The fast-growing App Drivers’ and Couriers Union’s first AGM showed a commitment to strong and political organising, reports Unjum Mirza
Last weekend witnessed the App Drivers’ and Couriers Union first ever in-person Annual General Meeting. The AGM held in London saw delegates arrive from as far afield as Glasgow and Portsmouth and every major city in between.
General secretary, James Farrar, addressed the importance of the historic Supreme Court judgement in February 2021: ‘our President Yaseen was the lead claimant in making history not just in our industry but across many industries at the moment. It is an important contribution to workers’ struggle that will stand the test of time.’
‘before the Supreme Court hearing, the contract was between the driver and the passenger with Uber acting as the agent. Uber said, this is fine and TfL said its fine, because the driver is in principle his own boss, we set it up to look this way. The Supreme Court said that’s not true, we can tell that there is an employer-worker relationship here, because there is an element of control, regardless of what the contract says. And the Supreme Court went one step further. They said, by the way, we don’t think this set up with these contracts could be legal under transport regulations. Why? Because it is a criminal offence for a driver to accept a booking.’
Uber went to the High Court arguing that the Supreme Court comments were wrong. They lost. As a result, and applied to London only, drivers were reclassified as workers. ‘Uber has the contract with the passenger not the driver, therefore the driver can only be contracted with Uber, and our worker status, because of that, is secure. Therefore, statutory protections have been secured because of the High Court ruling that Uber lost,’ Farrar explained.
Astonishingly, Uber have gone back to the High Court now arguing that ‘from the other side of this, we want the same rule in London through the rest of the country,’ with all other operators against it. A ruling is expected soon, while Farrar explains, ‘there’s two possible outcomes that are very important to the future of this industry. If it is won, then we need to spread worker status to every region across the country. If it is lost, then we’ll have conflicting legislation outside London and inside London. That is fundamentally an unsustainable position.’
Need for a political voice
Farrar urged the union needs a ‘political voice in that process because we’ll get hammered if we don’t.’ He continued, ‘the operators, the local councils, the government, we know they’re not with us. And I’m not sure if Labour’s with us either. So, it’s very important, more than ever, that we’re ready for that battle because we may have to redefine the regulatory environment that we work and live in.’
But Farrar and the AGM are under no illusions where their power as workers lies: ‘Don’t think this union can deliver change for you solely through court rooms and clever court actions, or our individual case work that we do - these are all important things. The real power is in strike action. It’s in protest action,’ said Farrar.
Delegates are aware of the challenges and threats ahead. Farrar demonstrated how operators are seeking and consolidating political influence and power against workers. How operators collude ‘to drive down what they pay you and increase their take rate – the essence of what they call dynamic pay – increasing their profit by taking money out of your pockets.’ How their investment in research and development and the use of technology is geared to a ‘vision’ where operators ‘retreat to being despatchers and that’s it. They want to retreat into the clouds. They don’t want to be operators. They dispute what it means to be an operator. What it means to operate. They want to increase their profits. And what you’re exposed to is a denial of your worker rights.’
Delegates were keen to learn of six drivers who were the victim of robot-firings: firings by machine without any significant, meaningful human intervention. The ADCU took Uber to court in Amsterdam for unfair dismissal. Uber didn’t even show up. Judgements were passed with Uber having to pay £150,000 and all six drivers’ licences won back.
The AGM heard how Abdurzak Hadi won a ruling – the first in Europe under GDPR – in a case of an unfair deduction in pay made by a machine without any apparent human intervention. ‘We’ve had to fight for access to our data. We’ve had to expose just how algorithmic management works. We cannot accept these unfair practices and it will be an issue of our life-time and our children’s life-time. We have to understand with the rise of Elon Musk and people like that how algorithmic management is affecting us. And we have to fight. We have to rage against the machine.’
ADCU President, Yaseen Aslam stressed:
‘Drivers and couriers are flocking to ADCU because we’re cleaning up the minicab and courier trade – one rotten employer and one bent licensing authority at a time. We’re raising standards and pay to make the industry fit for workers at last. Our power is collective power: direct action, protests and strikes.’
The phenomenal success and growth of the ADCU has meant that the union has faced new organisational challenges. The National Executive presented to the AGM proposals to make changes to the union rule book to strengthen the union’s democracy, it’s governance and organisational capacity to sink deeper roots within regions, expand and grow further still. A full and frank debate among delegates covered every aspect of the rule book with no advance on any portion of the agenda without a vote at every stage of the process.
Amid a deepening political and economic crisis, the ADCU perspective is clear. Farrar explained,
‘We talk about the litigation, we talk about all the clever stuff, but our real power is on the streets and doing strike action again, again and again. Because I can tell you, the operators and the politicians don’t have the power that you have when you go on the streets. We are up against political failure and the economic models of these companies and when you protest and you strike, you have unquestioned moral authority and it’s important we continue with our strike actions.’
AGM delegate Catherine, an Amazon courier, spoke passionately about organising in the workplace and building solidarity with other workers on strike. “I used to be ashamed of wearing my Amazon high visibility vest,” she said, “but I joined the posties’ picket line and the solidarity was amazing. We’re all workers, no matter what industry. We have to stick together.”
Politics and organisation
The AGM unanimously passed a motion on the cost-of-living crisis, stating that ‘workers and the poor are facing a cost-of-living crisis including the rising cost of food, energy, rents and mortgages. This crisis has been compounded by a real pay emergency following twelve years of austerity and the suppression of wages under Tory government rule. This AGM stands firmly against any government efforts to introduce measures that amount to an Austerity mark 2,’ and directed ‘members and the NEC to the People’s Assembly and Enough is Enough campaigns.’
The AGM affirmed its internationalist perspective with ADCU Treasurer, Azeem Hanif, passing a motion, to great applause, on Palestine, supporting ‘the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people; the right of return of the Palestinian people, and declares its opposition to racism, including anti-Jewish prejudice and Islamophobia, and the apartheid and Zionist nature of the Israeli state,’ and directing members and the NEC to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Stop the War Coalition and Amnesty International.’ Motions were passed too on Kashmir and the climate emergency. Importantly, the AGM agreed to the NEC initiating the setting up of a political fund in compliance with statutory requirements.
The ADCU AGM showed the potential for workers to organise, win and elevate our struggles to the next level. The union has secured significant breakthroughs like winning recognition at Transport for London, despite all the barriers put in place by the authority; the erection of barriers in vehicles during the pandemic in Glasgow; and winning justice for drivers in Leeds, who’d been unfairly treated under policies that ‘try to penalise drivers if you try to take a few months off to go home to Pakistan, Somalia, Ireland and have to come back and do police reports because you’ve been away.’
As Farrar said: ‘There is no political solution for us that I see, other than one that we generate ourselves through our own organisation and organising.’
And there were no doubts about linking up with the wider workers’ struggles:
‘It’s up to all of us to create unity. We have to have unity in protests. We have to have unity on strikes. That’s what it means to be in a union. That’s what it means to deliver. The laws are unfair, we know that. We know politics is rotten. We know parliament is rotten. Our real power is ourselves and we have to be disciplined about creating that unity on protests and strikes. If there’s a protest on, if there’s a strike on, get out there and support it. You owe it to yourselves and each other to do that. That’s what it means to be in a union.’
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Unjum Mirza is a driver on the London Underground. He is on the Editorial Board of Tunnel Vision, the rank and file bulletin, and is an Aslef union branch chair.
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