Labour Fightback recently interviewed Thomas McKechnie, a Toronto organizer with Justice for Foodora Couriers, to discuss the ongoing unionization drive that is being supported by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW).
Fightback: Hey Thomas, thanks for joining us.
Thomas McKechnie: Hey, thanks for having me.
FB: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved in this unionization drive?
TM: I am mostly a playwright and theatre artist, but tried to remain plugged into political happenings and try to remain aware of the world around me. I have been an anti-capitalist since I’ve had politics. So when one of the guys at the beginning of [the] process approached me and asked me if I was interested to form a union, I thought it was a very good idea. When I was first interested to work for Foodora, I was told by a fellow artist that it was a flexible job and that the money was pretty good. These things can be true, but he didn’t talk about the precarity of the situation and that you could very easily hurt yourself and have no protection or have a period where you need to be working other jobs. You might also just pick the wrong season and there may be no shifts available to pay the bills. When I was approached about unionization, I was with the company coming on three years at that point. I had seen the company decline and decline in my time there. A lot of the other folks I was with in the process were with the company for a while and had the same experiences I had.
FB: To give our readers some perspective, can you go into what life is like as a Foodora worker?
TM: We have shifts with Foodora, but in Uber, for example, you can switch on at any point. But with Foodora you have scheduled shifts. For example, 10:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. to 9 p.m. For me, I bike from where I live, down to the core of the city where there are more orders. When you get an order, you can see where it’s coming from and going to, you have the option to decline it. If you decline too many orders, they will cut your hours. Once you accept it, you go to the restaurant to pick it up, you might wait there for the restaurant to complete the order and receive the order. You do not get paid for the time you spend biking going to the order and waiting for the order to be made. This is part of a neoliberal project of pushing as much risk on to the workers as possible because we are only getting paid when we deliver orders. When we actively make money for the company is the time we get paid.
We get paid per delivery at $4.50 flat rate, plus a dollar or so per kilometre plus tips, which wildly change week to week. One week I made $2.50 on average per tip, the next week $0.60 was the average tip. My hope is to do at least three orders an hour, in order to make enough money at the $20 to $25 net range, but when you calculate my repairs at $200 a month, my taxes at $300-$400 a month, and the fact that my rent has gone up 40 per cent since my time with Foodora, the money doesn’t go very far. Sometimes there aren’t orders and when you don’t have orders, you don’t make money. This is what an average day looks like.
In terms of shift scheduling, there are three groups, 1, 2 and 6. Group 1 is for the top tier of riders. They get access to shifts early. But for the last month there have been so few shifts available that sometimes there is nothing for the next available week. So you have to cobble together a work week from people dropping shifts, or work for Uber or Skip The Dishes, etc. But group 1 isn’t a “yes or no” proposition, group 1 is the top percentile of riders. So even if you’re doing your job entirely correctly, but not as correctly as someone else, then you won’t get access to group 1 shifts.
FB: What are some of your main demands in this unionization drive?
TM: We have three central demands. The first is fair wages, for example: my rent has gone up 40 per cent these last four years, but my pay has gone up zero per cent during the same period.
The second is health and safety, because we have a dangerous job and we have no protections if things go wrong. Foodora likes to show off the fact that it has WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board) coverage, but WSIB is like a running joke in the labour movement, in terms of how absolutely underfunded and incapable it is of providing adequate service. I have sympathy for public servants doing their job in WSIB, in an age of austerity, but they just don’t have the resources from WSIB to do their job properly—because WSIB has very little money and it’s come under some very neoliberal direction. This results in WSIB talking to everyone like they’re a criminal, trying to defraud them. For example, my coworker broke his arm on the job and after months of fighting with WSIB, he was getting only $210 a week to live in downtown Toronto.
We need real and adequate coverage, because people here are working sick and injured, so we are making ourselves more sick and more injured doing that. So we need the ability to have health and safety benefits and the ability to take time off. Also, real recovery funds. When someone gets hurt, they should be able to get coverage without all the added stress that this is going to affect their ability to pay rent. We need to have coverage for things like physiotherapy, to recover from injuries and wear and tear you can get by being a cyclist in the city.
The reason the company can get away with not doing these things is because they have us mislabeled as independent contractors. We are not independent contractors. We are classed as dependent contractors. Where some workers may not be exclusive employees of one company, I can’t take my skills anywhere—I can’t have a sign on the street saying “Hire me, my name is Thomas, the bike courier.” No, I work for Foodora, that’s a relationship, and Foodora needs to be honest and transparent about that. We as workers are never going to be able to address the complaint we have about our jobs to management if we don’t have a collective bargaining unit.
The third demand is respect. We need to come together so we can speak on behalf of all of our workers to management, so we can have a workplace built on foundations of respect. We can only have respect if we have the ability to demand respect. Workers and management are in an adversarial relationship.
FB: In the mainstream media, we hear a lot of discussion on the gig economy. The bosses tell us that the gig economy is supposed to be liberating for workers, to be part of this “sharing economy.” What do you think about this argument out there?
