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The chapter presents and discusses the main structural and political challenges underlying platform workers’ organizational processes of collective action. Firstly, we present the definition of digital work on which we base our analysis of the rise of platform worker mobilizations. Drawing on the extant literature on the subject, we look at the main challenges to collective action for the two digital workers’ categories considered in the book, namely, food-delivery couriers and Amazon drivers. Secondly, by building a typology of labour process transformations connected to digital work, the chapter discusses the main challenges that these two categories of workers face in organizing collective action at the workplace level. Most of the obstacles to workers’ collective organizing in platform economy derive from specific processes of labour fragmentation that the digital intermediation of platforms induces either directly or indirectly. More specifically, we identify five processes of fragmentation in platform labour: legal, technological, organizational, spatial, and social. In the chapter, we introduce and discuss each of them at length for food-delivery couriers and Amazon drivers.

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The first chapter provides a critical review of the relevant literature in the fields of social movement studies and industrial relations on the issues of capitalist transformations, workers’ collective voice and identity formation in the digital era by highlighting their points of tensions and of interaction. In this way, the core arguments of the chapter are linked to the debates in social movement studies as well as industrial relations. More notably, we argue that in order to make sense of the new labour conflicts in the platform economy it is necessary to build an analytical framework which draws upon and combines concepts and theories developed in both fields of studies. We do so by discussing the most recent theoretical frameworks that have been put forward and assessing their contribution to the understanding of the current revival of reflections on class and capitalism, as well as the mobilization of labour.

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A Comparative Perspective

From Deliveroo to Amazon, digital platforms have transformed the way we work drastically. But how are these transformations being received and challenged by workers?

This book provides a radical interpretation of the changing nature of worker movements in the digital age, developing an invaluable approach that combines social movement studies and industrial relations.

Using case studies taken from Europe and North America, it offers a comparative perspective on the mobilizing trajectories of different platform workers and their distinct organizational forms and action repertoires.

This is an innovative book that offers a complete view of the new labour conflicts in the platform economy.

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Summarizing the empirical results of the research and discussing our main theoretical achievements for the explanation of the new mobilizations of platform workers, Chapter 6 provides several arguments as to why a renewed social movement approach is key for understanding and explaining the new labour conflicts in the digital context. More specifically, we revisit the three core frames of references presented in the introductory chapter. On the bases of our empirical evidence we then suggest theoretical reflections aimed at combining the attention to structural conditions of conflicts, workers’ agency, and organizational dynamics, as well as the emergent power of eventful protests. In this way, we also single out the contribution that comes from the bridging of social movement studies and industrial relations studies. The chapter then highlights how our contribution sheds light on the specific characteristics of work affected by the new technological transformation as well as the mechanisms that trigger new collective identities and mobilization processes for workers. Finally, the conclusions bridges labour studies and social movement studies with debates on the rise of a new digital working class (cybertariat, info-proletariat, digital proletariat) making sense of processes of class mobilization that concerns the new precarious workers in general.

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The chapter looks at the structural transformations triggered by the processes of digitalization by showing how they have been able to redefine global competition based on digital innovation, at the macro-level, restructure companies in terms of a network-based organization at the meso-level, and change the nature of the workplace and its constraints and opportunities for worker collective organizations at the micro-level. The chapter covers the current wave of digitalization and automation by building upon classical works that define technology as neither neutral nor autonomous, but rather as an outcome of the social interests embedded in its design and application. These directly refer to the power of designers and planners in their use of technological innovation to reshape traditional functions of labour-saving and labour control. At the same time, the chapter develops the critique of technological determinism developed by the social shaping of the technology paradigm by looking at the interactions between digital transformation of the workplace and identity formation of new typologies of digital workers.

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This chapter offers an overview of the vast array of organizational forms and action repertoires that Amazon drivers and food-delivery couriers have adopted over the course of the last decade in order to improve their working conditions. We do so by drawing on our research fieldwork, and on the growing empirical research in the fields of industrial relations and social movement studies, which have recently dealt with the collective organization of various segments of this new precarious workforce. The mobilization of digital workers is particularly puzzling, as they are employed under working conditions that share several features usually considered in scholarly literature as not conducive to the emergence of collective action. Among these, we explicitly consider 1) the high levels of technological and organizational innovation, and 2) the absence or ineffectiveness of traditional trade unionism. Focusing on the organizational process, the overall aim of the chapter is to understand why and how these protests have occurred ‘against the odds’, looking at the mobilization of alternative sources of power rather than the ones usually considered in industrial relations.

