In the US, delivery service drivers have come together to improve their precarious work situation. They have realized that they can earn more if delivery trips are turned down. How is that possible?
The job of delivery service driver is not exactly known for its attractive pay. The situation for this occupational group is particularly precarious in the USA. To change this, suppliers have come together to outsmart the algorithm used by the delivery services. Dave Levy and Nikos Kanelopoulos are also trying to outsmart the algorithm. The two drivers who work for DoorDash in the USA want to convince their colleagues to work with them to reject the worst-paid restaurant delivery orders. In doing so, they would cause the system, which assigns orders to drivers, to increase the remuneration offered. “The goal of any on-demand app-based business is to constantly shift profits from the driver back to the business,” says Levy. “Our goal is the opposite of that.”
Their main tool is #DeclineNow, an online forum of 40,000 members that offers insight into the kind of worker activism tailored to the gig economy. While there’s no reliable way to quantify effectiveness, #DeclineNow members say they have already raised wages for workers across the country, including in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, where Levy and Kanelopoulos live. But their struggle raises difficult questions about the nature of collective action, and it is doubtful whether turning a company’s software against the company itself is a promising long-term strategy.
Time together at Uber
DoorDash Inc. isn’t Levy and Kanelopoulos’ first algorithmic boss. The men met in 2015 while waiting for Uber passengers in the local airport parking lot. “Back then the prices were still good,” says Kanelopoulos, whose name is still on Levy’s phone as “Nick Uber”. But her income from working for Uber Technologies Inc. declined when the company’s app cut tariffs and pushed pay to barely living levels. Levy and Kanelopoulos worked for several gig economy platforms, experimenting with strategies to get the highest income out of them, and hosted gig worker gatherings at Wind Creek Casino in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to exchange ideas.
Loophole detected in the algorithm
The two found that if one DoorDash driver refused a delivery, the platform offered it to another for a little more money. Since they were not required to accept these contracts as independent contractors, they figured that Dasher could band together to de facto set a minimum wage. In a relatively small market like Lehigh Valley, it didn’t take many people turning down low-paying jobs to make a real impact. “Then I said, ‘That’s it. That’s the name. Why not just Decline Now? ‘”Levy said. In October 2019 they started the Facebook group #DeclineNow. They urge members to refuse any delivery that does not bring in at least $ 7, more than double the current $ 3 floor.
In a statement, DoorDash said drivers are always free to decline orders, but added that coordinated declining slows the delivery process. The company encourages its employees to accept at least 70% of the deliveries offered, which earns them “Top Dasher” status. #DeclineNow also reverses this principle: for the activists, low acceptance rates are more or less a badge of honor. Levy rejects about 99% of the jobs offered to him and quickly turns down badly paid jobs in order to find enough lucrative ones.
Another tactic the company uses to discourage refusers is to cover up the full amount paid for each assignment. Drivers find it harder to be choosy if, for example, the tip is not disclosed. These and other opaque practices have led critical employees to refer to the DoorDash app as “Tony’s Casino,” an allusion to Chief Executive Officer Tony Xu.
Is #DeclineNow dividing the workforce?
#DeclineNow’s strategy of selectively rejecting orders is known among DoorDash employees – and not widely accepted. Some question the strict minimum fee rule, citing regional price differences. Others find #DeclineNow activists hateful and incriminating and accuse the forum of ridiculing and intimidating others into bowing to their will. “They present information as facts without substantiating it,” says Amy Lee, a DoorDash driver in the suburbs of Dallas who runs gig economy site PavementGrinders. “Then they publicly humiliate anyone who doesn’t understand or doesn’t agree.”
#DeclineNow has just as little understanding for such bad guys as traditional trade unions for scabs. Anyone who questions the $ 7 minimum rule will be punished with expulsion from the group or, as the moderators of the group like to put it, “with a trip to the dungeon.” A former presenter, Josie Lindström, claims to have personally suspended hundreds of people because intolerance of those who think differently is necessary to get the group moving in the right direction. “Everyone has to take part, otherwise it won’t work,” she says. Nevertheless, Lindström finally resigned because she found the atmosphere unbearable.
Veena Dubal, a law professor at UC Hastings Law School whose research focuses on workers’ experiences in the gig economy, believes the exposure is part of #DeclineNow’s success. “It’s actually pretty hard to get people to adhere to these types of collective measures if there isn’t some consistency,” she says.