This is a text on my experiences at the Platform Cooperativism conference at the New School. A lot was discussed so this is not an attempt to report everything, but the bits I found most interesting and relevant. I hope readers will find it useful to check out links in the text.
It is Friday morning in New York and Trebor Scholz opens the conference attended by about 130 platformists, cooperativists, community organisers, academics and others. “After the election I thought that I should cancel the conference and instead hold another on what we must do now” Scholz jokes bitterly, “but then I realised that Platform Cooperativism is part of what we must do now. To come up with cooperative solutions to the crises we face.” The framing is set for what will be a conference in the shadow of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.
Scholz continues by stating that even though platform cooperatives currently employ few people, it has a pervasive model and is something to embrace for those of us who want progressive change. Ownership allows for the fruit of the labour to stay in the hands of those who perform that labour and in the face of automation workers can retain ownership instead of merely being laid off. “Platform cooperativism rejects that tech is the answer to all social problems but it embraces technology.” But in order for platform cooperativism to realise the promises it makes, Scholz argues that it has to overcome the main obstacles:
- Marketing, to break through the network effect
- Poor leadership
- Competition with extractive start-ups
- Theory being far too removed from practice
The First session at the conference is called Workers’ voice and is a discussion on the effects on workers in the digital economy. Mark Graham from the Oxford Internet Institute points at how jobs are only supplied in specific places but that labour is supplied everywhere, leading to an oversupply of labour. But he argues that the oversupply of labour in the Global South can be met with digital tools as it makes labour boundless creating global production networks. But the boundless labour has to align its sleeping hours to hours in the West, causing sleep deprivation to workers in East-Asia and it also leads to wages being undercut and an increased commodification of labour via the dependency of ratings of workers and discrimination of workers is rife online. He thus proposes a transnational digital workers’ union to organise labour globally for fair work but realises the difficulties of doing so Not only because of geography but also because cultural differences of people performing digital work as main source of income, or as a part-time job.’
The second speaker at this panel is Kristy Milland who has been working for Amazon’s MechanicalTurk, where digital work is reduced to tiny pieces that workers can sign up for to do in exchange for minimal remuneration. People work for a tiny wage performing tasks that lead to no training nor ability to further one’s career, but physical and mental illness. MechanicalTurk seems to be the platform equivalent to the first factories of the industrial era. Milland is now working with organising platform workers in North America.
Jack Qiu from the Chinese University of Hong Kong highlights what he calls “algorithm-based class struggle” in China, Hong Kong and Vietnam. Following the appearance of ride-sharing platforms (Chinas answer to Uber is called Didi) in China, the frequency of strikes has three folded. But the strikes are not only frequent but also increasingly militant. Now there are militant strikes in China every other day and 53% of workers admitted in a survey that they had taken part in strikes (Qiu argues that it is probably more). These platforms use different groups of drivers such as taxi drivers, private drivers and their own employed drivers to repeatedly undercut each other’s wages to get workers to work for longer hours, more intensely and for lower wages. But it is not all grim, in Hong Kong neighbourhood cooperative platforms have been developed by single mothers to serve hundreds of families bordering the poverty line with community services, connecting them through a new app.
A discussion followed of what mechanisms of coercion platform workers can use against employers and if that would solve anything anyway without ownership. What is the digital picket line? Milland argued that anything to cut off the platforms funds including negative campaigns was essential while Qiu pointed at targeting scabs through rating systems. If a taxi driver chooses to work during a strike, the other drivers can give her low ratings making it more difficult for that driver to find customers. It was also mentioned that labour activists and hacker activists have to meet each other and work together so that the individual attacks of hackers can be organised into more efficient and long term strategies. Workers in the Global North also have to connect with those in the South to avoid increased precarisation following digitalisation of labour.
Platform coop showcase
It is with this backdrop that the conference moves on into a showcase of various cooperatives. Nathan Schneider wants us to remember that we are not building from scratch, cooperatives have worked before. Platform cooperativism is an ownership design through which we can make value creators value owners, treat data as if it is someone’s stuff, commonify code, have representation and decentralisation, design policy for local benefit and control, rent capital without being rented by it, train owners and not just workers. But we need effective governance of these platforms and also to acknowledge the material basis of the digital economy and its dependency on mineral extraction.
Some of the platform cooperatives that are showcased are Green Taxi coop in Denver who through mixing tradition models with a platform in the form of an app now covers 36% of the Denver taxi market. They are also entirely self-financed without any debt as they managed to access capital through their own members. It is now 100% driver owned.
