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“Crossing the digital picket line” – the new language of industrial relations in the gig economy

Many of you will have seen the protests by Uber drivers outside their offices recently in relation to pay rates and the commission they have to pay to Uber in order to use the app which provides them with work.

The United Private Hire Drivers (UPHD), a branch of the IWGB union, organised a 24-hour strike in London, Birmingham and Nottingham. The UPHD also urged the public to have solidarity with the drivers urging customers not to order taxis via the app thus “crossing the digital picket line.”

Protesting over terms and conditions of employment is not new.

What is new, in the ‘gig economy’, is the language and method of organising and mobilising workers into taking industrial action. This includes employees, workers and the self-employed.

The self-employed don’t enjoy the same rights and protections in relation to industrial action that are conferred upon employees. They don’t have unfair dismissal rights hence the UPHD protest about Uber’s “rash deactivation” of drivers thus blocking drivers’ access to the app. “Digital termination”, they state, amounts to a dismissal in real terms without any of the associated rights of legal recourse available to employees.

On the other hand, free from the restrictions and tight thresholds placed on unions and employees when balloting for industrial action, the self-employed in theory can mobilise and organise more quickly and freely. A group of striking self-employed drivers may be as disruptive to a business as a regular striking group of employees.

Mobilisation itself can also be made easier by digital means.

Workers taking part in last week’s “McStrike” involving Wetherspoons, McDonald’s, Uber Eats and TGI Fridays workers largely mobilised and publicised action via Twitter and other social media using the hashtag #FastFoodRights.

Union density has been dropping for many years in certain sectors but the Guardian quotes that “Younger Workers are rewiring capitalism” with a rise in union membership or involvement in action groups.

There is nothing inherently wrong in a contractual relationship that is not the traditional employee-employer relationship with all the mutual obligations that this confers. Many of our clients operate flexible working relationships happily and without industrial dispute.

Disputes however, including legal ones, can occur when the original relationship evolves and/or the balance between the parties tips. The ‘Psychological contract’ in employee relations can be just as important as the written contract.

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