Organizing the Gig Economy

Performers Online interview with Thomas McKechnie, playwright and Foodsters United organizer.

ACTRA Toronto: We come to this issue with the attitude that actors are gig economy workers, too, and we’ve been collectively bargaining for 75 years, so don’t let anyone tell you this is not possible. We are supportive of all efforts to organize the gig economy, such as Uber Black (United Food and Commercial Workers), Foodsters United (Canadian Union of Postal Workers), cleaners (Service Employees International Union) and reality TV (Canadian Media Guild). Because our members have a really hard time making a living exclusively from acting, some of them also work at these kinds of flexible self-employed side jobs.

Thomas McKechnie: I’m really excited that you reached out. ACTRA workers are certainly gig economy workers and there are lots of actors, musicians and artists who work for Foodora and other gig economy jobs. I’m also really excited to hear you’re paying attention to the Uber Blacks, the cleaners etc.

According to a Globe and Mail editorial, Statistics Canada defines gig economy workers as unincorporated, self-employed people with no employees. It includes freelance artists as well as workers in many other economic sectors. The article says 1.3 million people in Canada fit the definition.
  Globe and Mail Article

AT: Do you have a specific story of something that persuaded you to become active organizing Foodsters United?
TM: Nothing specific. I believe that all workers need to get organized to fight for their rights and I believe in making things better where you are, and I happened to work for Foodora.

AT: How has it helped to partner with CUPW?
TM: CUPW has provided invaluable knowledge in organizing a campaign and the material resources needed to get our message out. They’ve provided a powerful channel for the great river of courier energy that allows it to have the greatest impact. They’ve supported and encouraged us every step of the way. The posters that folks living in Toronto have seen going up on light poles is a great example of this. CUPW paid for the printing; our couriers ran around the city putting them up. It’s a fusion of our energy and their knowledge and resources.

AT: What are some of the challenges to getting this done? Did you go to the hearing? How did that feel?
TM: One of the big challenges of doing this kind of organizing is that Foodora couriers don’t have a “workplace” as such. There is no factory where we all meet and get to know each other. We’re hunting for couriers at popular restaurants and on chokepoint intersections, chasing folks down and handing them a flyer. Also, lots of our workers are from other parts of the world and have different amounts of English at their disposal. This means we need organizers and information who can speak multiple languages.

Our biggest hurdle currently is that Foodora is claiming that we’re independent contractors. This means that we have to fight a legal battle to prove we’re even allowed to unionize. We had our first day in court September 10th and charted our course for the rest of the legal process. There will be five to seven hearings between now and the end of January. They will speak to approximately 10 couriers about their experience working for Foodora and the judge will decide whether what they’re describing is independent or dependent contractor. I feel very good about how the hearing went. Foodora wanted to drag the proceedings out as long as possible by requesting 250 couriers be interviewed. This was shut down by the Ontario Labour Relations Board. In general, we received everything we could have hoped for on the 10th. It’s annoying to move through this process rather than Foodora simply allowing us to form a union. That said, I hope it will set a new precedent when it comes to other “independent contractors” in the future.

AT: Do you know other theatre/film folk delivering for Foodora? (No names necessary. Just trying to get a sense of how many of our members might be affected. Many actors don’t want to go public with their side gigs.) 
TM: Yes! Richard Lam has been public about doing some organizing with us and is active as a councillor in Equity, and many other actors and other artists enjoy the flexibility and activity of the job. In fact, an actor friend of mine got me the job in the first place.

AT: How much do you make on the regular with Foodora? Our members have a difficult time finding work that allows them to go to auditions without risking their job.
TM: I make between $20-$25 an hour depending on how many orders I get, how far apart they are and how well they tip. We are paid per order, so there are times where we make less than minimum wage during slow periods. We pay for all our own equipment and maintenance. I budget $200 a month for bike repairs. In addition, I pay $300 a month in tax payments because, as independent contractors, the company is not required to pay their normal percentage of CPP, EI and income taxes. We can deduct all of our work gear as well as a percentage of our meals and our phone plans.

