Last week I spoke at “Who Owns The World? The State of Platform Cooperativism,” an annual conference hosted by the Platform Cooperativism Consortium. Celebrating a decade of digital labor conferences at New York City’s The New School, this year’s event brought together 700 people from 30 countries to consider who owns our data, our cities and our world.
In the context of this event, a “platform” is a business that uses a website, mobile app or protocol to sell goods or services while relying on democratic decision-making and shared ownership of the platform by workers and users. What the consortium considers is how to use the cooperative business model to benefit workers and consumers—as opposed to investors and venture capitalists—in the platform economy.
My role was to respond to a plenary session called “Gig Worker, Freelancer, Self-Employed: Who Is Watching Out For Them?” that featured examples from around the world. Hundreds of thousands of women in India, gig workers in Europe, and local citizens in the small city of Preston, England are using the cooperative business model to empower workers and strengthen communities. These inspiring examples stand alongside others right here in the U.S., such as Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives and the Staffing Cooperative.
While the examples inspired, they also showed how the cooperative business model can be used to transform the modern economy—just like Americans have historically looked to the cooperative business model to solve major challenges. In particular, I lifted up the example of rural electric cooperatives. In 1932, only 10 percent of farm families had access to electricity, while 90 percent of city dwellers enjoyed this basic utility, allowing them to participate in the contemporary economy.
The problem was that investor-owned utilities couldn’t make money for their stockholders by doing business in sparsely-populated areas. Farmers, who were aware of the co-op business model because of its use in agriculture, came together to form their own electric generation and distribution businesses in partnership with the federal government. By the mid-1950s, nearly 90 percent of farmers had access to electricity.
Just as rural consumers came together in the early and mid-20th century to capture the potential of what was then state-of-the-art technology, this conference showed that today’s workers and consumers have a similar opportunity in the platform economy.
And, once again, the key driver could be Cooperative Principle Six. Cooperation among cooperatives was a critical element of the success of rural electrification. Rural electric cooperatives were able to gain the support of policymakers and scale quickly in part because a mature co-op sector—in this case, agriculture—lent its support and political weight behind the fledgling electric cooperative sector.
So this moment calls not only on the workers and consumers within the platform co-op community to learn from the past and understand the power of cooperatives to spur economic transformation; this moment also calls on the established co-operative movement to act on Principle Six by working to achieve the policy and financing environment necessary for people to capture the cooperative potential of the platform economy.
A number of NCBA CLUSA’s members are already active in the Platform Cooperativism Consortium, including the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, CCA Global and the Cooperative Development Institute. I have the opportunity to serve on the advisory committee for The New School’s Institute for the Cooperative Development Economy, alongside members of NCBA CLUSA’s Council of Cooperative Economists (CCE), including Joe Blasi, director of the Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing at Rutgers University, and Camille Kerr, principal of Upside Down Consulting. Another CCE member, Jessica Gordon-Nembhard sat on an excellent panel I attended called “Intersectional Solidarity: Against Racism and Misogyny in Co-ops.”
While it is heartening to see interactions between the platform cooperative community and the broader cooperative economy deepen, it is time to activate Principle Six in a much bigger way to ensure that the entire cooperative movement is fully supporting and benefiting from platform cooperativism.
—Doug O’Brien is president and CEO of NCBA CLUSA, where he works with the cooperative community to deepen its impact on the economy.