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The chapter explores the processes of identity formation concerning Amazon drivers and food-delivery couriers. Such processes are located within a ‘solidarity in action’ framework, which emphasizes the dynamic and processual components of workers’ political identity. In doing so, we draw on Alessandro Pizzorno’s concept of recognition struggle, looking at the development of group identification among workers as the precondition for such a process of collective identity to emerge. In the chapter, we show how this process of identification is also crucial in the identity-making of the categories of digital work under investigation. Developing Pizzorno’s framework, we look at how the processes of identity formation have not only been confined to their work setting, but rather build upon and affect specific political and social conditions beyond the workplace. By moving the analytical focus beyond the employment relationship and firm boundaries, we broaden the analysis of what defines the primary identities of digital workers and how they voice in workplace and societal affairs.

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Comparative research is always a challenge. However, it is also necessary if we are to develop robust interpretations and encompassing theories (Hyman, 2001), with a view of displaying both similarities and differences, as well as identifying ‘best practice’ (Ledwith and Hansen, 2013). The two studies presented in this book approach international comparison in different ways. The first, on women’s underrepresentation in trade unions, uses a ‘career’ methodology to analyse the variation in ‘inequality regimes’ (Ackers, 2006) across two countries. The second proposes a socio-historical analysis of legal mobilizations (Lehoucq and Taylor, 2020) in favour of equal pay in the UK as an example to draw useful lessons for other national contexts (notably France) on the effectiveness of mobilizing the courts as a union repertoire of action. In doing so, both studies offer different contributions to (comparative) research in industrial relations.

The first contribution of this research is methodological. Our aim in this comparative endeavour was to overcome some of the difficulties encountered in comparative research on industrial relations (Hyman, 2001), and to avoid a deterministic and overarching perspective investigating institutions and structures (for example, industrial relations systems, gender equality regimes) at the expense of social processes (for example, social construction of gender inequalities). At the same time, while previous research has shown that there is a universalism in the way women are treated in the workplace and a strong resilience of the gendered order over time (Kirton and Healy, 2013a), scholars have argued for contextually and/or historically grounded analysis as a means of understanding the structure and dynamics of ‘inequality regimes’ (Acker, 2006).

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Given how different unions are both within a given country and between countries there is a surprising degree of convergence in studies on the underrepresentation of women in the trade union movement. Unions differ in their size, the characteristics of their members, their rates of feminization, and above all in their identity and the scope of their equality policy. So, how can we understand the processes that maintain gender inequalities within unions? What are the policies and measures that facilitate the feminization of different union structures, from the workplace branch to national decision-making bodies?

This chapter intends to answer these questions through the analysis of the ‘careers’ (Guillaume and Pochic, 2021) of men and women activists, using them to decode the institutional processes that produce and legitimate inequalities, but also the conditions that facilitate the promotion of women and their interests. Using what Rosemary Crompton calls ‘biographical matching and comparative analysis’ (Crompton, 2001), this research has compared the careers of many unionists, both men and women, in four unions, in France and the UK. As Muriel Darmon emphasizes, the concept of ‘career’ is particularly useful for the analysis of trajectories inscribed in ‘areas where it is not already used as an indigenous term or idea’ (Darmon, 2008). Indeed, this term is not only lacking but in fact actively rejected from the unionists’ vocabulary, probably because it is usually associated with paid work and part of union work is unpaid and voluntary.

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In recent years there has been significant improvement in the feminization of unions in both Great Britain and in France. Today, union membership generally reflects the presence of women in the labour market in these countries. However, this descriptive representation of women is not the result of a mechanical adjustment to the transformations of the labour market or the development of an ‘egalitarian conscience’ among unions. Large numbers of women moved into paid work between 1970 and 1990, but their union representation improved only in the 2000s (Boston, 2015; Kirton, 2015), thanks to the implementation of targeted recruitment strategies in highly feminized sectors and voluntarist equality policies within unions. In the UK, around 43% of women were in paid employment in 1987, but they represented only 29% of union members. Union representation increased over time, reaching 39% in 2000 and 48% in 2012. Today, the unionization of women has outpaced that of men (26.2% compared to 20.7% in 2018), like in other countries (Cooper, 2012; Milkman, 2016; Gavin et al, 2020). However, this feminization is variable between unions, depending on their size and sector (Kirton, 2015). In France, the rate of unionization is lower among women than men (10% compared to 12%) but, according to the most recent data, some unions, like the CFDT, have levels of women members that on average reflect the proportion of women employees. Other organizations in more traditionally male-dominated industrial sectors, like the CGT, or in occupations that are still male dominated (CFE-CGC), have lower levels of women members (see Table 1.2).

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