Will we see more gig economy strikes?

Following recent unprecedented strike action by gig economy workers, Melanie Lane and Sarah Gill examine the possible implications of the rise of the precarious worker

While we may now have become used to seeing news headlines about employment tribunal cases and trade union recognition bids involving gig economy workers asserting employment law rights, it is not often that we see them unite in strike action. 

However, a number of gig economy workers took part in coordinated industrial action last month – dubbed the ‘McStrike’ and ‘Fast Food Shutdown’ – calling for, among other things, changes to pay rates. 

The extraordinary industrial action across eight British cities saw workers from the retail and hospitality sectors take part in walkouts supported by trade unions, campaign groups and the Labour party. Workers from McDonald’s, TGI Fridays and Wetherspoons, as well as drivers and couriers, were among those who went on strike.

What is perhaps most interesting is that the strike saw coordinated action across several different businesses and sectors, driven by a variety of different complaints. For example, McDonald’s workers were calling for a living wage of £10 per hour, while TGI Friday workers were striking following a change to the company’s tipping policy which saw a percentage of waiting staff tips being allocated to kitchen staff in lieu of a pay rise. 

The TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady described the strike action as "small but growing". 

For the moment, the main unions driving gig economy action are also small: the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). However, membership is said to be on the rise among young gig economy workers.

A further protest took place earlier this month, involving drivers, couriers, foster carers, university cleaners, medical couriers and restaurant staff. The protest passed the Royal Courts of Justice, which is currently hearing an appeal against a decision to grant gig economy workers the right to the national minimum wage and holiday pay. Another rally took place in Glasgow. This protest, dubbed the ‘rise of the precarious worker’, was the largest so far. 

These strikes are unlikely to be the unions’ last effort to mobilise gig economy workers, particularly as social media now makes it far easier to coordinate industrial action. The ‘McStrike’ is reported to have been organised via WhatsApp groups. We can therefore expect to see more strike action of this sort in the future – and not just impacting the fast food sector.

Although the unions endorsed the strike action, it is not clear whether any ballots took place or whether the other legal requirements for strike action were satisfied. So far, the strikes have involved relatively small numbers of workers and have not greatly impacted businesses. Whether the unions will be able to mobilise larger numbers of gig economy workers in the future remains to be seen. If they do, it is to be expected that the legality of strike action will become more of a focus for affected businesses – and they may start to take steps to try to prevent it. 

Melanie Lane is a partner and Sarah Gill a senior associate in the employment team at CMS