At the first ever global forum on democratising work a range of views were heard on routes to democratising the gig economy
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Academics have debated the potential for a democratic gig economy and how to get there, at an international conference on democratising work this week.
The first-ever global forum on democratising work, 5-7 October, is the first initiative of the democratising work movement, which began with a manifesto signed by hundreds of academics and writers last year calling for the transformation of industrial relations as an essential step to tackle the world’s pressing ecological, social and economic challenges.
Two sessions were held on Tuesday [5 October] on transforming platform capitalism, one specifically on co-operative platform alternatives, and one more broadly on democratising the gig economy. A range of views were on show.
A down-to-earth view of democracy in the gig economy
In the latter session on the gig economy, Nicola Moore, organiser with Rideshare Drivers United in California, said that the starting point for talk of a democratic workplace in ride-hail, given the power these companies currently wield, was ensuring basic labour rights are guaranteed.
“When folks talk about democratising work, I’m here to say we are here to enforce basic labour laws, like the minimum wage,” she said.
Referring to the Prop-22 referendum in California last year, where Uber, Lyft and other ride hail platforms spent record sums over $200 million in a successful effort to convince voters that drivers were better off without labour rights, Moore said: “This is a majority people of colour, immigrant labour force, and they are assigning it in the United States a second class status. If we don’t take control of this federally and internationally we are going down the wrong road.”
Veena Dubal, Law professor at UC Hastings in California and expert on the ride-hail sector, also had a down-to-earth view of the possibilities for democratisation in this industry.
She said there were three possible avenues she could see to advance democratisation: private sector unions, co-operatives, and municipal ownership with public unions. In Dubal’s view, building private sector unions was the key priority, and questioned whether co-operative projects were a “distraction” from that central task.
She said the example of the taxi industry’s experience of co-operatives in the US should serve as a warning, citing the example of Yellow Path which went bankrupt in the 1970s and the assets were purchased by drivers, who established the yellow cab co-operative.
Dubal said the new co-operative immediately established a “two-tier system”. The co-operative members drove the least while the drivers who drove the most were independent contractors, who “were living and working in awful working conditions not too dissimilar to what we see in Uber and Lyft today”. The co-operative responded badly when workers began to challenge this two-tier system, dismissing protestors as “radicals”.
“I offer this history not to say that truly democratic co-operatives are not possible in the ride-hail sector, or that they are not desirable, but to warn that co-operatives too can be exploitative actors,” she said.
She said a present day project to establish a drivers co-operative in New York to compete with Uber and Lyft was “a strategy that fails to deal with the political economy of the sector, and is distracting from attempts to organise drivers to get justice.”
She continued: “There’s a feel-good story about collective ownership which suggests we can find democracy through market competition, against massive companies with significant capital to buy their way out of laws and regulations.
“It’s actually incredibly expensive to scale and maintain computational systems, especially customer facing computational system, and it is an expense that is not front-loaded, it is continuous. And so the idea that a small co-operative of drivers could actually compete with Uber and Lyft is a strategy that concerns me.
“I worry that part of the strategy that is behind these co-operatives is to create an illusion in other futures without having to engage in union fights, in anti-trust fights.”
However, Dubal did add that she thought “the municipalisation of this industry” was a potentially exciting prospect.
“There’s a lot of precedent to think about ride-hail through the lens of a public utility, to municipalise the ride hail industry, and to see it as an extension of and complement to public transportation,” she added
Juliet Schor, economist and sociologist at Boston College and author of the 2020 book ‘After the Gig’, said that there are aspects of the technology used in gig work which could be democratic.
For instance, the ability to have more flexibility in which hours to work gives a wider layer of people the opportunity to access work, and the reduction of middle management due to the algorithmic system of management can reduce HR pressures on workers and mean that a less hierarchical form of management is possible.
“The real question is therefore: is there a way to get the benefits of the technology out with the property relations? The key principle here is to disrupt the property relations and the power relations which characterise particularly the big players [in the gig economy].”
Schor said that regulation had been “the dominant approach” to democratising work, and she argued that “you can gain a lot from regulation” but when “platforms are too powerful they can get around the regulations”. Thus, she argued, regulation “needs to be pared with union organisation and even consumer organisation”.
