Making Sense of the Gig Economy: A Conversation with Jamie Woodcock

Editor’s Note:

With the global spread and dominance of the platform economy, platform workers everywhere have demonstrated remarkable abilities to organise themselves and stage collective actions. Research on platform labour, too, has proliferated, producing a large number of case studies. Yet both organising and research on platform labour appear to be reaching some limits: platform workers have rarely secured major victories despite strike actions, and studies are becoming more repetitive and generating fewer fresh insights.

With these questions in mind, we spoke with Jamie Woodcock, co-author of The Gig Economy: A Critical Introduction (with Mark Graham) and one of the earliest researchers who studied platform labour. We talked about the ways his activist background shaped his research, how he got started in studying platform labour and his observations of the field, why we begin to see limits to research and organising in the platform economy, and the potential paths to overcoming such limits.

Asian Labour Review (ALR): Last time we met, we were at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) office in in London where you introduced me to some amazing delivery rider organisers. You had a long association with IWGB going back many years. Tell us about your connection with the union, and your own role as an organiser in addition to being a researcher.

Jamie Woodcock (JW): I first got involved as a student in London. One of the things that played an important role in politicisation of students was involvement in the cleaners’ campaigns. There were many outsourced cleaners and security guard campaigns at London universities. So as a student, I would go to demonstrations organised by the union.

When I finished my PhD about call center workers and started teaching, one of my students said to me, “I work for this platform called Deliveroo”. I asked him, “What is Deliveroo?” I’d never heard of it. It’s one of those funny things: when you hear a new term, then suddenly, I would see delivery riders everywhere.

We decided to write a piece together. We spent a lot of time wandering around London talking to delivery riders, going from restaurant to restaurant, trying to get to know riders and their work. Then they had a strike, and we went to the strike where I met one of the organisers from the courier branch of the IWGB. We got involved in trying to recruit people to the union at that strike.

ALR: I understand the IWGB as a union is in many ways quite unique.

JW: The IWGB is a relatively small union and isn’t affiliated to the main trade union federation, the Trade Union Congress (TUC). It is quite different in the way it organises. Many of the members began as part of a larger union called UNISON, a very large public sector trade union. The members tried to organise a strike, but the Unison branch didn’t want them be on strike. The members decided to go ahead with this anyway.

This beginning for the union has set a model for the union: taking action isn’t a last resort. Going on strike isn’t something to put off. By taking strike action, that is how the union wins results. It’s primarily a migrant workers union, particularly Latin American workers. And it’s a bilingual union in English and Spanish and increasingly some Portuguese, which is very unusual in the UK.

ALR: One of the things I came across in your research on platform labour is this idea of worker inquiry, which has a very interesting radical history and politics behind it.

JW: The first thing to say is that I’m a Marxist. What motivates my research is trying to understand work and working conditions with a view to how workers can change those conditions. My research is inspired in particular by workers inquiry, which is something that Marx experimented with towards the end of his life. It was a postal survey that he wanted to send out to workers.

Today, what that means is trying to do research with workers. So workers can explain their own conditions, as part of a process of organising as well to do research. What was more interesting was not the answers that were being produced, but getting people thinking about their conditions and sharing their ideas about it.

There are different attempts to do this kind of research. There have been groups in the US and in France, but the largest and most sustained is probably Italian workerism in the 60s, and 70s. If you were a worker in the 70s in the US or Europe, you would go and stand at the factory gates and talk to workers.

There are very few factories in London today. But there are lots of other workplaces. The idea is to think about what’s different about doing that kind of research with platform workers or with other kinds of precarious workers. We should be looking back to some of those more radical ways of researching with workers, not researching workers as a subject.

Quite a lot of what I’ve tried to do with platform labour are things that wouldn’t be considered traditionally academic. There is the project: the Notes from Below, which is about getting workers to write about their own experience, writing with workers, collecting reports from strikes that have happened and publishing them.

ALR: Your book, The Gig Economy: A Critical Introduction, is probably the first book that a lot of people read to get a thorough introduction to the topic. Over the years, there have been so much more research done on the gig economy globally. But I feel the research is kind of stuck theoretically, and reaching some limits.

