Snappfood strikes: how can precarious workers organize to win?

This article is arranged by a secret group inside Iran called the “Organizing Committee of Unstable Workers”. The main aim of this committee is to provide theoretical answers to the problem of instability in both the political and trade union spheres and take practical steps to organize unstable workers. Snappfood is the largest company in Iran which can be characterized as part of the gig economy, so is an easy choice for the work of the committee. In the first part of the Snappfood article, we described the nature of the company, the working and living conditions of its employees, and the background of the strikes which have taken place. This part focuses on the strikes themselves and all the issues surrounding the workers’ struggle in Snappfood.

Snappfood delivery drivers, like their counterparts in other countries, have not remained silent in the face of this exploitation, repeatedly organising to go on strike. These efforts have met with victories and defeats; here we examine these struggles to discover the strengths and weaknesses, and discuss the way forward. We need to remember that the conditions of Snappfood workers are different from other workers, which is decisive in the methods of struggle that they can use. One such difference is that workers are not united in a single workplace, which may interfere with communication, and require new measures to remove obstacles. Another issue is the newness of the experience of these workers in relation to their specific job characteristics which is a new phenomenon not only in Iran but also in the world.

December 2018 strikes

The basic fare of couriers remained unchanged from 2016 to 2018, at 7,000 tomans ($1.66), but the company still sought to reduce this small wage for order delivery. Rumors among workers indicated that the company intended to reduce fares by up to 30 percent. This was the starting point for organizing workers and planning the first strike in this part of the company. Due to the working conditions of the couriers, where regular in-person gatherings were not possible at a specific time and place, the alternative for the workers was to communicate with one another to spread the strike news, and finally to form telegram and WhatsApp groups to coordinate. These methods also worked in subsequent workers’ strikes. The focus of the workers during this period was on preventing and resisting the company’s decision to reduce workers’ wages. As a result of this strike, the workers were able to prevent further attacks on workers by the company.

September and December 2019 strikes

After the strike in December 2018, Snapfood workers went on two more strikes in less than a year, indicating dissatisfaction and protest among the couriers over the status quo. But the difference between this strike and the previous experience is that for the first time, the workers formed a whole list of demands and by setting priorities, they pursued their demands during the strike. The first strike took place in September, but was limited to a few areas and failed to become a nationwide strike. After the government announced a threefold increase in fuel prices in November of that year and subsequent nationwide protests, whispers of a strike broke out among the company’s workers.

Four days of strikes in December 2020

The four-day strike in December 2020 can be considered the most important strike of Snappfood workers. Some refer to this round as the largest strike by workers in the online or gig economy. The experience accumulated during the past strike created a higher level of coordination and organization. The strike was big enough to be covered by the media inside Iran; this is unusual due to the years of censorship and crackdowns on journalism. The lack of service caused by strikes was communicated to the customers as a technical problem at the company. In previous strikes, the company had reassigned couriers from their SnappBox parcel service, and even taxi drivers, to undermine the impact of the SnappFood workers’ strike. This time, SnappBox workers refused to stand in for their striking colleagues. Eventually, the company again increased the fares by only 1000 Tomans ($0.24). The workers strongly rejected the offer as the increase was negligible and other demands were not met. However, the strike ended anyway as the representatives are those who decide whether the offer is acceptable or not. This is a major issue of the fates of strikes and a solution should be found in the future to avoid situations like this.

Summer 2021 Strikes

Over the years, the company has been plotting to divide the workers. As a case in point, the company stopped hiring Turkmen workers, who have always joined the strikes. But later, in the summer of 2021, when the workers were planning a strike, Snappfood announced to the Turkmen representatives that the company would re-employ the Turkmen if they did not go on strike. This caused divisions among the Turkmen workers. Furthermore, some Turkmen representatives were silenced with various tactics, including offering bribes. Despite all this, the strike was accompanied by a number of Turkmen workers, and the company was once again forced to increase its fare by 1,000 tomans ($0.24).

2022 protest in front of the company HQ

On February 5 2022, Snappfood workers organized a rally in front of the company headquarters with the main slogan of “We want job security and safety”. This directly refers to the precarity of the job and the lack of insurance coverage. Additionally, in practice, there have been major advances in the organization of the workers’ protest. These include pinning down the precise list of demands, and the presence of workers who had been blocked due to their involvement in the strikes.  Among the important demands of this rally are access to social security insurance premiums and compensation for work-related accidents; the elimination of ethnic discrimination against Turkmens; the ending of punitive, exploitative, and illegal behavior of the company with workers, including but not limited to blocking, fining and return to work of dismissed workers active in past strikes.

