- Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change
On the 27th March 2023, members of the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC) held the formal launch event for the Leeds Index of Platform Labour Protest in London. The purpose of the launch was to formally introduce the Leeds Index website, which makes our research on platform work visible and searchable to the public.
The Leeds Index is a comprehensive database that identifies thousands of incidences of labour protest by platform workers worldwide. We identify where protests take place, what grievances motivate workers, who are organising protests, and what strategies are involved. Using this data, we can chart trends in platform labour protest in particular regions, companies, and timeframes.
Besides academic publications, we regularly produce reports that summarize monthly protest activities as well as regional or national developments. The analyses provided by the Leeds Index have been used to inform the work of trade unions and institutions like the International Labour Organisation.
Our website hosts our analyses and reporting, as well as providing regular updates and a searchable map where visitors can search for protest events across the globe. The Leeds Index is part of the ESRC Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (Digit), and we are a team of industrial relations researchers based at the University of Leeds.
Working on the Leeds Index has been an extremely rewarding process. We have been able to engage in very concrete and practical ways with organisations like trade unions, which is often difficult in academic research, since in many cases unions and academics may have different priorities and work to different timeframes.
It’s become clear from reactions from many different organisations and individuals that people see value in the project, well beyond academia. Moreover, it has also been evident that the Index fills a vital gap in the research landscape: while there is a burgeoning academic literature examining protest by platform workers, this is generally based on small-scale qualitative studies. Our dataset, however, enables a broader quantitative study of questions like where, when and how platform workers protest.
Yet, while the whole journey with the Leeds Index (which we began developing in 2019) has been a rewarding one, the launch event felt particularly special. Many of the people who kindly agreed to speak are significant academic influences, even inspirations, for what we’ve been trying to do. In the rest of this blog post, we will outline some of the key contributions- both supportive and critical- and the ensuing discussion that took place during the launch.
Our first speaker was Professor Beverly Silver of Johns Hopkins University. On a personal level, this was particularly significant for us. Silver’s classic Forces of Labor (2003) is an intellectual forerunner and touchstone for our work since it uses news reporting to map labour protest patterns in global historical perspective. It is one of the inspirations we have had in mind since the very beginning of the project.
Reflecting on the Index and on her own research, Silver asked whether, in both bodies of work, we are seeing signs of a return to workers’ “associational power”. In other words, while for decades it appeared that workers’ ability to exercise industrial power through organising collectively was in chronic decline, there are hints that we may now be at a turning point.
Certainly, there may be an uptick in the number of workers striking, and through the Leeds Index we are playing a small part in illuminating and documenting this trend. However, for Silver, more fundamental than this is the question of how workers can wield power effectively.
A strike does not necessarily mean a victory: what factors are necessary to make strikes win? When the Leeds Index, for example, shows that most platform worker strikes last less than 24 hours, does this mean that workers are winning quickly, or that their struggles are petering out? Understanding this would require a deeper analysis of the outcomes of protest, which is methodologically very challenging (how is a “successful outcome” defined?), but which we hope to explore in future work.
Our second speaker was Victor Figueroa from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), who reflected in depth on the practical applications of the Leeds Index from a trade unionist perspective. As Figueroa pointed out, ITF affiliate unions are already mobilising millions of transport workers globally and have tried to support the increasing networking of workers’ organisations in different countries.
How can the Leeds Index support workers’ organisation? For Figueroa, in a couple of ways. First, the dataset can be used to provide an evidence base and context in support of campaigns. Where unions are involved in protest in one location, our dataset can help show how the issues they are facing are linked to similar problems in the same company, or in the same region. This can help “connect the dots”, and build particular struggles into wider campaigns, which is a key part of the ITF’s mission.
Secondly, the Index can help organisations like the ITF, with a wider remit of supporting national and local unions, in identifying where issues are emerging. It can thus help raise the visibility of emerging issues in the eyes of the international labour movement. Moreover, where it can flag up emerging problems in particular companies or regions, it could then support strategic decisions about where to direct resources and support.
Uma Rani, a senior economist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), reflected on the genesis of the Leeds Index. Our relationships with the ILO has developed over several years now, and our data has led us to publish reports through them, as well as providing a dataset for their own materials. Rani reflected on some of the key issues raised by the Leeds Index, and in particular, how they play out in regions of the Global South which is often neglected in research on platform work.