JW: There are a couple of ways to think about this limit. When I first started studying and doing a PhD on work, the other PhD students would tease me about the fact I was studying work, that this was “old fashioned”, saying “why don’t you study something contemporary?” And then 10 years later, everybody wants to study gig work.

The problem is the literature is so large already. It’s very difficult for people to make sense of the existing literature, in part also because it comes from many different disciplines. This prevents proper arguments being developed. I review papers all the time that say: the evidence says gig workers shouldn’t be able to organize, but in my city, there has now been a strike of gig workers, and this is an entirely new phenomenon. But there are whole parts of the literature that have talked about this already.

There’s another reason why things are not developing in a more sustained way, which is we’ve had lots of strikes. We’ve had the establishment of unions, and we’ve had bigger unions getting involved. But there are very few major worker victories in the gig economy. There is still a big question about where things go from here. There is no model that is proving successful for these workers to organise over a longer period of time. So in a way theory has reached this point, where practice is catching up.

ALR: It often strikes me that a lot of the research seems to be disconnected from previous decades of studies about work. In some cases, the studies on platform labour are reinventing the wheels in terms of frameworks and concepts. I don’t know if this resonates with you.

JW: This is a very important point. Many people now studying platform labour don’t come from a tradition of studying work or struggles at work. The tradition that might perhaps be best suited to studying platform work is labour process theory which was dominant in the UK for many decades.

But some of the leading figures in this tradition now reject Marxism, and reject some of the major tenets of labor process theory. So some of the theoretical resources that were available before have to be rediscovered. The longer history of theory that could be helping today is not accessible to many people.

ALR: In my experience, people who study factory workers tend to come mostly from a radical perspective. But that doesn’t seem to be necessarily the case with researchers on gig workers. I’m generalising because many who studied factory workers did so from human resources and management perspectives. But I do wonder whether the de-politicised nature of academia today is also a factor.

JW: The study of work today is much less radical than the study of work in the 1970s or in the 1980s. In the UK, for example, there were plenty of Marxists in industrial relations departments. It was a theoretically left-wing discipline. The creation of business schools has affected this significantly. There is now much more heterogeneity in terms of the politics of people studying work and their theoretical underpinnings.

I would say that the majority of people studying gig work today are not Marxists, not necessarily on the left, and are studying it because it’s an interesting phenomenon academically, rather than studying it because understanding the work is part of a political project.

ALR: In a previous conversation, you said the platform labour sector is very strike-prone. In more traditional sectors like industrial factories as well as services, it takes years of painstaking organising to cumulate in a strike action. For gig workers, going on strike seems a lot easier, but it doesn’t result in wins often. How should we understand this?

JW: There are two technical features of the work that encourage it becoming a strike-prone sector. The first is the contractual relationships. In the UK, if you’re an employee, you have to go through a number of legal requirements before you can strike. It’s time-consuming, it’s expensive, and you have to run a postal ballot over a certain period of time. If you’re self-employed, you can just choose not to work whenever you want. Now, I know this isn’t the case in every country, but there are very few anti-strike rules that can be applied to platform workers. But just because there aren’t these obstacles, doesn’t mean people will go on strike. So this is half of the reason.

The other half is that there’s often very little communication between the platform and the workers. If there is communication, it’s often just being notified of a change happening. What this means is that small grievances that come out of the labor process can’t be resolved easily between the platform and the workers. So the grievances build again, and they build and build without a pressure valve until people go on strike.

In lots of other kinds of work, there are managers and supervisors who play a mediating role with those sorts of grievances, promise that a change will happen, and try and prevent grievances from building up. That’s not present in platforms. What we see is that the kind of common form of voicing problems at work becomes the wildcat strike. The difficulty is the wildcat strike in lots of contexts isn’t winning longer-term gains.

ALR: Another thing is that the cost of going on strike seems not too high to workers. In many cases, when platform workers go on strike, they simply switch to another platform to do the work. So the barrier to strike is further lowered.

JW: For many other groups of workers, it means losing a whole day’s pay to go on strike for one day. You’re right that in lots of cases, it’s boycotting one platform for the day and working on another one. That makes it much easier for workers to take action.