This section has focused on Tehran, where most of the strikes have been centered. However, in our estimation, the conditions for drivers in other cities, while not necessarily identical in all aspects, are substantially the same.

Lessons learned and critiques of the Snappfood workers’ strikes

Lack of centralized planning and strike committee

What can be deduced from the study of the strikes and the efforts made for the mass protests is the lack of centralized planning for the strike.  The difficult working conditions at Snappfood always creates a high level of dissatisfaction among drivers, but except in rare cases, these dissatisfactions have not been instrumentalized. Each strike had a level of planning, but concrete organizing often started a few days before each action and ended as soon as the strike did. So, lessons from victories could not be embedded into new forms of an organization such as a strike committee. As a result, large volumes of discontent have been left unattended and not channelled into subsequent strikes. In this way, each time the idea of a strike is re-introduced, all the damage that was present in each strike reappears.  At best, if the volume of discontent goes out of tolerance and a strike is formed, due to the lack of codified plans and pre-conceived tactics, there is a risk of spontaneous protests and serious damage to its continuity and chances of victory.

Steps to establishing a planning core

1- Establishing a secret labor organization of the most progressive drivers who are always on strikes and protests.

2- Gain an accurate understanding of the features of working in Snappfood (such as instability) and find ways to overcome those features when they appear to be an obstacle to organizing strikes.

3- Monitor the company’s plans to increase driver utilization and the new methods it uses to control, punish and fire drivers.

4- Compiling a core list of driver’s demands, and developing the necessary strategies on how to hold strikes and make them country-wide.  This strategy must consider factors such as the time and locations of the strike and how more drivers, especially those reliant on their daily wages, can go on strike.

5- To advance the strike line among the drivers, encourage them to think critically about their organization, and work against the influence of the company line indicating strikes are useless.

6- Finding methods of collective persuasion, finding opportunities for media representation, formulating attractive slogans, and communicating with other sections of the working class.

7- Communication and coordination with other parts of Snapp, such as SnappBox, to prevent the company from using couriers of a different section to undermine strikes.

8- Communicating with other sections of the labor movement in order to share experiences and build class solidarity.9- Open the possible vision for the formation of a Snappfood drivers’ union and take practical steps to form one.

Other motor couriers

Since the entity of other motor couriers is important, we decided to elaborate on it in a separate section. Along with Snapp, there are other companies for the delivery of food and other orders – that can play a devastating role in the defeat of a strike. One of these food delivery companies is called “Me-ahreh” which has recently become one of the most important food delivery platforms along with Snappfood. Addressing “Me-ahreh” and all other food delivery corporations is important in two ways. One is that, as mentioned, in any strike, the presence of these companies breaks the necessary disruption in the food delivery process by replacing Snappfood. This is important because of the psychological burden on the striking drivers when they see that the system continues to operate without their presence and the goal of any strike, that is to make the production line (the food delivery line in this case) fail, has not been achieved. To break and put an end to future strikes at Snappfood and Me-ahreh, it is suspected that collusion and coordinating negotiations at the executive level took place. In fact, competing corporations easily put aside their differences and cooperate with each other over the exploitation and control of workers. Snappfood workers’ strikes can be easily disrupted and rendered insignificant if Me-ahreh workers are still on duty to deliver food. The striking worker will look with scepticism at the potential success of the strike if he continues to see the delivery of food by the drivers of other companies. Snapp has already tested this tactic by using another part of its corporation, Snappbox, against the strike of Snappfood drivers, and achieved some success in depleting morale.

The next point is that despite some slight differences in the way Me-ahreh operates, their workers are also under the pressure of exploitation and unfair working conditions. The only way to neutralize collusion between food delivery corporations is to build relationships between the struggling workers in these companies. At first glance, it seems that such a relationship is extremely difficult due to the lack of contact between workers. Companies are indeed aware of the lack of connection and the divisions within the working class and make the most of it. But the solution is to insist on making exactly those connections. No strike organizing force among motorized couriers will be able to work effectively without connecting with other sections of its class. 

This is difficult, especially since we know that in many cases creating connections and coordination between the workers of a region in the same Snappfood company is not an easy task. But given that the employer, relying on the means at its disposal, always tries to stand a few steps ahead of the protesting workers and has the possibility of collusion, the organizing forces of the strike have no choice but to adapt to the new environment and prepare practical responses. Thus the scope of the organization must inevitably go beyond Snappfood. By establishing organic relationships with other motor couriers on a more general platform about the collective problems, not only Snappfood but also a wider range of courier workers can collectively wage a powerful strike together, when workers’ vital interests are at stake.

