Digitalisation is not technologically determined but socially shaped—including by new forms of collective action.
The pandemic has increased the relevance of key sectors of the economy, such as last-mile urban logistics. But it has also increased exploitation. All over Europe and beyond, protests have spread, against the odds, especially among the new precarious workers in the platform economy.
Although it emerged before the pandemic, collective mobilisation of riders and drivers appears to have grown, becoming more visible and even sometimes successful. Case studies have documented this trend, demonstrating forms of worker contestation that fall outside established unions and institutional channels—their prevalence confirmed in a working paper last June from the International Labour Organization.
The dataset for the ILO study comprised 1,271 protest events globally among platform workers in four sectors: ride-hailing, food delivery, courier services and grocery delivery. It found evidence of union involvement in only 18 per cent of cases overall—in the global south this was even less frequent.
Thus, in about 80 per cent of platform-worker protests across the world self-organised groups play a key role, significantly outstripping traditional union organisation. These multiple configurations have relied on very different networks of actors, including political activists and rank-and-file union members, as well as movement collectives and organisations.
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If these protests are renewing the way worker collective action is conceived, many of the processes of mobilisation do not flow through official, institutionalised channels. To base their study on formal procedures and organisations alone would thus substantially limit understanding.
Social-movement studies have linked collective action and collective identities, exploring the conditions under which pre-existing identities become relevant for new mobilisations and how new identities are processed through action. Similarly, industrial-relations research has shown how strikes can be conducive to specific forms of class consciousness and worker solidarity. As novel forms of mobilisation emerge in the new world of work, dominated by digital platforms, bringing social-movement studies together with industrial relations therefore appears crucial to grasp their origins, characteristics and potential effects.
In the digital economy, contestation of labour conditions often exploits specific leverages in the labour process as well as societal alliances, questioning the traditional conceptions of workplace organising which revolve around trade unions. Platform workers have adopted a hugely diverse array of organisational forms and practices across different sectors, and across different regions and countries within the same sector, when staging collective action. While sharing some important characteristics, these mobilisations manifest peculiarities related to labour conditions and the external alliances.
Nevertheless, worker collectives have tried to form solidarity networks with workers in cities and countries elsewhere, thus showing a new awareness of the link between the local and transnational dimensions. International co-ordination has been evident among these collectives, as with food-delivery couriers engaged by the multinational digital platforms or the warehouse and logistics workers of specific multinationals such as Amazon. Food-delivery couriers from 12 different countries and 34 organisations met in October 2018 in Brussels to found the Transnational Federation of Couriers, with the aim of launching a European mobilisation.
In different sectors and professions, innovative organisational models, collective frames and repertoires of action have contributed to defining the new collective identities of digital workers. Indeed, contrary to technological determinism, digitalisation is shaped by the social actors involved in a specific phase of technological and organisational change affecting employment relations and processes of recognition. Depending on the degree of institutional regulation and worker organisation, it can trigger contradictory processes which simultaneously enhance precariousness and individualisation yet help shape new identities and solidarity.
Especially in technologically advanced economies, the rise of digital platforms is part of a more general process of labour precarisation, leading to a neoliberal convergence of employment relations at the international level. Forms of trade unionism have adapted to this changing landscape.
While labour conflicts of the old type of borne out of the social universe of the factory were declining in core western countries, unions were revitalising in semi-peripheral and peripheral countries in many cases experiencing democratic transitions. Current processes of digitalisation are reshaping that revitalisation, affecting the geography of capital and labour and expanding new forms of solidarity. Take the protest at Apple in California in solidarity with Chinese factory workers at Foxconn, which brought workers and consumers together.
Moreover, new processes of collective solidarity have transcended purely sectoral interests, developing at different positions on the value chain. Though acting in very different political and economic contexts, the Tech Workers Coalitions inspiring new collectives in several countries are characterised by strong international links, inter-sectoral solidarity and alliances between knowledge workers at the head of the value chain and manual workers in warehouses and logistics experiencing the consequences of new forms of technological control.
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Our research on work on-demand via applications, comparing especially food-delivery workers with those involved in warehouse and last-mile logistics (Amazon drivers), showed how digitalisation and the rise of platform capitalism had revived old dilemmas about worker collective action but also opened up new opportunities for mobilisation. While the collectives of couriers engaged in more spontaneous and self-organised forms of mobilisation, for the Amazon drivers these were more sector-oriented and union-led.
Nevertheless, starting from more local and sector-specific claims in 2019, the mobilisation of Amazon drivers triggered an expanding conflict, which culminated in March 2021 in Piacenza with the first strike worldwide involving the entire supply chain of Jeff Bezos’ multinational. Clearly the new forms of collective action in sectors disrupted by digital platforms are reshaping labour solidarity as we knew it and the scale of mobilisation.
The processes of identity formation of riders and drivers have not moreover been confined to the work setting but have built upon specific political and social conditions within and beyond its bounds. Collective identification is a dynamic process, stemming from mobilisation and the development of solidarity in action.
Our study found that two resources were particularly relevant for these mobilisations. First, as noted, the presence of political activists and informal leaders, as well as supportive social-movement organisations—social centres, squatted houses, activist networks—provided precarious workers with organisational skills and resources and confrontational mobilising frames, thus shaping the dynamics of organising.
Secondly, and relatedly, historical legacies and past experiences of militancy and community organising provided some of these workers with collective frames of reference and established scripts on which to rely, in turn shaping attitudes towards different organisational forms and repertoires of action. Our study thus shows how the social, non-institutional dynamics of the local environment in which workers are embedded has affected the formation of the local leadership, the organisational outlook, the capacities and dispositions of these workers and consequently their ways of organising collective action.
The advent of the digital era is far from being a quiet process enmeshed in the clouds of the web and under the control of the new platform-based corporate power. It is above all the political stage of new social conflicts, redefining the nature of work and technology and their centrality in society.