It also doesn’t require a direct confrontation with a manager. If I go on strike at my work, it means telling my manager, I’m not going to do the work. If going on strike just means logging out of the app, there’s less of a barrier to taking strike action.

ALR: I’m also wondering about the cost of strike actions to the company. To what extent do these strike hurt the companies? Especially when very often only a section of the workforce in any given city goes on strike, which affects but doesn’t shut down the company’s operation.

JW: The platforms are very reluctant to talk about the costs of strike action, and it depends on the city too. In very large cities like London, New York, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, for example, it’s very difficult to shut down production due to the scale. On gig work platforms, in smaller regional cities and towns, it’s much more feasible to organise all of the riders. So this differs depending on the context.

It also differs depending on the pressure it puts on restaurants. If orders are piling up, it’s not only the customer that’s going to complain, it’s not only the service fee that the platform is no longer charging to the restaurant and the customer, but it’s also the frustration of the restaurant.

Deliveroo had a very bad Initial Public Offering (IPO), in part because of concerns around labor disputes on the platform. The individual strikes may not have caused particular damage on one day, but they build a reputation that an employer treats its workers badly and they will have strikes in the future.

ALR: In the UK, there were just months of strikes and protests in the last couple of years. Can you talk about these in terms of organising and impact?

JW: There are two examples in the UK. One is the major campaigns against the company nationally, protesting the IPO, doing media work, and publicity around the working conditions. Then there’s also been the development of more localised struggles that have the potential to be the building blocks for future organising.

For example, in a neighborhood in London, there is a campaign targeted at a restaurant because they don’t provide parking. There have been complaints about riders getting tickets for parking nearby. So there have been strikes targeted at the restaurant, which is a very clear point of confrontation where concessions can be won. Workers can build their confidence and can then target other restaurants in the neighborhood. One of the challenges is how to go from organizing in the UK to beating a company like Deliveroo, which is an enormous multinational funded by Amazon.

ALR: This is a really important point about the transnational nature of the platform companies, which have their subsidiary companies in different parts of the world. How should we confront this?

JW: This is a function of one of the main dynamics of platforms as a business model: they monopolise. This is where the network effects become strongest where we end up with the centralisation of capital in a handful of companies. In many cases, there’s a single dominant company, providing the services or perhaps two that are still competing.

What this means is that workers in different countries try and build connections with each other. There’s a kind of organic internationalism that emerges, where a delivery rider in the UK wants to know about what’s happening with delivery riders and other countries. This is very different to the other forms of kind of labor movement internationalism that we might find elsewhere, which is usually the general secretary of one union going to visit another general secretary in another union.

It’s quite different to many other forms of low paid work. There are many cleaners in London, and there are many cleaners in Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong. But there are very few concrete reasons for cleaners to build those sorts of organic connections with each other. For platforms, because there is similarity in the work process and a similar image of the gig worker, we start to get these connections being formed. As an internationalist, it’s very exciting to see those connections being built. In a way, these platforms have laid the basis for new kinds of transnational solidarity.

ALR: The conditions are similar, and so are some of the workers’ organising tactics. But we also know solidarity is not automatic simply based on similar conditions. It takes a lot of work to build. How do we translate the shared material basis into solidarity actions?

JW: You’re right that a material basis doesn’t mean that there will be these connections. But the fact that these workers spend most of their time on smartphones with the digital communication methods so widespread, it’s much easier to form those connections than ever before. If you search on Twitter for delivery riders’ strike, you can find those connections and build them.

The outstanding thing is still the same: international solidarity on its own doesn’t win struggles. The question is, what kinds of international solidarity can help to win those struggles.

ALR: We see all these informal networks, associations and mutual aid groups that the riders themselves set up in many places. But it seems a lot of riders are at the same time resistant to unionising. Do you think there’s anything unique or exceptional about platform workers that makes them reluctant to unionise?

JW: Gig work has its own set of challenges. The turnover is a major challenge for organising with these workers. Deliveroo has claimed that the average job tenure is 11 months. This is a short space of time to organise the people before they move on. Finding ways to relate to groups of workers who are suspicious of trade unions is another. In some cases, the organising takes the shape of trade unions. But not always.

