Picket line magic: How a Deliveroo blockade in Swiss Cottage transformed the way I think about unions
Joining a picket line is the best way to figure out who’s on your side and who isn’t.
I discovered this when I attended my first protest last month. Food delivery drivers in the Industrial Workers of the World union (IWW) organised blockade pickets against a Deliveroo kitchen in Swiss Cottage. This is what siding with them made me realise about human nature.
Finding the in-crowd
On the evening of the picket, I found the advertised location in Swiss Cottage. I spotted two security guards in hi-vis jackets and realised they were, despite their outfit, not Gillet-jaune.
Across the road, however, sheltering under the Odeon cinema awning, was a mid-sized crowd of people. On the roadside waited five or six moped drivers with their vehicles. These were the IWW activists and the delivery drivers.
I noticed an awkward divide between union activists and drivers. It wasn’t unfriendly, just the nature of two groups of people who don’t know each other well. It seemed a bit like two sets of strangers.
Being new, I recognised few faces, and hesitated on the edge of the group. Then I caught the eye of a guy I met a few weeks earlier. We got chatting about Marvel movies.
I asked my friend what we’re waiting for. He said “for more drivers to turn up. We want as good a show as last time.”
The appointed time drew nearer. Gradually, people trickled in and music started playing. Someone handed out green business cards. I reached out instinctively. It read “ADVICE ON ARREST”. “Say ‘NO COMMENT’ to all police questions” it advised.
“OK,” I thought to myself, “this is serious.” I deposited the unlaminated card in a breast pocket, close to my heart.
The next thing thrust upon me was a hi-vis jacket, matching those the security guards. Mine, however, had the black and crimson IWW logo emblazoned across the back. Nothing like a logo to build solidarity. I grabbed a flag too and joined our motely picket crew.
The old hands exchanged banter as we jay-walked the four-lane main road – probably the riskiest part of the whole expedition. I tried joining the jokes but fell silent, still feeling outside the “in-group”.
The identity of action
There was a tense moment outside the Deliveroo kitchen as the security guards confronted us. After a brief discussion, we learned their main concern was that we didn’t hinder too many pedestrians. I exhaled in relief.
We assembled and unfurled our big banner – a press-ganged bedsheet: “IWW DEMANDS £5 PER DROP.” If met, this would significantly raise drivers’ commission – currently at povery-wage levels.
The wind unfurled our flags, fluttering revolutionary red on the evening breeze. Other drivers turned up and honked their horns in support. We answered with cheerful chanting:
“De-liv-er-oo, shame on you; De-liv-er-oo, shame on you!”
“Mis-ter Boss, youu must listen, we’ll shut down your fil-thy kitchen!”
We chanted for a couple of hours, passing around the megaphone. Random motorists honked in support. School lads, passing by, picked up the chants. Tourists gawked. The lady from the Korean restaurant next door shot us death glares. It was all good wholesome fun. Until the fuzz showed up.
The common enemy of the common people
The cops raced down the main road in three or four large vans. Silence fell. “They can’t be here for us.” “No way.” Suddenly I recalled that little green info card. They pulled up in the traffic right in front of us, killilling their sirens with the lights still going. Their vans said “Crisis Response Unit”. Both sides eyed each other up.
Suddenly, the traffic lights changed to gree, and they sped on towards central London. “I knew they weren’t here for us” someone said. “Nah, we’re not important enough.” There were smiles all round.
Moments later we cheered as the drivers told us that due to our picket Deliveroo had shut down the kitchen. They could see it on their apps. Drivers came around and shook our hands, thanking us for being there. “It’s nothing” I said, “that’s just what we’re here for. Couldn’t have done it without you guys.”
Just like that, it was over. We retiered to the far side of the road. Drivers and union members were now huddled up chatting, planning the next action, congratulating each other on a job well done. It ended where it began, but we were one group now not two. We had found each other through action, through song and through shared emotions. Our picket had done more than disrupt the bosses; it had created a union.
Menelik Lee is communications officer for the London branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and studied Chinese Studies at SOAS. He can be contacted via email at london.comms [at] iww.org.uk.
Photo credit: London IWW; Menelik Lee.
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