From university lecturers to delivery drivers and security guards, people across different sectors of the UK are fighting for workers’ rights and expressing mutual support

It’s a cold, crisp morning in Sheffield, and the sky is bright blue against the red brick buildings. 

Outside one of three Greggs on the Moors – the main shopping drag in the city centre – a group of Stuart delivery drivers have gathered. Some carry leaflets that they hand out to the public and other drivers, as one goes inside and asks the team in the budget bakery chain to turn the tills off. 

The 70th day of the Stuart Drivers strike has begun.

“I don’t like unfairness and I don’t like injustice,” said Parirs, who instigated the strikes after Stuart introduced a new pay model that cut payment for local deliveries by nearly 25% from £4.50 to £3.40. “We’re striking not because we are being greedy, but because we want back what we had. Stuart just needs to do the right thing”.

The cut comes as the cost of living crisis is starting to bite, with drivers taking on more and more shifts and still struggling to make ends meet. Drivers have to pay for their own fuel and maintain their own vehicles, all of which is becoming increasingly expensive. 

“Cost of energy is going up, fuel is going up,” one says, his eyes expressing his anxiety. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

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“We like this work,” Bryn told Byline Times, who has followed in his dad’s footsteps – he was a motorbike courier. “I like being out and about, driving and having time to think. But we are working 10 to 12 hours a day, my colleagues don’t see their kids. Before the cut, you could just about make ends meet but now, when you count in the expenses and the costs, it’s less than the minimum wage”.

Parirs had never been involved in political activism before, but when the new pay deal was presented he knew he had to take action. He joined the IWGB union who have supported the strikes since day one. 

“Every job I had, I’ve been in the union,” said father-of-three Khalil. “Now we are working with IWGB to support drivers in other cities – Leicester, Sunderland, Liverpool.” Khalil has been travelling up and down the country talking to drivers keen to get involved. “We ask them what their issues are. Pay, unfair terminations, waiting times. Then we work with them to see how they can take action”.

Crucially, the strikes are flexible. Rather than picket all branches working with Stuart in one city, all day, the strikes are focusing on specific franchises for a few hours of the day. That way drivers can still earn money but their message isn’t lost. 

“As drivers, we don’t work in one location,” Khalil explained. “There are nearly 200 outlets we work within Sheffield. If we tried to shut down everything, it wouldn’t work. Focusing on one franchise gives us so more scope and visibility, and we can talk to drivers who are arriving and get them to join in”. 

Many of the drivers are first or second-generation immigrations – such as Luc, who came to the UK from West Africa. He wasn’t on the picket – he works as a Pastor on Sundays. But speaking to Byline Times in the days before, he explained how “drivers are losing”. Luc studied psychology at university and considered doing a PhD but became a driver because the flexibility meant he could see his children and do his work as a minister. “But I don’t accept this situation.” Having been involved in political activism in his home country, Luc told us: “I have always supported victims of injustice,” he said. “I always open my heart and raise my voice for the victims”.

The strike has already enjoyed some success. Drivers are now being paid for 15 minutes waiting time, something which Bryn said makes a real difference. “We are told we can do four jobs in an hour, earn £20 an hour,” he said. “But if you are waiting in a restaurant for 35 minutes, you aren’t earning. Then you have to work another hour to make up the pay”. 

After the picket, the Sheffield Stuart strikers joined a solidarity gathering for Ukraine. Photo: Sian Norris

The strikers are determined and there’s a real sense of solidarity among the group. But when we talk about the pandemic, the sense of injustice driving them shines through, too. 

“We delivered groceries to old people who were too scared to leave their homes, to people who were shielding,” said Khalil. “We delivered IT products to kids so they could take part at school. And we felt proud of that. But we put our health, our lives and families at risk to do that work and rather than getting respect we are getting our pay cut”.

Labour’s Nadia Whittome agrees, telling Byline Times “Stuart Delivery couriers are key workers who have put themselves at risk throughout the pandemic to provide an important service. It is very concerning that their pay has been cut and their working conditions have deteriorated. Stuart Delivery must get round the negotiating table with the IWGB, reverse the pay cut and uphold their couriers’ rights as workers.”