Each organisational form has their own advantages and constraints. Anyone who’s ever been involved in worker organising outside of trade unions knows how difficult it can be to sustain that over the long term. Anyone who’s been involved in a big union knows how bureaucratized they can be and how that prevent organic action.

Right now, none of these are proving a successful model for long-term organising. There are examples now emerging globally where people are figuring out innovative and exciting and creative ways to overcome those challenges. In the next few years, we’ll see different examples of those pushing forward, and see which of them is more successful in practice.

ALR: How has platform workers organising evolved in recent years, if at all?

JW: An awful lot has happened in the past several years. We’ve gone from the first-ever strike in the gig economy in London to internationally coordinated strikes, to big unions becoming involved, to new forms of boycotts and other protests emerging.

What’s unique about platform work is how quickly everything is happening. If you think about the establishment of mass production, it took much longer for workers to find tactics for factories to become unionised. I do think we’ve reached a bit of an impasse. But workers have responded incredibly quickly to this new kind of work, and found ways to organise.

ALR: This points to this accelerated development where platform companies come to market, set up the infrastructure, hire workers, and quickly monopolise the market. And they start with a lot of bonuses and incentives to the riders and customers but then cut or eliminate them within a few years. That’s often when workers organise.

JW: One of the conversations we sometimes have in London is speaking to people who’ve been on strike and didn’t win. That’s an unusual conversation to have with workers in the UK because usually the question is convincing people that striking can win, and then explaining what strikes are and how to do them, rather than meeting a group of workers who’ve already been on strike.

If people are striking and losing, collective organising starts to look like less of an option. However, strikes continue to happen because there aren’t other things that workers can do. I also think this kind of work has a really important implication for other parts of the economy. If you talk to young workers today, they will have heard of delivery strikes that they have seen on social media. It’s part of re-popularising strike action organizing at work.

I believe we’re at a tipping point about seeing the potential resurgence of a labour movement, particularly here in the UK, but also in the US. That is at least in part inspired by how strike prone this sector has been, and about kind of popularising the strike again.

ALR: I’ve seen people argue that platform labour has changed everything, while others think that virtually nothing has changed. It’s the same old commodification and exploitation. How transformative do you think the platform economy has been to the world of work?

JW: The underlying dynamics of capitalism have remained, but the expression of this is different. It’s a technical reorganisation of kinds of work that existed before. It’s just organized in a new way. I also think there’s a risk of seeing platform capitalism as a clear break from forms of work that have come before.

I see a huge similarity with outsourcing. And outsourcing is incredibly common in the UK: outsourcing of cleaning, security guards and so on. In a way platform capitalism is the next expansion of outsourcing, except you don’t outsource all of the riders to a single outsourcing company, you outsource all of the riders to the riders. We can trace the development of this and see that it’s another attempt to make money from other people’s work.

ALR: What kind of research do we need now to inform our understanding of platform labour and organising?

JW: One of the most pressing research questions is organisational form. What form can workers take that help them to build power and win campaigns? We can’t answer that in the abstract. If the model hasn’t been tested, we don’t know whether it’s going to be successful. We can share examples of where things are working in one place. That dialogue is very important for how we might answer that question. Researchers can play a role in sharing those things with other groups of workers elsewhere.

The other very important thing is to talk to workers about what they think they need to know in order to organise on these platforms. One of the things we’re doing in the UK at the moment is to really go back over these previous campaigns, talk to people who were involved in them, assess what was good about them and what was bad, and figure out what we can learn from what’s come so far. People involved in the organising have asked for this. They think this will be a useful tool for them. This should be our starting point.

(Photo: JOP)


Jamie Woodcock is a senior lecturer at the University of Essex. He is the author of The Fight Against Platform Capitalism (University of Westminster Press, 2021), The Gig Economy (Polity, 2019), Marx at the Arcade (Haymarket, 2019), and Working the Phones (Pluto, 2017). His research is inspired by workers' inquiry and focuses on labour, work, the gig economy, platforms, resistance, organising, and videogames. He is on the editorial board of Notes from Below and Historical Materialism.