Organizing Labor in Platform Economies: Platform Cooperativism Conference | MIT Center for Civic Media

Organizing Labor in Platform Economies: Platform Cooperativism Conference

What forms of networked solidarity are emerging in an era of online platforms, and how might we organize labor in platform economies?

I'm here at the two-day Platform Cooperativism conference at the New School in New York city. I'll be facilitating a workshop on data science in cooperative economies with Tara Adiseshan at 2pm on Sat and will be speaking on monitoring abuses of power at 4pm on Sat. In the meantime, I'm liveblogging as many sessions as I can.

Facilitated by Sara Horowitz: Founder and Exec Director of Freelancers Union

Sara starts out by talking about the idea of New Mutualism that she uses at Freelancers Union. Whether or not, we're bound to have a shrinking government in the future. Companies see this shrinking circle as a market opportunity. Sara asks us to think about the things we need to be doing in the local economy that takes on the social imperatives of the people within it -- what's the strategy for housing, education, food? Because we're in an environment that can't be funded by government or foundations in the long-term, it's going to have to have some kind of revenue model (as do unions, cooperatives, etc). How do we build these kinds of ecosystems and organizations so they can be independent and local all over the place. Then, how can we thread them together? Once we do so, we might have a political constituency, something that we can leverage to influence government to promote that kind of society. Freelancers Union is trying to be one organization within that wider movement.

When talking to "sharing economy" companies, remember that we're in an era of enormous bullshit, says Sara. If people are talking to you out of their marketing budget. If they're talking to you from the profit side, take it more seriously.

Daniel R. Schlademan: Co-director of OUR Walmart

How do you take on a corporation the size of Walmart? There are only two things on earth bigger than Walmart. The first is the US DOD. The second is the Chinese Liberation Army. Walmart has 1.2 million employees in the US. Those workers are broken into over 4,000 stores, with several hundred workers who are separated across multiple shifts. How do those workers build power in order to affect Walmart?

The campaign with Walmart started in 2010 with workers who wanted to improve their experience of workers. OUR Walmart decided not to wait for the government or the employer to say that it was okay to start an organization within the company. If workers wanted to join together, then they would do that.

The Internet is one of the best ways to find and organize Walmart employees-- there are 400,000 people who list Walmart as their employer on Facebook. Using that collective power, workers successfully pressured the company to give half a million workers a raise. For decades Walmart relied on the assumption that they could pay people less than anyone else. But that's not true anymore. Right now, pregnant women across the country have started a movement called "Respect the bump" to change policies around how much pregnant women are expected to lift while pregnant. They connected on Facebook, they created a plan to address a company-wide policy increase, and they organized to create that change. Until recently, companies believed that their brand was impervious, but workers are learning that they have the power to coordinate across the country.

In past years as an organizer, Daniel talks about ways that organizing has changed from trying to reach all the people in a single plant to focusing on finding the militant few across a company who can shift a wider corporation.

Michelle MillerCoworker.org

Michelle Miller and her co-founders at Coworker.org were looking for ways to help people who wanted to organize to build power in their workplaces, even if they didn't go so far as starting a union. People were organizing on Reddit or creating Change.org threads, asserting ideas for changing their workplaces. These ideas might be invisible to traditional labor organizers and create one-time campaigns that their coworkers cared about. But even after they won campaigns, they didn't have the infrastructure to keep those networks going for longer term systemic change. With Coworker.org, they offer infrastructure and expertise to support people to create "global, decentralized networks" to build and shift power within major companies.

Over 3 years, they've supported efforts by American Airlines employees, Starbucks baristas, Wells Fargo tellers, and many others to build power in their company. Michelle tells us the story about Kristy, a Starbucks employee who was had to put bandage over her tattoo due to a company policy against visibles tattoos. After Kristy created her campaign on Coworkers.org, thousands of other baristas joined. So they called her up and asked, "how can we help you" rather than telling them what to do. Kristy had noticed that people were telling their stories and photographing their tattoos. Workers used a hashtag to find each other and share their tats. When it came time to talk to the media, Coworkers.org helped the employees form a committee of 20 people to talk to the media. Within just a few months, 15,000 baristas from 17 countries had joined the campaign, and the company responded to reconsider its tattoo policies and raise wages.

What matters is what happened after this campaign. Michelle argues that participation in things like coworkers.org offers experiential learning in advocacy. Coworkers.org continued to engage with the baristas, seeing the network grow to around 24,000 baristas who subscribe to their barista newsletter and occasionally develop new campaigns

Yochai Benkler: Peer Mutualism And The Future Of Capitalism

Yochai starts out by recapping his talk from this morning. In order to deal with the problem of rising inequality, we're going to need a diversity of strategies. Cooperatives are one action, but there are other complementary strategies that are important. Walmart is an example of a company that is able to protect itself from worker action from geographic and time differences. The previous speakers have talked about ways to leverage network technologies to achieve some of the things that unions have typically done.