For example, Rani reflected on the interactions between informal kinds of worker organisation and established trade unions. How should we understand this relationship? To what extent are established unions trying to restructure in ways that make them look more like grassroots movements?
Conversely, to what extent can insurgent movements channel power and resources effectively? This, Rani noted, connects to a related methodological challenge - the need for a better understanding of phenomena which are important in platform worker protest but which rarely show up in visible (and “newsworthy”) “protest events”. For example, online networks of platform workers. This is something we hope to grapple with in future iterations of our research.
Our fourth speaker was Professor John Kelly of Birkbeck University. Kelly is one of the most eminent academic researchers working on trade union mobilisation and industrial relations in the UK. From this perspective, he was able to comment on some of the distinctive findings of the Leeds Index research to date, which challenge conventional wisdom in industrial relations research.
Firstly, Kelly observed that our findings about the overwhelmingly informal nature of protest calls into question the widespread assumption that union density is a good proxy measure of workers’ power. In certain societies where collective bargaining is comparatively institutionalised, this may be so, but certainly in many countries of the Global South, this is not at all the case.
Likewise, we cannot simply measure “militancy” through strike rates, since there are many other forms of protest which are often neglected in industrial relations scholarship. Through the Leeds Index, we are able to shed light on alternative ways of understanding workers’ capacity for mobilisation.
Kelly also commented on the status of radical grassroots unions, taking the UK as an example. Organisations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) are a very small proportion of overall union membership. Yet what’s interesting is how rapidly their numbers have grown, albeit from a small base.
However, our data also underlines that there are very few coalitions between established and grassroots unions. The gendered dynamics of these currents in trade unionism are also significant, and in future work we plan to find out more about how gender informs platform labour protest.
The final speaker was Professor Swen Hutter, a political scientist at the Freie Universität Berlin and Vice Director of the Center for Civil Society Research (a joint initiative of Freie Universität and the Berlin Social Science Center WZB), who researches protest movements. As a specialist in protest event analysis (that is, research such as the Leeds Index which takes the individual protest event as the foundational unit of analysis) he was able to pose some compelling methodological challenges.
He began by praising the ambition of the Leeds Index, particularly its range of sources (we draw on hundreds of thousands of articles from news sources in over 100 languages). He was also able to put the Leeds Index in historical perspective as part of a succession of waves of protest research. Yet, he raised a note of caution, particularly around the organisations involved; in some cases, news reporting is simply not well-informed enough to give a full account of the names of groups involved in protest.
Beyond these kinds of technical challenges of data gathering, he also drew attention to the way protest event analysis can link up with other fields and topics. For instance, how can we understand how protest events link to wider political discourses and movements? He suggested that we might make further progress in this respect by linking our dataset to others. For instance, how do our patterns of protest link to wider variations in countries’ “protest proneness”? Do some countries simply protest more than others, and to what extent does that explain what we’re finding out with the Leeds Index?
The discussion opened out to include delegates after these fascinating contributions, and we were able to reflect on what the future holds for the Leeds Index. Most prominent in the discussion was the debate over the feasibility of measuring the outcomes of protest events. This is complex, for reasons noted above; as anybody involved in UK academia and its current round of industrial action will know, it’s often highly subjective whether an action has been a “success” or not.
We do hope to engage with these questions in future and try to show what conditions may make protest more or less likely to be successful. Yet this will require intensive qualitative analysis in addition to our quantitative work. Our recent ILO report on protest by keyworkers provides a tentative model for how we might apply mixed methods to address these challenges.
We also discussed future data-gathering measures. Can, and should, we supplement our core approach of analysing mass volumes of news reporting? We hope that the Index will grow, and we will be able to become more and more ambitious. For instance, can we begin scraping social media discussion on protest? Can we move to integrate more self-reporting of protest events via our website?
We hope that those who were interested or inspired by the launch event and our outputs so far will continue to follow and engage with the work we do. We are happy to offer webinars that introduce the potential of the Leeds Index or develop training materials for trade unions, so please do get in touch if our data can have an impact on your work supporting workers’ rights.
This project received initial funding from Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung and the International Labour Organsiation (ILO), with additional funding from Leeds University Business School and Digit.
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