Up next, self-flying taxis. Yes, I said self-flying.


Coop advocates testify at Philly City Council yesterday.

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

Black worker centers are helping form co-ops, to address issues of African American unemployment.

Do the waning days of this election fill you with despair about the state of our democracy? Read this story about participatory budgeting, and prepare to have your faith restored.

Two Airbnb stories this week: first, you’ve no doubt seen that NYC recently limited short-term rentals to no less than 30 days (which only hits people renting out their whole space, not the true “spare room” Airbnb hosts). And second, the company donated $100K to a ballot measure aimed at building housing for the homeless in Los Angeles, a notable PR move for a company that’s been accused of exacerbating homelessness.

Geeking Out

Tesla has announced that all of their new vehicles will have the hardware necessary for self-driving capability. But before you get any ideas about running your self-driving Tesla through Uber while you sleep, that’s not gonna fly, apparently. And speaking of flying, if you really want to geek out over expensive rides, check out Airbus’ proposal to build self-flying taxis.

What’s Going on in the Workforce

In Lahore? You’ll now be able to catch an Uber rickshaw. And in other Uber global news, they’re starting to make car loans to drivers in Nigeria.

Glassdoor just announced a new tool that will increase pay transparency, by showing you what other people in your region with similar years of experience & skill earn for the same/similar jobs.

Singapore is testing self-driving buses.

Reputation, reputation, reputation

Businesses with racist hiring practices are more likely to fail, according to a new study from Harvard.

Organizing Theory

Here are some interesting lessons, for those who want to build organizing apps, from a guy who went through seven years of building political organizing software.

“Do you even own a paper map?”

Original Content

A website aimed at organizing more low-wage workers into unions launched last week—check out my post about it here.

Thanks to all our supporters who keep this site going. If you like the original content on this site, please kick in a small contribution ($1/mo?) to help us keep it up and running.

Geeking Out

Who wants to give me a travel grant to go to this conference? You know you want to read my take on Love & Sex with Robots…

“Do you even own a paper map?” How’s your disaster plan developing, for when a global crisis makes your cell phone stop working? (PS-I own several paper maps, but they’re all of Pennsylvania. Do I need others?)

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

How 10 US cities have created policies to help the development of worker-owned coops (if you’re in Philly, there’s a City Council hearing about this Monday—let’s be #11!). And an in-depth look at one newly-formed NYC coop.

Advocates in NYC are worried that the city might be moving to formalize a relationship with ride-sharing companies, in a way that will disadvantage wheelchair-bound customers.

Reputation, reputation, reputation

Police in Ferguson and Baltimore have used social media to track and spy on Black Lives Matter organizers.

Organizing Theory

From, of all places, Bill Moyers—a good look at what makes an online petition effective.

From Partners

Fascinating presentation, from the ILO’s Valerio De Stefano, that looks back at the legal theory behind centuries of workers’ rights organizing, and updates it for the platform work of today.

What’s Going on in the Workforce

A founder talks about why he’s turning his consulting company over to worker-ownership, and how they’re structuring a global worker-owned company.

How is Juno pulling drivers away from Uber & Lyft? Well for one, they’ve got a 24-hour line that gets answered by a human, for drivers to call.

Instacart has reversed their decision to remove in-app tipping. I guess the outcry from both customers and shoppers worked!

Uber bought a self-driving truck company earlier this year—now they’re saying they’ll have some elements of self-driving trucking in 2017.

How will “smart manufacturing” impact global supply chains?

A Japanese ad agency has been raided by labor inspectors, after a worker committed suicide that was attributed to overwork.

New website seeks to organize workers with electronic union cards

A newly-launched website, Unionize Me, hopes to enlist large numbers of low-wage workers in winning NLRB elections. Founded by lawyer Jason Zoladz, the site hopes to take advantage of the NLRB’s 2015 decision to allow workers to sign union authorization cards electronically.

Zoladz is hoping to shift the conversation in the US, to focus on the fact that low-wage workers (who have been striking in large numbers through the Fight for 15 campaign) need bargaining power with their specific companies.

“2 million Wal-Mart workers need a union,” Zoladz told me ( a fact that few readers of this site would dispute).

When we spoke, the site had only been live for 6 days, but Zoladz had already received a number of electronic signatures on authorization cards. At that point, no one worksite had met the 30% trigger for a union election. Zoladz does not intend to organize one stand-alone business at a time, however—he wants to wait until a reasonable majority of workers in one specific region have signed, so that workers will be able to take actions from a position of strength.

It remains to be seen whether a mostly-lawyer based strategy can flip the script on winning union elections—but I’ll be curious to see how this plays out, over time.

“…online communities…are often the most valuable thing a creator has…”

Organizing Theory

As a follow up to my post on building governance systems for platform unions, read this piece by Hank Green on why he’s decided to treat the commenters in his comment section like he would any guest in his home (including not inviting back people who say racist shit).