Independent news channels

Compared to other labor strikes and some other sections of the working class, Snappfood drivers have been less able to succeed in communications and media representation. In addition to the inexperience of drivers, the media in Iran are bewitched by the ‘glamorous’ world of tech startups. Public ignorance of the plight of Snappfood workers was one of the consequences of poor media coverage of the workers’ situation, including the strikes they staged. However, such a shortcoming seems to be gradually being overcome by the efforts of progressive workers within Snappfood and the reflection of their news and short reports on several independent social media channels. These representations are however not enough. There is a long way to go before transforming the precariat Snappfood workers into a core component of the labor movement. Media representation can lead to some degree of ascendancy among drivers. That they have been able to emerge from under the ravages of indifference and silence. Also in practical politics, finding a voice is a kind of show of strength against the employer, which in turn can, in conjunction with other actions, push the employer back at times and strengthen the position of workers.

State-backed media had also extensive coverage of state or employer-sponsored fake unions or anti-labor currents. Examples include “justice-seeking” current backed by Fars News Agency and the Telegram Maktoobat channel, which will enter this field as soon as the union protests of Snappfood workers intensify. For several reasons, including the security protection privilege they have, these media already have the basic facilities for such intervention, and traces of their presence can be seen in some of the Snappfood drivers’ telegram channels.

Other anti-labor political groups that have the initial means to enter the field of media representation are the right-wing spectrum of the opposition with media such as Iran International and Manoto TV. When trade union strikes occur, they tend to ignore the class conflict origins of these protests and inject their ideology. 

On the other hand, the information groups for the drivers themselves, in the Telegram phone app, are also in a chaotic situation. The administrators of some of these groups deliberately prevent the formation of mass conversations about grievances and demands and block the access of drivers who talk about striking to the group. In cases where there is serious planning for a strike, the page admin will dox the driver’s account and report it to the company. On the contrary, the users associated with the company who participate in these groups easily threaten the strikers and try to provoke conflict; sexist and pseudo-fascist prose can also be found. 

In practice, these groups have become a tool for identifying and controlling dissatisfied drivers and an obstacle to the formation of an organization and the advancement of the striking tendency. Now more than ever, independent virtual driver groups need to take steps to first not identify their admins and, secondly, be able to expose the company’s spy in the group so they can reduce doxing of users. Then it’ll be a platform for discussion among drivers to form and organize a strike committee.

The role of strike busters

Each time that dissatisfaction intensifies and the likelihood of a strike escalates, anti-strike forces become more active among drivers. What emerges from the experience of multiple strikes and observations today among drivers and related groups is that this trend uses several methods to counter the strike line. One of these methods is to create a fuss about issues unrelated to the strike and to marginalize the issue of discontentment. For example, this tendency seeks to show that drivers on strike seek personal gain or settle old contracts with agents and supervisors. Another method of busting is to threaten the drivers with doxing their online accounts which they secretly use for organizing. Creating an atmosphere of intimidation and using a violent narrative is one of the tricks related to this method, as well as the threat of being blocked in the group, being reported to the company, and being fired, which has been practised many times.

In addition to these measures, the union-busters always use justifications to neutralize the strike line. Justifications such as: working in Snapp is temporary and without a future, so why would we bother ourselves for a temporary job, etc. Against the anti-strike tendency, we must strengthen the argument for the idea of a strike. Short and coherent content can be addressed to both drivers and the public, and broadcast on independent channels. The purpose of preparing this material is to provide the necessary discourse to defend the idea of a strike. Daily observations show that union-busting justifications in relation to the ‘intimidating atmosphere’ that forms around the strike issue are effective. Part of the silence against those justifications and the effectiveness of intimidation stems from the analytical poverty that exists among drivers. For example, many drivers have internalized the phenomenon of instability. In response we should work on the fact that in a world with historically low levels of class consciousness, capital seeks to create the sort of destabilized, precarious workforce reminiscent of 19th-century Britain, or many third-world countries today, to better drive the wheel of exploitation and domination of the labor force. Finally, the need to provide a rationale for counter-strike justifications has left some key implications and become the prevailing norm.

Delusion of Negotiation

A review of a particular strike action may be helpful for the future. Over the recent weeks, a probable strike by the couriers has been rumored. The time between the rumors and probable strike was so close, therefore there was not enough time for preparing a good plan for the strike that made clear the lack of an organizing group. However, one of the significant factors regarding the failure of the strike was associated with the company. Being informed about the strike, Snapp Food Company with its supervisors and some representatives took the initiative for suggesting a negotiation round to the couriers. The company asserted that through the negotiations we can respond to workers’ demands.

