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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

What's Next for #PlatformCoops?

Listening to the members who do the work

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August 27, 2018
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This article was first published in the Spring 2018 issue of STIR Magazine and is republished here with permission.

In Baltimore, a group of returning citizens — men and women who were formerly incarcerated — faced ridiculously unfair barriers to employment. And so, over the past two years, they formed Core Staffing, a staffing agency with 12 members.

Joseph Cureton, one of Core’s co-founders, is prototyping a platform to help get jobs for as many as 100 members in 2018. I met Joseph in New York, at a 2017 workplace democracy conference. He made the trek from Baltimore, where he hosts the BMore Black Techies meetup (their unofficial mascot is a crow clutching a knife in its beak).

“A platform could help us ramp up operations,” Joseph told me on the phone recently.

“It’s technology doing what it’s supposed to do.”

Core Staffing is a co-op that connects members to jobs. But to Joseph, the usefulness of a co-op structure is an open question. What’s more, by building a platform and securing financing at the same time, Core Staffing members are really going out on a limb. Where can they find a supportive community focused on co-operative platforms?

I wrote this article to examine the idea of “platform cooperativism,” where it’s headed, and what it needs in order to use technology for economic justice.

The Big Idea

If we consider polymath Alan Turing’s scholarship in the 1930s as the birth of modern computing, then the modern co-operative movement is at least twice as old. As a sensible approach to labor, it’s also just as British — even though cooperation has roots in mutual aid that predates imperial rule.

Today, however, computer programming is an empire. It’s dominated by startups pioneering social media, search, and other services, mediated by online platforms. In response, digital labor scholar Trebor Scholz helped coin the term “platform cooperativism” to point out how tech companies have become vehicles for financial investment, pioneering a high-speed and highly-extractive form of “platform capitalism.”

What does platform cooperativism bring to the cooperative movement?

In November 2015, the immediate answer was, excitement — and a hashtag. Scholz and co-op scholar Nathan Schneider hosted a gathering that attracted hundreds of people who had been toiling for years at similar intersections. Through a lot of spirited conversation, the event and its aftermath helped re-frame allied ideas about media, finance, and labor. Then Scholz and Schneider co-edited Ours to Hack and to Own in 2016, a collection of over three dozen essays (buy the book!).

But in terms of vocational shifts or better business practices, it’s unclear what #platformcoop has produced. The original excitement is giving way to unmet expectations.

Joseph never attended any of the platform cooperativism gatherings, but he heard about the idea through his network and saw promise for what Core Staffing was doing to get organized.

When I asked about where Core Staffing is investing its energy lately, Joseph said, “we’re trying to figure out how to foster close relationships and community while managing a distributed workforce. What will keep people engaged outside of profit?” Core Staffing currently has 15 members, fewer than virtually any other platform co-operative, but these tensions are already very present.

What does platform cooperativism bring to the cooperative movement?

A second question for Joseph revolves around money. Core Staffing is considering a large loan to build its platform. Joseph says, “We’re not going to be profitable for at least a year. I don’t want to us take on a huge amount of debt. But we have unanimous decisions for financial decisions that affect everyone’s equity, and right now, the members are voting ‘yes’ to take it.” Joseph needs both ideas and options for fundraising, which he sees as “somewhat a class and race issue, somewhat a best-practices issue.” And yet, from his inquiries with co-op lenders, “debt seems to be the only capital that seems willing to invest in a co-op.”

The co-op movement struggles to figure out appropriate, strategic options for engagement and financing. Among co-ops, these challenges force the conversation about equity. More broadly, the problems of racism and capitalism have been articulated by many academics, including the niche of digital labor.

So, what can Joseph expect from the platform cooperativism community? Conversations about well-defined problems are a good start. But the members of Core Staffing have precious little time. They’re looking for collaboration.

Best Behaviors

I’ve noticed that given the chance to talk about platform cooperativism, the conversation usually gets stuck on examples of “real” platform co-ops.

Stocksy United, a multi-stakeholder co-op for stock photo and video, is a wonderful case study. But where it really shines is modeling co-operative behavior at its best. Over 900 Stocksy members use an online governance portal to work out collective business interests. Several years ago, a vocal minority proposed adding capacity to host video footage on the website, in addition to photography. The Stocksy staff ran a cost-benefit analysis, the membership deemed it a good idea to roll out, and it worked.

By explaining why it does what it does in a specific situations, Stocksy can support other co-ops in working through similar situations, too. But it’s not their responsibility alone. We all should obsess less over which organizations may or may not be “real” platform co-operatives, and reframe the conversation to assess how they model cooperativism — such as democratic governance, collective decision-making, and how their capital is made accountable to workers. This approach would cultivate the curiosity and humility necessary to help new participants. That could be the end of this article.

Instead, I see emails every day obsessing over terms and territory. Recently, dozens of intelligent people have been wringing their hands with walls of text about whether or not Digital Town, a platform to buy shares and have votes in local economies, abides by the seven co-operative principles. Rob Monster, Digital Town’s CEO, wrote that he sees the co-op movement as “largely fighting the battle for commercial relevance using outdated tools,” in desperate need of “habit-forming and life-enhancing user experiences, online and offline.” He may be right. This doesn’t make Digital Town any more of a platform co-operative, of course.