Loconomics is another platform cooperative owned by workers but it is active in the service sector and organises freelancers in the Bay Area. It provides an online market place for these freelancers and work with a points-based system for sharing profits and has a structure of by-laws for its governance.
Coopify.us is a platform offering cooperative home services in New York City. Rylan Peery argues that the app was a way for these workers to circumvent discrimination through the veil of anonymity the app supplies. This was useful as most of their workers are Latina women who in the US earn 66% of the income of white males.
The ICA Group is a consultancy firm focusing on coops who have successfully helped organise care workers living in poverty to form a coop. They also want to work in the platform sector and work together with the loan fund LEAF (Local Enterprise Assistance Fund) to develop coops.
Farmondo.de is also at the conference with 12 lessons they have learned in their process. They started four years ago to build an alternative, cooperative marketplace to Amazon and see three main challenges to their platform, how to: build a successful business, build a community and to do good at the same time. Felix Weth who is their representative at the conference argues that it is important to talk about your project and to listen to people’s responses. Never hesitate to ask for help! It is difficult to have insight into what others need if they don’t tell you. Work hard to build the right team and to keeping the balance between work and non-work and to take your time as to not overwork staff. People need to have roles they are happy with in the team. Build a community of people around the project but manage expectations. Be transparent, Fairmondo.de for example publishes bank transcripts. Don’t underestimate the importance of software development, this is essential to get suppliers but requires funds. Be honest about leadership and provide enough of it! Keep your vision, have a clear strategy and keep going. And you can never celebrate successes enough!
Seedbloom is a crowdfunding platform providing access to capital for an ecosystem of coops and ethically driven enterprises. It helps coops with both access to funds and advising them on how to use them best. Victor Matekole argues that it is essential for platforms to reduce texts (for example legal texts) to bite size so that people actually pay attention to what is communicated.
Another organisation for access to capital to coops is Purpose, which is trying to help companies to adopt self-ownership. It functions through a foundation (Purpose Foundation) into which investors can invest but have no voting rights. This foundation then supplies funds to various coops in exchange for dividends through a complex investment system where voting rights and dividend rights are separated. Read more at
Sasha Constanza-Chock the Research Action Design collective which is focused on helping communities and grassroots social movements build coops through technology. Sasha challenges us to ask who benefits, who participates and who might be harmed in the development of platform coops? Contrados.org was mentioned as an example of a platform coop for migrant workers to know their rights and organise.
These were some of the many platform cooperatives that were presented at the conference.
Barcelona, regulations and the EU
A longer discussion that was held on day two was related to how cities can gain or retain technological sovereignty in the age of digital platforms. Fransisca Bria, the Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer of the City of Barcelona explained how she was working to develop “non-neoliberal” solutions with technology for the city. The current municipal government is not constituted by professional politicians and thus “citizens are occupying the political space” trying to reframe society. But she argued that in order to do so we need a coalition of rebel cities, unions, political parties and others to work together instead of proposing a one-size-fits all solution. What the city has done is to develop a decision making platform called Decidim Barcelona (https://decidim.barcelona/?locale=ca) to make the local democracy more participatory. It is trying to regulate Airbnb but it is very hard to do so due to the international nature of the firm.
And part of the difficulty to regulate platforms is due to the restrictive regulations by the EU according to Wolfgang Kowalsky. A EU member state can only intervene and regulate a platform if it has 1 control over price setting, 2 mandatory terms and conditions and 3 ownership of key assets. Kowalsky argued that only when all three criteria are met which would require Uber to own cars and Airbnb to own the housing on the platforms first can a member state lawfully intervene.
But it is very important that we develop tools by which to meet the increased digitalisation. On the Sunday we had a chance to break off into smaller groups to talk about our specific interests and I ended up in a group discussing the future of manufacturing in the age of digitalisation. But it turned out to be a discussion more broadly on automation and how automation of large portions of the labour market is imminent. In most US states being a truck driver is the most common job and with the prospect of driverless cars they risk unemployment. And this is why we need to redistribute not only access but ownership. And platform cooperatives can constitute a part in that transformation if we manage to overcome our challenges.
Big thank you to SolidFund who decided to help fund this visit! SolidFund is a worker coop solidarity fund to support workers to own and control their livelihoods. Join now for only a £1 a week!