Those in favor of negotiation suggested that if we cannot reach our demands that way, then we will proceed to go on strike. The contribution of the company’s lawyer, however, was to threaten the couriers about the consequences of strike action. After the so-called negotiations, the passion for strike action decreased. Although it shows that the company is actually afraid of strikes, at the same time it points to the highly effective means they have to break the organizing efforts for strikes. These means include legal justification, and juridical facilities such as access to lawyers and courts. They can also exploit the naivety of some couriers and representatives, who do not have a realistic understanding of negotiations between unequal parties, and who fantasize about negotiations without expressing their collective power, in this case with strike action.

The need to change the representative selection mechanism

We said that one way of extending control over the workers by the company is the presence of Snapp-approved driver representatives. It was also mentioned that the way of representative selection is not in any way democratic or collective; it is the company that has the first and last word on their appointment. However, as the representatives themselves are couriers, having permanent relationships with the body of drivers, they can forward complaints to the company. If the representative who forwards the complaints shows sympathy towards the demands, the company can easily discharge him/her. Except for some cases in which the representatives have sided with the workers, in most cases, the representatives actually impede the organization of strikes and protests. In this regard, the question is not about depending on human feelings or the militancy of the individuals but is to change the incorrect, non-collective, and undemocratic way of representative selection. In this way, the need to change this way of selecting representatives has to be among the demands of the couriers.

We can point to some features of selecting a representative:

1- Instead of a single representative, ‘a council of representatives composed of several representatives in each district.

2- The representatives should not have financial dependence or relationship with the company, as is the case now with representatives receiving 2 million Tomans a month as additional salary.

3- Representation should be periodical and temporary.

4- Representatives should be selected through the votes of couriers in each district at general assemblies. 

5- Representatives should be observed by couriers and should be responsible to them.

The need to communicate with dismissed couriers

Imposing pressure on protesting couriers so that they prefer to change their job is among the means by which the company can subjugate the workers. Dismissal of protesting workers breaks the chain of union struggle and if we consider the precarization of the labor force, it is difficult to replace the missed chain. Therefore, keeping a level of communication with dismissed couriers and asking for their aid and experiences in organizing acts can in some ways compensate for their loss. Also, it is necessary for working couriers to support those discharged. Such support is a necessary collective response to the dismissal of workers by the company without any consequences for it. Making a financial fund for dismissed workers, increasing awareness about workers’ problems, holding protest rallies, and making it difficult for the company to dismiss the workers are all among the means which can be suggested in this regard.

Global examples of technology startups

The emergence of startup companies such as Uber, Lift, etc. on a global scale which has inspired the Snapp Company in Iran, has led to varying collective resistance of workers in different countries. Demands such as increased pay, health and disability insurance, paid time off, and being recognized as workers, rather than subcontractors, thus benefiting from labor codes are among the demands of Uber and Lift workers in Europe and the USA. These workers have managed to organize collective protests and strikes several times and, in some cases, have been able to reappropriate some of their rights. For instance, in 2021 Uber drivers in Britain, after a four-year juridical struggle, alongside strikes, persuaded a court to recognize them as workers, not subcontractors, meaning they could benefit from the protections afforded by British labor laws.

In the same year, a court in the Netherlands declared that Uber should consider the couriers as the employees of the company, who should therefore be included in labor codes. So far, we have witnessed dozens of strikes by couriers, from Turkey to New York. What matters most for the couriers of SnappFood is a review of workers’ organizing methods in other countries. They have to think about how workers in other countries could overcome the decentralized, precarious feature of this labor in their organizing activities, and which methods were used to attract social support.

As Iran’s capitalism adapts itself to the new ways of exploitation and imposing control over the labor force on the one hand, and simultaneously resorts to both western and eastern think tanks to learn the newest methods of subjugating the working-class on the other hand, the oppressed should also learn from each other. In this regard, a broad set of activities can be taken into action. Translating and broadcasting reports about these struggles as well as making organizational relationships which foster organic relations among the workers can empower precarious workers in Iran. This reminds us of the necessity of organizing groups, workers’ strike committees, and the organization of SnappFood workers.   

This article has focused on Tehran, where most of the strikes have been centered. However, in our estimation, some of our important observations not necessarily in all aspects, but in some dimensions can be generalized to the general condition of startups’ couriers throughout the whole country.          

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