The metropolitan struggles of food-delivery riders in Bologna carry lessons beyond their space and time.
It is the evening of November 13th 2017. A sudden and intense snowfall whitens the streets of Bologna. The city comes to a standstill, with only some sparse cyclists remaining, riding through the mud and the snowdrifts.
They are riders, the couriers of the home-delivery applications operating in Bologna for a few months now. It is cold, it is really hard to cross the streets and the risk of slipping and falling is very high. But the companies are pushing to keep the service active: the possibility that those at home will order a meal is also strong.
A whirlwind of messages starts in the various chats shared by couriers. Someone has already stopped; someone else is convinced to do so. A delivery is not worth the risk of one’s life. Almost everyone agrees: it is not worth continuing to work like this. The companies can only take note and suspend the service. Everyone goes home.
Spaces for urban solidarity
That evening something changed in Bologna. The episode was the spark that triggered one of the most significant experiences of self-organisation of couriers of food-delivery platforms, the Riders Union. There were no statutes, no membership cards—just one meeting a week, a WhatsApp group to keep people constantly informed and several spaces for urban solidarity willing to support the union’s activities.
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Home-delivery services via platforms were booming in northern Italian cities at the time. In Germany and in England, they had taken root earlier and, in parallel, the first experiences of unionisation of riders had arisen. The problems were however the same for all: low pay, no health insurance, uncertainty over work shifts.
The ‘workaholic’ rhetoric associated with companies such as Glovo or Deliveroo has served to justify an almost total informalisation and individualisation of working conditions. Perhaps the first point of friction between companies and delivery workers was precisely that: questioning the idea that this is autonomous work, unmasking a hierarchical relationship between the worker and the platform, challenging the logistical power of the algorithm.
A fight for everyone
Ten days have passed since the snowfall. November 24th celebrates ‘Black Friday’, the annual consumer binge during which thousands of online orders impose an acceleration of the pace of work in large-scale distribution and metropolitan logistics.
This time, Bologna’s couriers are organised, meeting under the Asinelli Tower for a flash mob. They are all masked—to defend themselves from possible retaliation by the companies and to symbolise that theirs is a fight for everyone. And they display their bags, not to advertise the companies but to denounce the platforms’ indifference to their demands.
The sit-in quickly turns into a march to the city hall. The mayor cannot ignore what is happening. A few days pass and on December 6th the Riders Union hands the municipality a letter requesting the opening of a concertation table between the couriers and the food delivery companies to guarantee fair and safe work.
There is a lot of attention—it is impossible to pretend that nothing is happening. Marco Lombardo, municipal councillor responsible for labour and productive activities, decides to construct a trilateral confrontation among the companies, trade unions and the local administration.
It is not an easy task. Glovo and Deliveroo decline the invitation while strikes against them by Bologna’s couriers grow. Only two, local companies accept the proposal. The traditional trade unions seem to snub the initiative—too far from the canons of industrial relations to which they are accustomed. The Riders Union, on the other hand, invests in relentless mobilisation, while finding backing from a group of lawyers and social spaces willing to support its battle.
This is not just a local episode or a sectoral battle. On April 15th 2018, the first Italian assembly of food-delivery-app workers is convened in Bologna. It is clear that the urban dimension constitutes the space for the organisation of delivery workers, but without a co-ordination network it is difficult to oppose the economic power of the platforms.
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A convergence is sought among the many experiences of self-organisation emerging. On May Day, the Riders Union launches a parade through the streets of Bologna: ‘Not for us, but for everyone’ is the slogan. Their struggle cannot find a solution if the way of conceiving work, in general, does not change.
On May 31st, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of Digital Work in the Urban Context is finally signed, a territorial agreement valid for adhering parties. This introduces some basic, universal rules for platform workers, such as fair compensation linked to national collective agreements, health-and safety-obligations, and limits on rating and ranking tools.
That was five years ago and obviously many things have changed. The Bologna charter has been overtaken by other legislation or company agreements at national and European levels. The trade-union experience of the Riders Union itself ended and gave way to more traditional subjects. Yet, now that the European Union is working on a directive on platform work, it makes sense to learn from this and other experiences of riders’ urban mobilisation.
Digital platforms find their terrain of action in urban spaces. It is in cities that these companies absorb and transform local services through the use of algorithms and applications. It is in cities that they encounter segments of the workforce—from migrants to students—to be activated with the promise of becoming entrepreneurs of their own. It is in cities that the tangible impacts of platforms are experienced—from processes of expulsion due to rising rents to the precarisation of forms of work.
At the same time, platform workers have sometimes managed to overturn the meaning of this urban milieu—from a space for organising work to a space for organising struggles. There is no city in the world where the expansion of food-delivery platforms has not been followed by the outbreak of forms of protest.
This is because urban space is also a space of encounter and discussion for workers, a political space. Just as the city is reorganised by platforms to adapt to the services they offer, so these spaces of production and circulation can be interrupted, blocked, sabotaged. If anything, the challenge that platform workers have faced has been to overcome territorial fragmentation, to build trans-urban networks that would hold together the vitality of local experiences and the capacity for widespread action.
Municipalities’ political function
Given the asymmetry of power between food-delivery companies and riders, local administrations were strongly and constantly urged to take a stand—to fulfil a political function. If, over the years, they had been increasingly pushed to adopt neoliberal policies, turning territory into an economic asset to be exploited, these protests instead stimulated a mediating municipal role among the different actors in the urban space. The rhetoric of the ‘self-regulating’ market having given the green light to processes of valorisation and exploitation, against those today a political counter-balancing is needed—first and foremost on a city basis.
This is not a resolved issue. Alongside legislative initiatives, forms of multi-level governance must be rethought to enhance and strengthen cities’ capacity to intervene in the face of the challenges posed by platform capitalism. Identifying the limits and possibilities of an urban regulation of platforms is important if we want to construct tools empowering local actors to play a decisive role in defining the rules of the game.
The experiences of the Riders Union and the Bologna charter can thus still be useful to reflect on how cities can be testing grounds for social policies based on justice and inclusiveness.
This is part of a series on ‘global cities’ supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
Maurilio Pirone is a postdoctoral researcher in the Horizon2020 PLUS project Platform Labour in Urban Spaces at the University of Bologna.. He worked as a food-delivery courier and was one of the founding members of Riders Union Bologna.