Precarity and Solidarity

Six days earlier, and not even the south-westerly tip of Storm Franklin could keep Bristol University staff from the picket lines. The second week of the strike was in full swing, with a rally planned for later that day. Some students have joined their lecturers in an act of solidarity, flapjacks and samosas delivered to keep freezing academics warm – there was even an impromptu performance by a singer and a saxophone player. 

“One dispute is about pensions,” Dr John McTague told Byline Times. “Then there’s pay – both real term cuts over the last decade and also pay inequality when it comes to gender and ethnicity. The third fight is precarity, with a number of colleagues who are effectively on zero hour contracts. The final fight is about workload”.

Universities have refused to withdraw cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the result of which is a 35% cut from the guaranteed retirement income of members.

Academics have seen a 20% real term pay cut over the past 12 years, combined with an ever increasing workload. Dr Amy Penfield, on the picket line with her colleagues, told Byline Times that greater demands on academics’ workload is causing staff to have wellbeing issues, with more and more people leaving the field. “There’s a lot of pressure,” she explained. “We are researchers, we are teachers, we have to be publishing, we have to support our students, we have to manage all the bureaucracy and admin. The one thing that we have as academics is a good pension and now they are taking that away”.

Precarity is a major issue for the striking staff, with universities increasingly relying on zero hour and short-term contracts for lecturers. “These are people who have trained for seven years to join the profession,” McTague told us. “They’re excellent scholars and teachers, and they’re giving everything to this profession, and they have no security. They can’t buy a house or start a family.”

Solidarity with precarious workers in the sector is crucial for the strikers, McTague explained. It doesn’t matter if some staff members have security or decent pay, “we are striking for all our colleagues,” he said. 

This sense of solidarity comes from students to academics too, or this was the view of Blythe, a theatre studies student who had joined lecturers on the picket line. “From the perspective of a student here,” Blythe shared, “it feels like the university is trying to frame the strikes in a certain way that blames the academics. Whereas obviously, striking is a last resort. In my time here, we’ve had to fight for staff to stay, because they are on temporary and insecure contracts. We should be in solidarity, students and academics”.

Not least, as Dr Kit Opie points out, because many students may one day want to be academics themselves and they deserve to graduate into good working conditions. “There’s a sense of solidarity,” he agreed. “I think they understand that, in a sense, we are on the picket line for them, so they don’t have to face this precarity in 10 or 15 years time”.

The ‘four fights’ hopscotch outside Bristol University. Photo: Sian Norris

That solidarity extends beyond the university. The academics say they support the Stuart strikers, who in turn support university staff. Parirs had spoken at a UCU rally that week, pointing out their shared battle for workers’ rights. 

“It’s part of the same fight against this move towards more precarious employment,” Opie said. 

McTague agreed. “It’s important to recognise that this isn’t about saying we deserve fair pay because we’re fancy lecturers. Precarity is an issue across society and across a lot of sectors, and everyone deserves job security. We need to show that unions stick together and that we can fight the bosses. That strengthens the position of all unions.”

“There is a lot of solidarity for the strike,” said Luc, who had been to his local university picket line.

The university sector has confirmed the pension cut, but the men picketing Greggs still have hope. “We will strike until it’s over,” said Parirs. “This is the longest gig economy strike in history.”

“I may have started the strike,” Parirs continied. “But you got to appreciate all the drivers who have come on board, the union, the socialists, the volunteers supporting us, the student who joined the pickets, the people from overseas who are working with us. It’s hard to make history in the UK, let’s be honest. But we have a chance to make history and that feels like a blessing from God.” 

A press spokesperson for Stuart told Byline Times: “We take courier concerns very seriously and aim to be the most courier-centric platform in the sector. Stuart’s pay per hour is amongst the highest in the sector and average courier earnings, calculated by the time couriers spend on deliveries, exceed the real living wage and this has not been affected by the introduction of our new linear pay structure. All couriers using Stuart’s platform are given equal opportunity to voice their concerns with us and we act on them wherever possible. The ongoing action by a small number of couriers is counterproductive and does not represent the sentiment of the couriers we interact with on a regular basis.”

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