Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators

Interview with Trebor Scholz – connecting cooperatives to the future of work, digitally

"Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators" is a series of interviews with cooperative leaders from around the world with whom ILO officials have crossed paths during the course of their work with cooperatives. For this issue, ILO interviewed Professor Trebor Scholz from The New School, a scholar and an activist who developed the concept of “platform cooperativism”.

Article | 09 February 2018

Q. What is the concept of platform cooperativism and its background?

Professor Trebor Scholz from The New Schoolin New York City
Since 2008, at The New School in New York City, I have been working on digital labour, which even as a concept was contested back then. Initially, this research focused mostly on cognitive labour, understanding the data labour of Internet users on extractive social media platforms and the invisible work that is performed by compensated crowd workers, toiling for platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk to the tune of two to three dollars an hour, invisibly tugged away between the algorithms.

Through a series of conferences I started to build a network around these topics, leading to a publication of an edited volume Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. Over the past decade, the digital labour conferences brought together union and cooperative leaders, technologists, labour advocates, workers, policymakers, media scholars and legal experts. The focus of these discussions transitioned from the critical, solely academic mode to a more constructive approach; it shifted from research of cognitive labour to compensated digital work.

Over the past 40 years, certainly in the United States and to a lesser extent also in Europe, there has been a shift back to contingent work. More than 94 percent of the jobs created in the United States over the last ten years were in the non-employment category, meaning these were independent contract workers, freelancers, and other contingent workers. After the financial crisis in 2007-2008, the trend around genuine sharing companies like Couchsurfing and in Europe, BlaBlaCar, caught the interest of investor-funded firms that obfuscated the language that they used by grounding it in the counterculture ideology of the 1970s to sell their extractive platform model. Firms like Uber and TaskRabbit hijacked the social capital of peer-to-peer culture and cooperatives to sell services and products through digital platforms. Their short-term imperative was to extract value from communities. On the one hand, the so-called "sharing economy" did create easier access to low-paid temporary work, which is especially appreciated by people who are doing this work to supplement their incomes. But for the segment of the workforce that is trying to make a living within the extractive platform economy model, it is a struggle. For most workers, this model is simply not sustainable; drop-out rates are very high, social tolerability can only be stretched so far.

Just like the proletariat at the turn of the industrial revolution, this digital workforce is relatively small. In the United States in 2016, 12 million people made money through the labour facilitated by platforms. That's eight per cent of the workforce and it is growing steadily.

In an article in 2014, I developed an intellectual framework for platform cooperativism, a term to describe the joining of a very old model – the almost two hundred year-old model of cooperatives and that of the digital economy. In short, what would it be like if Uber drivers would own the platform, or what would it be like if food delivery services like Deliveroo were owned and operated by the couriers? To many people, this felt energizing. It was part of a moment, after the financial crisis, when many economic alternatives – from cooperatives to the solidarity movement economy and the pro-commons movement – experienced a renaissance. Importantly, this proposal presents a near-term economic alternative, spelling out what the immediate future could look like on the way to, let's say, a post-capitalist future.

But what are concrete steps for the near future that can show positive power to workers already today? Platform cooperatives are about connecting the present to the future horizon of a better society. You can learn about the platform cooperative model from this illustration, read a few introductory pieces here or listen to an interview with me here.

Q. What are your recent activities or initiatives to expand the platform cooperative model?

Surely, there has been much work on this topic already before 2014 but by then, the time was right, especially for many millennials to take it up. They had not experienced the benefits that were bestowed on their parents by large hierarchical institutions. They were looking for democratically governed institutional forms. They were fascinated by technology and had a healthy disregard for top-down corporations. In 2015, with Nathan Schneider, we convened another conference in the digital labour series, this time focusing on platform cooperativism. The event was attended by over a thousand people. Out of this momentum, support groups formed in Colorado, but also abroad in Melbourne, Berlin, Barcelona, Rome, Brussels, and now also Tokyo. They organize around this model and start to incubate cooperative start-ups. The next platform cooperative conference will take place September 26-27, 2018 in Hong Kong. It will aim at seeding the sows for a fair digital economy across Asia.

In November 2016, in the context of one of the platform cooperative conferences at The New School, we founded the Platform Cooperativism Consortium, which is the governing body, the next generation organizational infrastructure provider for this movement. Its focus is on policy, advocacy, and support for research, community building, and incubation. The intellectual backbone for this work is not only the Digital Labour book mentioned earlier, but also in Ours to Hack and To Own, a collection on platform cooperativism; and in my 2016 book Uberworked and Underpaid, which includes a chapter on platform cooperativism.

At the policy level, I had a chance to introduce this model and its ecosystem to United States Senators but also the labour ministers of the G7 as well as many grassroots groups around the country and worldwide.

We just received some financial support with which we are hoping to develop the Platform Cooperativism Development Kit that will effectively communicate this model to large groups of people, exposing them to and orienting them about cooperative solutions in the digital economy. It will enable those who are interested in this model to set up platform cooperatives. We’ll offer a range of open source tools. A collaboration with the Inclusive Design Research Centre, we are co-designing with worker cooperatives especially in the homecare sector because that is one of the fastest growing occupations, especially in the United States but also worldwide. Home health care is also a well-positioned sector as it is a pull market which means that cooperatives do not have to compete e with corporations that can easily outspend them when it comes to marketing, for example.

Q. What are the challenges and opportunities for platform cooperativism?

Surely, marketing is a problem for cooperatives just as much as start-up funding. An investment-fund for platform cooperatives, for instance, is urgently needed. But here, too, the platform model can offer advantages, especially for worker cooperatives, for example, which at least in the United States have hit a glass ceiling in terms of their potential to create jobs. The number of worker cooperatives is below 400. Platform worker cooperatives have advantages in terms of access to funding, compared to traditional worker cooperatives. They can rely on blockchain funding experiments, crowdfunding, and projects like the Open Collective. Unconventional, innovative solutions to funding are accessible to these cooperatives that are also publicly perceived in a more generous light. In addition, on the political level of worker organization, the platform model allows for access to a larger number of workers that would otherwise be difficult to accomplish. Also the underrepresentation of women in cooperatives could also be addressed through this model.

With the ability to aggregate workers on a platform, comes of course also political power to negotiate. This is an opportunity for unions and platform cooperatives to work together. The platform model can add to the union model in that it is based on the understanding that you cannot substantially change what you do not own.

We cannot change the platform economy exclusively by analyzing it. To change it, we need to build a new economic model that reveals the failure of the existing model and challenges it. I'm not sure what the odds are that this model will make the old one obsolete but I do know what the odds are if we don't try.