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Wildcat Strike at Gorillas, a Grocery Delivery Startup in Berlin

Workers at the on-demand grocery delivery service Gorillas have gone on a wildcat strike. They have been blocking warehouses after one of their colleagues was fired. This is an intense, exemplary struggle that demands international attention.

Simon Zamora Martin

June 14, 2021
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Gorillas workers go on strike after their colleague Santiago (center) is fired. They are blocking the warehouse at Checkpoint Charlie.

“Without introducing herself, she informed me that I was fired, effective immediately.” Santiago is shocked and afraid he won’t be able to pay his next month’s rent. He is in Germany with a visa making him ineligible for social security. “Yes, I was 40 minutes late this morning,” Santiago confirms in an interview with Klasse Gegen Klasse. “But I had talked about that with the rider-op beforehand.” 

This was how a wildcat strike began at the grocery delivery service Gorillas in Berlin. The company has collected hundreds of millions of dollars in investments. It is expanding to other German cities, and to France and the United States. Gorillas promises deliveries in just ten minutes — and thousands of bicycle couriers make that happen. 

Gorillas says Santiago was fired for lapses last Wednesday. His colleagues, on the other hand, keep emphasizing what a good employee he is — even at the top of the list of the best riders. They see Santiago’s dismissal as a threat against all employees.

The reaction of his colleagues was as quick and unexpected as Santiago’s firing: They spontaneously stopped working in protest. Less than three hours later, nearly 70 Gorillas employees from different shifts and locations stood in front of the warehouse on Charlottenstrasse, close to Berlin’s famous Checkpoint Charlie. The first reaction of managers who rushed to the scene was to call the protest an illegal strike. In Germany, spontaneous strikes not called by a trade union are considered illegal — although unions can retroactively legalize such actions by granting their support.

But the workers were not impressed. They decided to build a barricade out of bicycles and form a human chain to prevent scabs from entering the warehouse. Only then did the company relent somewhat. They refrained from calling the police, handed out masks and water, and offered to talk to the workers.

The Deputy General Manager, Harm-Julian Schumacher, tried to justify Santiago’s firing to the workers: “We received negative feedback multiple times indicating that Gorillas was not the right company for him. That’s why we decided to terminate his employment immediately.” An angry colleague replied, “Why does the feedback of an anonymous ghost count more than our feedback, when we work with Santiago every day?” Again and again, management’s arguments were interrupted by chants: “We want Santiago back.” But the managers did not want to get involved. According to Gorillas’ lawyer, none of the company representatives present were authorized to take back the verbal termination. Not the woman who issued it, not the HR manager, and not even the deputy head of the company?

The workers’ demand went unanswered, so they decided to extend the struggle. On Wednesday evening, they moved their blockade to another warehouse. By now there were more than 100 protesters, and the list of demands was longer. By the evening, it was not only about the dismissal of Santiago, but also about the abolition of the probationary period at Gorillas — no one should be fired without a warning. At their new blockade, however, the management reacted differently and called the police, who arrived with a contingent of 50 cops. In the end, the police stood back since management wanted to avoid images of a violent disturbance.

In the following days, riders from other delivery companies like Lieferando or Wolt came to join the blockades and show solidarity. Theo, a rider at the food delivery company Lieferando, said: “We have the same problems, so we have to fight together against platform capitalism and bring the means of production under our control.”

Creating The Committee

Gorillas is considered one of the most successful startups in Germany. In less than a year, the company increased its value to over €1 billion. They want to conquer the German market, but also expand their business to other countries. Using the slogan “faster than you,” the company takes pride in the speed of delivery — which comes, however, at the expense of its workforce. While Gorillas expanded to France and the U.S. last winter, the Berlin-based startup had no funds to get its riders proper winter gear. Despite a cold snap in February with sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall, the company didn’t want to stop service. At Santiago’s warehouse at Checkpoint Charlie, the workers’ resistance began in February with a first wildcat strike.

Riders refused to supply customers during snowstorms. From the first warehouse, the strike spread throughout the city. One warehouse manager reportedly told a striking rider, “If you don’t want to ride your bike, then walk.” But the strike had an impact and Gorillas shut down operations in Berlin. This victory, four months ago, marked the beginning of an extraordinary chapter in the recent history of the German labor movement.

A dozen or so workers began to organize. Every Sunday, their only day off, they met to talk about their problems at the company. Wages kept dropping during Gorillas’ first year in business. In many hubs, they said, there were problems with racist, sexist and transphobic harassment. Gorillas was literally running its business on the backs of its workers — riders’ spines are supposed to serve as shock absorbers for beverage deliveries. There is a guideline that deliveries cannot be heavier than 10 kilograms. According to Gorillas, an algorithm calculates the load and informs the supervisors. However, the “Gorillas Workers Collective” criticizes that deliveries often exceed 10 kilos. Scales do not exist in the hubs.

The “Gorillas Workers Collective” began preparations for the election of a works’ council (a representative body for workers that can be elected in any German company over a certain size). Last week, they cleared the first hurdle and formed an election committee to hold elections for such a council. According to workers, Gorillas sent a bus packed with managers to influence the election. Gorillas is talking about filing a legal challenge to the election. 

Santiago’s firing has now added further fuel to the fire. Workers have continued the strike throughout the past week and have threatened to continue their blockades should their demands not be fulfilled. 

The readiness of the workforce to fight for Santiago’s as well as their own interests is unbroken. Unions and political organizations in Berlin, as well as internationally, should support this crucial labor struggle and send solidarity messages and delegations. Gig work is creating new forms of capitalist hyper exploitation — but also new forms of workers’ solidarity.

First published in German on Klasse Gegen Klasse.

Translation: Marco Blechschmidt

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