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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Tech Co-ops Are on the Rise

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February 13, 2020
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cross-posted from The Workers' Paradise

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the desires to create co-op version of “Uber”. One respondent on a different forum noted that I was in “violent agreement” with the platform co-op community. I was glad to hear that! But some also saw my post as technophobic focusing on my age (Ok, Boomer!), so I feel the need to talk about some of the incredible tech co-op that are popping up!

Here in the PNW, a couple of communities are using Althea-mesh software to provide direct access to the internet with cooperative ownership by the users. These ISP co-ops (Clataskine Co-op and Tacoma Cooperative Network) provide true net neutrality through community ownership and control of the ISP. The payments are made through Althea blockchain cryptocurrency (which is linked to the US dollar).

Other tech based co-ops include Motion Twin, a worker-coop which produces on-line games, and Modo (a consumer car sharing co-op in Vancouver).

I’ve also mentioned Resonate, a music streaming app that has membership for producers (artists) and consumers and uses blockchain as well.

Last year, Working Systems, a software developer servicing labor unions, converted to a worker co-op and I am currently talking with a couple of platform start-ups (since they are still in the start up phase, I don’t really want to name them, but one will be about encrypted storage and file sharing). The new Employee Trust in Washington (a project of SIEU, PHC, ICA Group) will be working with the independent contractor caregivers providing homecare through medicaid. Of course, The Workers’ Paradise has always been hosted on Electric Embers, a worker cooperative. A common theme in these co-ops is taking control of the technology and operating on an ethical basis.

This was the point of the previous article: we can’t simply replicate a corrupt extractive model, offer memberships, and then call it a day. We have to make the operations aligned with co-op values and principles. and that means strengthening communities, not just disrupting them because that is what technology does. When I hear the word “disruption”, what I hear is someone saying that they don’t really care about upending people’s lives. That the folks losing their jobs or community are just collateral damage in the march of progress filled with a unfounded optimism that everything will work out in the end.

On one of the social sites on which this blog posts, some asked about Eva. Eva was presented to me as a retort to my post: “hey, what about Eva” but it wasn’t easy to find information. Eva is a platform co-op offering “ride sharing”. I use the scare quotes because, as someone on argued, “it isn’t really ‘sharing’ if your charging for the service”. Anyway, the website doesn’t offer a lot of information about the co-op (they told me that the site is do for an overhaul in April), but this interview on Each for All Radio (a co-op itself), with Dardan Isufi, Eva co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, provides a deeper dive into their model. If you listen to the recording (about 49 minutes), you will hear that Eva works with brick-and-motor cab companies, has staff in the cities it serves, insists on 35 hours of training, police background checks, and maintenance reports. Most importantly, Eva doesn’t engage in price gouging (known as “surge pricing” in the industry and covers the insurance cost directly for the drivers (another core difference from Uber/Lyft), the latter is likely an aspect of Canadian and Quebec laws).

The response from me: Eva is not trying to replicate Uber or Lyft.

They are an example of what I was talking about. I am glad to learn more about them and they were very generous in answering my questions in a separate forum. I obviously write from a US perspective (and my Canadian experience is mostly English-speaking Nova Scotia), but avoid US exceptionalism and ackowledge that I can’t know the different laws in every country, province, and state. Eva told me, they can’t provide service to people who need wheelchair accessible vehicles or to people who don’t have a smart phone (and debit/credit card). Apparently this is the law in Quebec (and Eva is working to address that, but politicians move slowly). So, hourra por Eva!. The biggest lesson that I learned from this exchange is to tread lightly with the Quebecois!

The bigger story from all of this is that almost a decade after the forming of the Tech Co-op Network, tech co-ops have begun popping up all over. They don’t have the capital to become household names like Spotify and Uber, but they are building the foundation for a tech community based on human values and a lot of them organize as multi-stakeholder co-ops when it makes sense (such as streaming services). For an industry known notoriously as anti-union and libertarian, the new generation of developers promises a different future of tech in which the technology serves its community and not the other way around.


John McNamara is a Cooperative Development Specialist with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center. He was a member-owner of Union Cab of Madison for close to 26 years and is a founding member of the late, great Democracy at Work Network.

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