is that if the couriers win here they will strike a blow which will positively impact workers across the country.

“There’s still that spirit of solidarity here, that understanding of what working-class people can achieve when they stand up for themselves and fight back,” says Alex.

“Before it was the miners, the steel workers and the factory workers, now it’s delivery drivers and couriers who risked their lives during the pandemic.”

A Stuart spokesperson said: “The change to our pay model was made to ensure couriers on the Stuart platform will be paid more fairly based on the distance they travel per delivery.

“This is part of our commitment to being the best delivery platform for couriers looking for flexibility and financial stability.

“The new model has been developed to work for all couriers, whether they do shorter deliveries more frequently or fewer, longer trips, and will continue to guarantee pay per hour that is among the highest in the sector.”

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