Robin Hood Co-op, a Finnish activist hedge fund, illustrates the diversity of co-operative models we have in this movement. Ana Fradique, a culture worker and community coordinator with Robin Hood, told me that all bureaucratic structures familiar to co-ops “need to be revized and supported by more flexible, faster technologies and modes of co-operation.” Her perspective comes from “experience with the different gears of operating online networks, where power and decision is faster than what the formal structure allows.” In a listserv, emails rarely achieve the escape velocity required to move from discussion to action. One way to assess the value of an idea is to see how people self-organize around it in response to an opportunity.

While Stocksy gets a steady stream of positive attention, other initiatives remain too controversial or complicated. But even if the excitement is fading, it’s seeping into key institutions in the co-op movement.

Something New

At the 2017 Platform Cooperativism conference, I recognized two people from the New York food co-op scene, Lippe and Zo. They took me up on an invitation to attend a follow-on event for people to meet and collaborate. But, as 70 people formed groups to work on everything from codes of conduct to chess, Lippe and Zo sat off to the side. So, I sat with them.

Lippe and Zo were nonplussed. I told them I felt weird, too. We had sat through two days of talks without interacting. Yet their basic questions remained unanswered. Where did “platform cooperativism” come from? How is a “platform” different than a website — don’t most co-ops have an online presence? They didn’t see anything fundamentally new, and I promised them I’d write this article.

I first got involved in platform cooperativism through working on crowdfunding campaigns. I had previously co-directed a co-op training network, and believed any collective financing of a shared purpose could transform into a free and voluntary membership. The word “could” assumes that potential co-ops put organizing ahead of advertising. I gave a talk about that at the first #platformcoop conference, proposing “mutiny” metrics that could move co-ops beyond marketing. It was an exciting time.

Perhaps the response to startup culture and finance has been a bit knee-jerk. Yes, threats are unhelpful. But traditional co-op institutions have plenty of wisdom we need to test, and fast.

In August 2017, I joined CoLab, a global, worker-owned tech co-op. My first project was doing product research on connecting co-ops to financing that could help them capitalize without weakening their internal democracy. Our client was the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) and its membership. And to present our early findings, I traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for the ICA’s annual summit.

On the last day of the summit, Ed Mayo of Co-operatives UK presented a resolution for the advancement of platform cooperativism.

[T]raditional co-op institutions have plenty of wisdom we need to test, and fast.

Ed got up in front of a room of hundreds of people, and encouraged them to vote in favor by framing the resolution with two real, successful examples of cooperative platforms. The first was Stocksy. The second was a woodcarving co-op in Africa that had doing sales online. They are not nearly as tech savvy, but we have to consider: do they have a website that is essential to their business? Yes. Is it a platform for member engagement, governance, or other core functions of a co-op? No. And, do they deserve to be front and center in this discourse? Well… that depends on who you ask.

Before the ICA delegates voted on the resolution, Ed asked, “Who is building a digital platform for trade and commerce?” Nearly every one of the 500 attendees raised their hand. And then, they voted unanimously in favor of the resolution.

I shared the good news about the resolution on the platform-coop-discuss email list. However, one reply I received said, “e-commerce has almost nothing to do with platform cooperativism. To suggest that it does simply distracts and dilutes the idea into nothingness in my view.” That gave me pause.

When platform cooperativism puts attention to startups, it pulls us away from grassroots, marginalized co-ops. One small, important adjustment is to focus on organizations like the African woodcarving co-op who have a long way to go to participating in the digital economy. This co-op is struggling to overcome industry and market barriers facing Stocksy and Core Staffing.

The more it can succeed with disintermediation, removing links in their supply chains and systems, the more we all learn and benefit. This begins with meeting people where they’re at.

Trends Among Friends

While writing this article, I surveyed people about trends and challenges in the co-op movement. I polled groups obsessed with digital tools and online platforms, and yet the responses were far more grounded than I expected. In fact, the two challenges Joseph sees for Core Staffing echo everything: appropriate finance, and engagement at scale.

I’ll focus on engagement at scale, because we have a wealth of ideas about appropriate financing (including a forthcoming report coming from CoLab and the ICA has more, too).

I believe radical technologist Micky Metts said it best: “I have run into many people that have existed in the corporate world but really do not understand co-operative engagement, even if they are caring and loving individuals.” In her mind, removing the fear we’re conditioned with is the first step for co-ops to grow. Data Commons co-founder Noemi Giszpenc takes it a step further by urging “true participation” among all users.

A critical path for platform cooperativism therefore, is figuring out how engagement among members takes root and grows to scale. How do we talk about 15 members of Core Staffing doing construction and healthcare work, alongside the thousands of remote workers doing menial tasks? Digital laborer and scholar Kristy Milland says this means figuring out “how to compete with companies that automate work and are able to reduce prices accordingly.”

After two days of prototyping with Sylvia Morse and Up & Go, a New York platform for home cleaning, I learned that all platforms compete on quality. The members, mainly latinx women, are cleaning professionals. They provide reliable, consistent, five-star service. One user said, “I honestly don’t care if workers own the app.” Ironically, that indifference is a reason why platform co-ops like Up & Go can change the narrative about on-demand labor. It’s a labor of love, and it’s much more than an idea.


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