But Walmart isn't a sharing economy platform, and it's very different from the Freelancer's Union, which has organized people who don't have a single shared employer. Freelancer's Union focuses on sharing risk, providing training, and learning that could help in terms of bargaining power, but mostly in terms of setting standards for a model in which people can work. Yochai gestures to Kristy Milland, saying that she should be on stage too, talking about her letter to Jeff Bezos. When there's no membership organization with fees to fund services, no picket line, no way for consumers to know who's a scab, no photo-op, it's hard to effectively organize. Yochai asis: as larger number of people are freelancers and contingent workers, how can we collectively organize to provision goods and services, while generating political capabilities.

Unions were partly successful because they were able to develop war chests to fight corrupt companies. In sharing economies, those war chests don't yet exist. Yochai concludes by asking us how we can develop those things.

Questions & Discussion

Daniel responds to a question about whether technology is undermining traditional unions. Daniel responds that this power is exciting because it offers so much potential, but it's also scary to more experienced union organizers who are worried about losing control. For people who aren't invested in maintaining the status quo, he says, social media is a powerful area of potential. Social media is not taking over traditional organizing or changing the foundation of good organizing, he says. Instead, it's adding to it. You still need to get people together and have face-to-face conversations. But the Internet is supporting the scale and speed at which people who agree and want to work together can find each other.

Michelle points out that traditional organizers have tended to connect people, share information, and do research. Due to that central role, organizers came to think that they should do the mobilizing. That's less the case now, as people find each other and organize for change. Labor institutions can now (a) think of themselves less as holders of knowledge and more as expert navigators of that knowledge. Secondly, (b) trade unions have union halls that they could open up to communities. They have amazing bars and dance halls that could be more open spaces that people could use, especially as third space is disappearing -- there are very few places you could go to where you don't have to pay a corporation to be there. The third opportunity is to facilitate mutual aid. Institutions already have infrastructure to take in and redistribute resources. She wants to figure out how to provide mutual aid opportunities to people functioning inside their networks -- and there are many older institutions with that expertise that she would like to collaborate with.

Yochai points out that cooperativism is a left/liberal mirror of right-wing libertarianism. To some sense, this distrust in institutions is merited after the mistakes of recent governments. Yochai says there's a classic story of a bank robber who robbed banks because that's where the money is. Why do we need the state, he asks? That's where the power is. One of the problems we have as progressives -- as the left-- is a real skepticism about the state, the degree to which is susceptible to capture, and the degree to which it is open to democracy. If we put all of our efforts into workarounds around the state. Right now in Barcelona, there's an effort to capture the power and build democratic efforts within power. Yochai urges us to keep engaging with the state to change its institutions, not only to build our own mutualistic, anarchistic, or distributive models -- but also as a core part of our agenda.

Sara asks the question: what would we want the state to do? Her idea is one she attributes to FDR-- laws that he created that supported unions to develop a distributed form of power. She argues that elected officials often respond by saying, "we'll do that," when what Sara prefers them to say is "help the public do that for themselves."

Kristy Milland
Kristy Milland is a Turker, a worker on Mechanical Turk. She also runs Turker Nation, a community of workers. The company doesn't let them talk to each other, and that's what TurkerNation supports. In the last few years, Turkers have realized that they're workers, that it's not just pocket money. She describes work by Niloufar Salehi, Lily Irani, Michael Bernstein, and others to find ways to connect and organize workers for change. They created WeAreDynamo.org, an anonymous platform where any worker can go and say, "I'm upset about X. Who's in?" One of their campaigns was a letter campaign called "Dear Jeff Bezos," which organized large numbers of turkers to write public letters to the company that received media attention. Although the company claims that it wasn't attributed to worker activism, the company did change how Indian workers were paid. On Mechanical Turk, with a workforce that is invisible, that is not quantitative numbered, they're continuing to find new ways to organize. (I've written about this story for The Atlantic here)

How are Organizations Funded?
Coworker.org is mostly funded by foundations and fellowships. They have one partnership with a trade union in Australia who they're training in their model. They have a long-term plan to transform their networks into some kind of dues generation or facilitated mutual aid that provides revenue. Sara notes that more groups are starting to realize that you have to generate your own revenue -- something she says we'll see more.

Are Employee Stock Ownership a Productive Direction for Cooperative Economies?

In response to a question on employee stock ownership, Yochai refers to a history of this process by referring to the moment in 1994 that employees bought a majority stake in United. Yochai argues that the important thing to recognize is that ownership doesn't necessarily translate into democratic control. The critical thing about co-operatives as opposed to co-ownership is a commitment to participation in self-governance, and that's not always what unions are advocating for when they do employer buy-outs.

Michelle urges us to look beyond employers to think about holders of capital and power in these distributed platforms and power holders. As technologies reshape the nature of work, it's important to be aware that people will move across a number of ways of organizing work across their lifetimes, so we need to center our work on people rather than just employers.