Annemarie Kern and Valentin Niebler: The YouTubers Union – A Novel Case of Platform Worker Organising

In September 2020, Annemarie Kern, a student assistant at Humboldt University Berlin, and Valentin Niebler, a sociologist at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, publishedOrganising YouTube. A novel case of platform worker organising” for the Friedrich Ebert-Stiftung Institute. Writing for the Gig Economy Project, Kern and Niebler summarise the findings of their research.

This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Lipman-Miliband Trust

In the last decade, YouTube has established itself as the largest video sharing platform worldwide. Used by more than two billion people on a daily basis, YouTube is not just a crucial profit engine and data resource for its parent company Google/Alphabet, it also serves as a source of income for more than 100,000 YouTubers, who produce the majority of content that users consume and engage with on the site.

Working conditions of YouTubers differ starkly from conventional forms of employment and resemble a type of ‘platform work’: an activity based on self-employment, with flexible scheduling and coordinated through a data-heavy, algorithmic environment. Even more than most platform workers, YouTube’s globally dispersed workforce of content creators is facing a fragmented work environment, which makes the mutual association of workers seem highly difficult.

However, in 2018 a group of YouTubers managed to successfully organise for their collective interests and formed a ‘YouTubers Union’ (YTU) to challenge corporate changes on the platform. The group eventually joined up with the German trade union IG Metall to enter into negotiation with YouTube and Google. 

This interesting and uncommon case of workers organising on a large-scale platform raises the question of how successfully organising in this new environment might be conducted. Our research aims to contribute to this discussion by laying out the case of the YTU. We would like to demonstrate how YouTubers have constituted the YTU and what power resources the group could mobilise to learn more about chances and hurdles in organising web-based platform workers.

The development of YTU

Like most labour organising, the emergence of YTU was linked to a specific workplace conflict. After a series of scandals on the platform from 2017 onwards that led to tighter control of labour processes, the YTU was established by content creators in March 2018.

The group’s founding was initiated by Jörg Sprave, a popular German content creator whose income and visibility on the platform had dropped due to YouTube’s advertisement restructurings, often referred to as the so called ’Adpocalypse’. Jörg Sprave published a campaign video in which he called “all YouTubers to arms” and created a Facebook group, which 15,000 individuals joined within six weeks. The group sent introductory letters to YouTube headquarters, conducted internal membership surveys and launched a collective ‘warning strike’.  

The first serious engagement from YouTube’s side began in September 2018, after Jörg Sprave had published a video which exposed the company’s misleading communication on its monetisation guidelines. However, while YouTube was open to talking with some large creators individually, who were able to achieve some smaller changes on the platform, the company refused to communicate with the group and rejected any institutionalised form of review and feedback.

After talks with YouTube proved unable to produce lasting agreements, the YTU entered into a cooperative venture with the German trade union IG Metall. On 26 July 2019, the two groups then launched the FairTube campaign, by publishing campaign videos, a campaign website and the launch of six demands, that had been voted on by YTU members. Through the threat of lawsuits for sham self-employment and for violations of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union as well as through building up public pressure, YouTube was supposed to be forced either to follow up on the campaign demands or to engage in meetings and negotiations. 

The most visible outcome of the FairTube campaign was an invitation issued by YouTube and Google Germany, which was received by IG Metall in the last week of the proclaimed 30-day countdown. A few days before the meeting, however, YouTube refused to allow YTU members to attend, which led IG Metall to cancel the meeting.

Is the YTU an effective model?

To assess power relations in this labour conflict and to see what potential YTU has to mobilise, we use the Power Resource Approach (PRA),  a research heuristic to analyse the potential of trade unions and social movements in labour conflicts. Based on our research, we argue that while structural power is very low for content creators on YouTube, the establishment of the YTU can be traced back to successful mobilisation and development of two other power resources, associational power and societal power. 

This pressure was increased through successful collaboration with IG Metall, which improved the YTU’s standing and equipped the group with institutional and associational resources (i.e. material resources and expert knowledge). It also helped to improve their associational power by making the campaign more approachable for a diverse spectrum of YouTubers.

Overall, the YouTubers Union can be seen as a successful step in challenging the multiple fragmentations that web-based platform workers on YouTube are faced with. This is not to say that these hurdles were overcome or that YouTube changed its policies substantially. In fact, the group’s demands have remained unmet for the most part. But as a step towards voicing collective discontent and establishing labour as a relevant issue on the platform, it has proven successful.

Beyond the case of YouTube, it can be conjectured that workers on web-based labour platforms have the potential to form movements or groups with strategic capabilities if they make use of public social media tools at times of increased conflict on the platform. Associational power can be built up rapidly, and also maintained for longer periods of time. Public initiatives and scandalising efforts can be crucial, especially if the platform is well-known in the overall economy. 

For trade unions, it should be clear that the organisation of platform workers, especially at a cross-border-level, is difficult to assess exclusively with the frameworks of institutionalised labour associations in mind. Web-based collective actors often exhibit hybrid and fluid forms of membership and can usually not build on legal recognition or rights to co-determination. The practice of IG Metall in this case can be seen as a notable approach in building coalitions between old and new labour organisations.

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