In the past few months alone, you’ve probably read or listened to at least one story about the unethical labor practices of Amazon Mechanical Turk, TaskRabbit, or CrowdFlower, to name a few crowdsourcing labor platforms. To get gigs, workers must go through the bottleneck of the platforms, where thousands of invisible, novice workers are paid between $2 and $3 an hour, workplace surveillance is rampant, and wage theft is a feature, not a bug. I do find these tendencies troublesome. But I also know they are not the only possible future of work. Silicon Valley loves a good “disruption,” so let’s give them one: Platform cooperativism.
Platform cooperativism is about experimentation with good digital work and new forms of solidarity. It is about innovative unions, worker associations, and cooperatives building their own labor platforms and design interventions, rooted not in greed but the needs of workers. It is about labor history’s cardinal lesson, which is that in confrontation with owners, individual solutions don’t work. The future of labor need not be defined solely by venture-capital funded, Silicon Valley ringleaders but by worker cooperatives and inventive unions.
Rather than leaving the economy exclusively to the productivity imperatives of owners like Amazon or Microsoft, platform coops could set an example of good digital labor. They do, however, have to act fast. Social movements, regulators, and cooperatives move slowly, while tech-entrepreneurs are rapidly creating realities on the ground. The future is seeded now; the network effect is chiseling prospective global monopolies like Uber into stone and that is why workers, organizers, designers and developers have to get their act together.