AT: Is being a Foodora courier a good side gig for an actor?
TM: The scheduling is really flexible with the ability to drop a shift no-questions-asked within 24 hours and seek to have another member of the fleet cover a shift. Actors also have skills in filing their taxes as independent contractors. There are the physical dangers of the job; it would suck to line up a dance captain position and then get clipped by a car and break your leg.

AT: What are the most important improvements unionization would mean for you? 
TM: The big improvements we’re looking for are wages that keep pace with inflation, significantly increased health benefits for recovery from work-related injuries and a seat at the table when making decisions.

AT: What do you think of the new legislation passed in California? The app-based companies will challenge it, but could it help tilt things worldwide? How could the legislation be better?
TM: I think it provides a really clear breakdown of who should and shouldn’t be listed as an independent contractor. The first is that someone who’s an independent contractor can’t be the central focus of the business (couriers for Foodora, drivers for Uber). The second is that the person has to have a business doing this outside of the company. I don’t have a delivery company. I’m not handing out my business cards on the street trying to get people to hire me to deliver their food. I am dependent on the existence and functioning of Foodora for my job. I think this is a really clear statement of what is and isn’t an independent contractor and that it should be copied by other jurisdictions.

AT: Are you in favour of a guaranteed annual income?
TM: Very cautiously optimistic. I can see neoliberal politicians institute it and then use that increased cash flow to people to gut other social services. I would simply prefer that money be spent to make more services free. Free post-secondary, large public housing builds, free mental health, dental, eyewear, pharmacare. These are programs I’m interested in. I think guaranteed annual income or universal basic income programs would be a good addition to a strong social safety net, but they are not replacements and I’m afraid that’s how they’ll be used.

AT: How much should we tip a Foodora courier?
TM: Thank you so much for asking. Eighteen per cent like a server. Also, cash tips are always preferred.

AT: How much of your own money have you had to invest in things like rain gear, bike repair, etc.?
TM: I’ve been at it for four years now working in every season so hundreds to thousands of dollars.

AT: Would it be better to be paid an hourly wage, rather than per delivery?
TM: Given than I’m an above-average courier I don’t want to go to an hourly but would love $2.50-$5.00 as a base rate with orders worth the same amount layered on top. Even if this money was never given to us but, instead, they paid for EI, CPP, etc. that would save me loads of money. It’s up to the whole membership of the union to figure out how we would like to adjust the pay structure.

AT: Does the Foodora algorithm think you’re a good courier? Have you ever met anyone in person you might call your boss?
TM: There are multiple rankings for couriers based on a number of qualities; I’m currently in one of the top groups. This means I get first access to available shifts. This ranking is mostly based on me showing up on time and working a large number of hours per week. On individual shifts, I’m given orders based on my speed. I’m above averagely fast. It’s because I am quite tall and also because I push myself to maintain momentum. We do have a “boss.” Our relation to him is interesting because many of us have known him from around the courier scene for years and now we see him across the table from us in court. It’s a real shame that someone who seems to care about the courier community wants to help the bosses against the workers. Capitalism is full of stories like that, though.​

Thomas McKechnie is a Toronto-based playwright and creator and a member of the 2013-2015 Soulpepper Academy as a playwright. Writing credits include: The Jungle (co-written with Anthony McMahon) (NNNN Now Magazine), 4 1/2 (ig)noble truths (NNNN Now Magazine), Valkyrie (Rarely Pure Theatre Toronto Fringe 2013. NNNN/Now’s Best of Fringe), and the aeroplanes fall into the sea (reading) winner of the Safeword’s National Playwriting Contest. Film: One More Night (Short) (Courtesy Productions. Shortlisted for the Iris Prize). Collectives: A Wake for Lost Time, there/GONE, A Kitchen Sink Drama ([elephants] collective), and A Good Man is Hard to Find (Soulpepper Academy). He also plays bass in the folk-punk duo We’re From Out West.

ACTRA asserts that its members are employees and/or dependent contractors for purposes of labour relations legislation, and independent contractors for purposes of tax legislation. The legal tests are different. Members want to preserve the ability to write off expenses at tax time, such as headshots and agency commissions. But they also want labour and employment law protections, such as those provided for under minimum standards legislation. This is particularly important for ACTRA’s AABP members.