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With the Platform Coops Now! course and accelerator about to start, it is timely to reflect on some great work done by Megan Larcom, Jenny Weissbourd and Jeremy Avins. They undertook a study of the alt-labor movement – being those organisations and campaigns working outside of traditional bargaining structures. They looked at how alt-labor is evolving and where it is succeeding.

High touch versus high tech – the challenges of organising at scale

The table above captures the lens through which they viewed this landscape. Essentially they categorised organisations by the scale of their activities – to what extent they were high touch versus high tech. To explain their approach:
  • Work shapers – are those organisations that facilitate or restructure labor’s role in the workplace, giving workers a direct role in governance, management or ownership. These co-determination strategies are high touch as they are very much about workers and their relationship with the management of specific companies. For example, Lobster 207 – a business very similar to our very own Geraldton Fisherman’s Coop.
  • Worker centres – are also extremely high touch organisations that are focussed on information and training of labor. Eg. The Laundry Workers Center
  • Coalition builders – organisations that are serving workers day-to-day but by working on systemic change, often drawing on traditional organising approaches. The Justice for Janitors campaign led by the SEIU is an example.
  • Platform connectors – organisations drawing on scale as their source of power, as they are set-up as platform-based intermediaries. Workers can share experiences and build campaigns at scale. For example, the WorkIt app that grew our of Our Walmart and has been adapted in Australia by the the United Workers Union for care workers.
  • Information equalisers – organisations that help workers overcome information asymmetry. They give the example of – a jobs matching platform similar to Seek. Not sure that I agree that these companies are alt-labor organisations – unless they are platform coops (but more on that below).
A key challenge then is discovering how to blend the high touch and high tech.

The union-coop model – Lobster 207

Lobster 207 is a great example of the union-coop model, as it’s both a local lodge of the IAM union and a marketing coop that provides members with a way to influence industry and to capture more financial value from their labor. It started in 2012 in response to a crisis, as coops so often do. Lobster prices were at a level that made being a lobsterman simply unsustainable. A serendipitous connection led to the introduction of the IAM who approved an ‘unusual organising campaign’. It was unusual because the lobstermen were self-employed. The campaign first involved flying the lobstermen to attend training by the IAM in organising and political tactics with the aim of equipping them to form their own local and take power back from the industry. In Sep13, with legal help from the IAM, Local 207 was formed. At the same time the Marine Lobster Union, a statewide marketing cooperative, was incorporated. This enabled the lobstermen to be exempted from anti-trust provisions, and become price-setters rather than takers. From 100 members in 2014, they grew to 550 members, or 10% of the industry, by 2016. Their success can be attributed to two key factors:
  1. Political – the union was able to help them organise, for example, training members in group bargaining strategy, and enabling them to lobby for specific legislation and run candidates for industry bodies.
  2. Economic – the cooperative business was able to command higher prices and with their group buying power to acquire their own wholesale business (funded by the Bank of Labor and IAM locals).
Lobster 207 is a shining example of the union-coop model where a cooperative becomes a powerful mechanism for worker voice. The alignment of interests across members as business owners means that they can have greater control over their work while leveraging solidarity to increase their bargaining power.

Where are the platform coops?

There is a very large platform coop shaped hole in the research. To be fair the paper was published in Jan18, and as platform coops are still very much an emerging sector their profile as alt-labor organisations at that time was easily obscured from view. So let’s see how they would fit into their nomenclature:
  • Platform coops as information equalisers – The idea that a privately-owned labour hire platform, that generates its revenue from employers, could be considered an alt-labor organisation is deeply flawed. However a worker-owned platform does offer a very clear mechanism for workers to address issues such as information asymmetry. Sadly, we have a current example of this in Australia where the $500m Working for Victoria Fund, that has been tasked with addressing the unemployment crisis, has chosen to exclusively partner with a privately owned labor-hire platform. Workers, and the organisations that represent them, are unable to access any of the information that is being aggregated by this platform. This is a striking example of the difference between a platform coop that is owned by its members and aligned to their interests, and a privately owned platform that will always aim to maximise returns to its shareholders.
  • Platform coops as platform connectors – If our social media were owned by its users, then they would be the perfect platform connectors. As they are not, there is a very real and significant role for trade unions to use their resources to create the platforms that can play this connecting role. The WorkIt app is a great example of this. A platform coop is the perfect operating structure for unions and other organisations to aggregate their resources and collaboratively create the technologies that we need to build the labor movement.
  • Platform coops as work shapers, worker centres and coalition builders – One of the most exciting things about platform coops is that they offer the promise of being able to blend the high tech with the high touch. As member-owned businesses, cooperatives are designed to promote individual agency while aggregating group power. This means that a platform coop for cleaners can both enable creation of a ‘quality assured’ brand at scale (and thereby scarcity) while also enabling cleaners to create localised nodes where they can work as local teams. The Up&Go model in Brooklyn is a great example of this.

The future of the union-coop model

The opportunity for the labor movement to grow around the union-coop model is profound. As the paper concludes, the union-coop model shows:
  • unions can support self-employed workers through a coop
  • a sustainable economic approach where union dues are paid out of business profits
  • the value of union political organising experience, tactics and training
They conclude that “A new labor movement requires collaboration not competition” between the old and the new… and I would add between our trade unions themselves. I’d recommend investing 15 mins to watch their video – here and if you’re keen their research can be found – here.