The Berlin startup Gorillas promises to deliver groceries to your door in 10 minutes. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes that banana won’t arrive for an hour or more — but mostly a rider in a sharp black jacket will hand you your groceries shortly after the click of a button.
The company has been expanding. In the latest funding round, Gorillas got almost $1 billion in new investments, pushing its valuation to $3 billion — not bad for a company founded just a year and a half ago. If you ask riders, however, they’ll say the startup has a very relaxed attitude towards Germany’s labour laws.
On Tuesday, 700 people joined a demonstration through Kreuzberg and Neukölln in support of Riders United. Banners demanded: “Stop Union Busting!”
Riders have been going on strike all year. They started during the cold snap in February, when Gorillas was forcing employees out into the snow without adequate equipment. This is when the Gorillas Workers Collective was formed. A second wave of strikes hit in the summer. This is the third.
Having reported on workers’ struggles in Berlin for 15 years, this is the first strike I’ve encountered which is taking place in English. The workforce comes from all over, with big contingents from Latin America and South Asia. At the demonstration, slogans were chanted in Spanish, Turkish, and German.
The company has responded with mass firings — over 300 in Berlin so far. Some workers report they were told explicitly that they were being terminated for joining the strike, which is normally illegal in Germany. But many workers don’t know their rights, and even more lack resources to press for them in court. Court cases take time, and the company has billions of dollars to fight them out. Gorillas argues that the strikes themselves are illegal.
For months, Gorillas workers have been campaigning to set up a Betriebsrat (an elected works council). Voting was set to begin next Monday, but as of this week, the company has implemented what it’s calling franchising, where they make each warehouse its own separate company. This is an obvious trick to make it more difficult to organise. On Wednesday, a court rejected the manoeuvre, ordering that voting should proceed as planned.
Union Busting has been in the news recently — especially the dirty tricks employed by Amazon to prevent warehouse workers from joining unions. In the United States, upwards of $340 million are spent every year to counter organising activities. Lawyers earn thousands of dollars a day to further immiserate people earning minimum wage, and this industry exists in Germany too.
At the demonstration on Tuesday, workers from Berlin’s public hospitals offered support — they’ve just won a new contract intended to guarantee safe staffing ratios. Workers from AWO, which runs Kitas (day care centres) across the city, are in the middle of an eight-day strike. They were chanting: “Everyone together against the bosses!” Workers from Amazon were there too, alongside activists from the campaign to expropriate big landlords.
One rider said he liked working at Gorillas, but not how the company disregards labour laws, or fails to keep the promises they’ve made. This struggle will have ripple effects far beyond the thousands of riders at Gorillas — it’s a question of whether workers in the so-called new economy will maintain the rights that earlier generations fought for and won.