TM: I don’t feel very liberated when I spend the whole winter grinding it out for Foodora, delivering food in blizzards in -26 and then come spring, there are no shifts available for me. I don’t feel very liberated when I am knocked off my bike by a driver, or being in a situation where I may be seriously or permanently injured and having dispatch being concerned about when is the order going to arrive on time. It’s this insane, narrow minded liberty, the idea that the best we can hope for is the ability to become a small-scale serf in our 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. period after our main day at work. Because there is no social safety net, or knowing that you will never own a home, because you are staring down the prospect of your parents aging, knowing that you are significantly less capable of helping them than they are of helping their parents. What you are given in exchange for that is the ability to monetize more of your existence, rather than having a social safety net that will protect the people, allowing us to live good lives. Instead, the freedom that they are offering us is the ability to turn more aspects of our existence into profitable endeavours.
They shouldn’t get away with words like “liberation” and “sharing.” It was an important moment for us culturally when the Oxford dictionary added “figuratively” as a definition for the word “literally,” in response to people saying things like “I literally died”. That’s how the word is being used. It’s a wonderful moment because it was this death knell where it was like, “Oh, words don’t mean anything.” Silicon Valley dickheads can talk about the liberatory process of trying to make the two hours between job A and B livable, and then collapsing on the wretched floor with six hours of sleep. It’s not liberating, it’s insane.
FB: In terms of the labour movement, there is a debate about the concept of unionism. There is the concept of business unionism, that when the worker joins a union, they have certain benefits on the basis of a business-like deal with the employers. On the other side, other union activists want to organize workers to fight austerity—militant unionism—on a more anti-capitalist basis. Some even go as far as connecting the fight today, in terms of unionization and collective action among workers, towards another society, a socialist society. I want to know, between these two sides of the debate on which direction to take our unions, what is your perspective?
TM: I think that an important truth for me is that, when it comes to unionization, a rising tide lifts all boats. And so unionizing workplaces in the gig economy, like Foodora, is good and important to do. I have my own personal convictions in terms of what I would like the union to do, but all unionization is good unionization.
If the purpose of a union is the exercise of workplace democracy, then I am interested in unionizing Foodora and then allowing the union at Foodora to chart its course as to what kind of work it is interested in doing. In part, because I think democratic world-building is an essential first step to my personal preferred result, which is pretty combative and militant.
Unions are a site of resistance, already a grouping with people with common interests and desires. The question is what can we do and how can we use this. Think what a flying squad of 20 dedicated radicals on bikes can do. I have some faith in the fact that because of the demographics of who makes up this organization and the grim prospects for the future outlined earlier, that there would be some interest in being militant and in pursuing battles on a larger structural level.
But I think there are also interesting forms of militancy that may not be immediately evident. One of them is the fact that this job is done in migrant communities, with different levels of status. When I signed up for Foodora, they didn’t check immigration status, which allows a place for people working for Foodora with different statuses. This could allow for solid ground to establish a stronger status position for themselves, immigration-wise, and this is the kind of militancy and radicalism that I am also interested in: the ability for formations like unions to help people.
Neoliberal capitalism is interested in transient global populations, as they provide a useful, disposable, compliant workforce, I think there is a vital kind of militancy to push back against that. If they want to bring in an immigrant population so they can have more easily controlled workers, then we can say, guess what, we just organized them. So I think there is lots of militant potential within the union because of who’s there. There is often a self-service in solidarity, because if you can get folks en masse to realize that we can do things, that together we can make things happen, those are things that people can buy in on that basis.
FB: Is there a message you want to tell our readers in terms of how we can help your struggle?
TM: Yeah, you can go to www.foodstersunited.ca, which you can visit and go to the “How you can help” section. One of the fun things that we have been doing recently is having allies order food and then either talk to the person about the union, [or] get their phone number and pass it on to us to follow up with them. Also, we accept emails to Foodora that you can share with us, that you are a human being who is in favour of a union for Foodora workers, and that you are more inclined to use their services if you knew that their workers are being treated fairly. We also have events throughout the summer, sign up on the website to see more. At the website you can also see more actions organized in the near future and keep up with what we are up to.
FB: Any final thoughts?
TM: Companies working in the gig economy are by and large union-busters, building their workplaces to make it difficult to exercise power for common goals. If you do not stop them here, it is coming everywhere. My partner is a teacher and talks to young kids across the world on an iPad and her schedule is released on an app on her phone. My brother is working 29 hours a week as a graphic designer, on a part-time gig, so the company never has to pay him benefits. They want to do this everywhere, they want to make everyone’s jobs like mine. They want to offload responsibilities onto workers and keep all of the rewards for themselves. And they are going to do it to your job. It’s all coming and we have to fight it in its most challenging formations, like Foodora and Uber. These are massive companies that are here to ruin the next decades of your life.
Politicians are showing that they are stuck in the past when it comes to various issues like climate change, so we have to start organizing these places now. It’s going to get harder every single year and we have to stop it now, we have to push back now. The labour movement has been in decline and has been pushed back a number of years due to neoliberalism. I commend CUPW for taking this on because this is the future. We have to stop fighting rearguard actions, not just defending what we have; we have to aggressively go after the world we want. It’s hard because coffers are low, unionization rates are low and solidarity potential is low. But this is not the time to be conservative. It is time to be radical about what we can do and then work like hell to make it happen.
For more information on the Foodora union drive, please read this article by Fightback.
(Interview edited for length and clarity with permission)