She added that she didn’t disagree with Dubal’s analysis of ride-hail, describing it as “the most monopolised sector and in many ways the most predatory”, making it difficult for co-ops to compete.
“The less monopolised the sector the easier it is for co-operatives to grow,” she argued.
More broadly, she said the significant challenges to establishing co-ops included how to finance their expansion, how to get significant market share and how to manage ‘the tyranny of the market’ where competition can put pressure on co-operatives to establish more exploitative practices to meet consumer demand.
“There has been a lot of excitement about co-ops but out with those countries which already have big and well supported co-operatives sectors you aren’t going to be able to scale co-ops without strong government participation and support,” she said.
On the potential for municipally owned platforms, Schor said that in the US “there are some cities which are dipping their toes in”. She cited the example of Long Beach, California as a place where the city has set-up a free platform for short-term childcare. She said it was important if municipalities were to pursue public-owned platforms that they put sufficient finance behind it so that it is a “technologically good product, not a clunky old government website that doesn’t work, because people won’t use it”.
She added that in San Francisco there is talk of pursuing a municipally-owned platform for food delivery couriers, because both restaurants and delivery couriers are “getting hammered by the platform apps”.
The final option Schor discussed was informal groups that organise on social media, where informal co-ops have been set-up for ride-hail and for childcare.
“There are opportunities for self-organising in some of these areas,” she concluded.
Platform co-ops session
In the session specifically on platform co-operatives, speakers were more optimistic about their prospects, while being realistic about limits to their potential growth.
Ela Kagel from Platform Cooperatives Germany defined platform co-ops as “collective organisations based on shared ownership and democratic decision-making, but at the core they are built on a digital business model”.
Speaking about the app-based food delivery sector, where there is many small-scale co-ops in Europe which operate through the co-op cycle software which has been designed to support food delivery co-ops, Kagel said that rather than thinking about the potential for platform co-operatives to scale-up to compete with the big platform giants, they should look to “scale deep”.
“It might be that those food delivery coops which organise themselves around Coop Cycle will never be able to scale up like Deliveroo for instance because of the lack of funds and supportive infrastructure. But they might scale deep, in a sense that they could be organised via local multi stakeholder consortia (even with reps from the municipality maybe), with riders who can take their profiles to whichever platform they please, with better working conditions and with access to the software that helps organising the work,” she said.
Jerome Warren, a PhD candidate at the University of Cologne with expertise in platform co-operatives, said there was “a lot of opportunity to scale-up these type of democratic and participatory organisations”, citing a key role for government to play in this respect.
“The role of municipalities, local governments, regional governments, national governments, in providing opportunities for more participatory types of organisations is absolutely essential.”
Warren added that the combination of restaurants with co-operatives organising together and maintaining a higher “quality control” of food delivery than the big platforms can “give local and self-organised groups a [better] reputation”.
Christian Buggedei from Poly-Poly, a data co-operative, said there was the potential for local co-operatives to connect with one another much more and share data between them, to gain an “information advantage”.
“I’m not saying that technology is the solution to everything, but it is part of the solution.” Buggedei said.
On the question of how co-operatives can finance their operations so that they can, for example, have a marketing budget to promote their app to potential consumers, Warren pointed out that in Germany one-third of the banking sector is run by co-operatives, and thus there is “huge untapped potential” for lending within the co-operative sector.
He added that it was necessary to “market the co-operative brand”, akin to the fair trade brand’s marketing. To do this it would be necessary to “protect against abuse of the co-operative name”, Warren said.
Buggedei said it would be necessary for co-ops “to create a communication environment where we are not as dependent on marketing budgets to get the word out.” He added that there could also be a way of centralising marketing of co-ops, where a “co-op of co-ops” does the work of promoting local co-ops across the country.
Marco Lomuscio, from the University of Trento, said it was important to have a clear and realistic idea about what co-operatives “were trying to achieve”.
“Probably co-ops respond better to local problems and local issues rather than large-scale issues. Marketing is more of an issue when you are not in direct contact with the population,” he said. “Co-ops should focus their attention on other communication and interaction practices rather than marketing itself.”