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

This is a pretty thought-inspiring list of 50 questions about the future of work (though it could also just be “the future”).

I suspect that Tide just created the first set of ads by a non-sharing economy company that reference the sharing economy. Am I wrong?

From Partners

Is your employer giving you paid time off to vote (or closing for the day)? Let the folks at Free the Vote know about it.

Geeking Out

Shoe-making robots, welcome to Germany. Next up, Atlanta!

What’s Going on in the Workforce

Last week, Etsy entered into the portable benefits/need for a new social contract with this paper that explores a variety of changes that will create more financial stability for independent workers.

Isn’t a “gig consultant” just a consultant?

The OECD warns us all not to be pessimistic—only 9% of jobs will be lost to automation, not half.

Removing tipping from your app is a good way to piss off your workforce.


What’s Going on in the Workforce

A pretty transparent look at how Buffer is experimenting to make sure that people take time off.

Will increased automation make us happier at work?

Instacart is taking heat from their contractors over the decision to remove tipping from the app.

The US government just took steps to extend paid leave to federal contractors—so some “gig” workers will now have time off benefits.

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

Gar Alperovitz suggests 6 steps to an economic revolution that puts more power in the hands of workers.

I cannot believe that you could write an entire article about self-driving cars in Florida and not mention the possible impact on the elderly population. I mean, it’s the oldest state—surely there are many people who would benefit from no longer having to drive?

Blue Apron set itself a mission to provide customers the ability to cook hi-quality meals at home, while reducing food waste. But they forgot to become a decent employer, along the way.

Reputation, reputation, reputation

Wanna see what kind of data Facebook has collected about you? ProPublica has a new browser extension that is specific to your data.

Organizing Theory

Great piece from the UK about why unions need to be ordinary, when it comes to their members’ digital experience.

From Partners

18 Million Rising launched an app to allow AAPI voters to get voting information in their native languages.

Geeking Out

Translation performed by computers is taking a leap forward, as Google gets it’s program to read whole sentences, in order to achieve better comprehension.

Designing 21st century platform unions–part 3

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what parallels—if any—exist between platforms and unions, and whether there are lessons that can be learned from platform design, that could benefit worker organizers who are looking for new models. This is the third in a series of three planned posts on the topic. In referring to companies as platforms, I am specifically talking about internet-based businesses that provide some kind of a marketplace for different kinds of users (called here in shorthand “buyers” and “sellers”—though of course, on some platforms a user can be both a buyer and a seller) to meet and exchange something of value (money for goods or services, ideas, advice, etc.). In this series, company platforms can refer to sites like eBay or Craigslist, as well as Mechanical Turk, Uber or Etsy. This series should not be read as an endorsement of any of the company platforms or unions mentioned. In thinking about best practices for community governance, I drew deeply on a panel discussion from this year’s CommonBound conference, between Nathan Schneider, Micki Metts, and Mario Liebrenz, as well as the book Swarmwise by Rick Falvinge.

Best practices for online communities

Building any community requires rules. Traditional unions have bylaws to govern member conduct and establish how decisions get made, and platform unions will need the same kinds of structure. Setting standards for online community conduct and ensuring that decisions made online are made democratically are problems that every movement needs to struggle with, and happily, there are some lessons we can learn from worker-cooperatives and other organizations that are further along in their online development.

Use technology that helps people build relationships & connect across distance

There’s a reason that Apple created FaceTime in an early version of the iPhone—seeing people when we talk to them is better than talking on the phone (and talking on the phone is better than having a text-only relationship, no matter what my children might tell you). The cost of setting up video conferencing has gone from exorbitant to practically free, at least for small groups. Jitsi Meet (https://meet.jit.si/) is an open-source, low-bandwidth encrypted system that allows unlimited people to participate in video conferences, right from a browser. Google Hangout requires a computer or smart phone with a camera and mic (as well as a free Google Plus account)—and has a mode that allows recording for later playback (Hangouts on Air). Hangout is only good for groups of up to 10—but having 2-3 people cluster at the same screen can also help add more folks to the conversation. If you’re still mostly having regular meetings of a geographically distributed group over conference calls, you are missing out on the chance to connect in a deeper way.

National or global assemblies should set overarching values for the organization

A platform union that is both representing workers in Fairbanks, Alaska and Kissimmee, Florida needs to ensure that the overall values of the organization are widely accepted. Bringing people together in one location is expensive and can be exclusionary—so make sure that your national gatherings incorporate an element for online voting and, if possible, live-streaming of decision-making meetings.

Decision-making is best left to the group that is most affected by the decision

Organizing a national dialogue any time one group wants to start working on a piece of city-wide legislation is impractical. Local organizing committees should be empowered to make decisions about local work—while ensuring that their work conforms to the national or international values set above. Some online organizing groups have developed a rule of three that says that any idea that three activists agree is a good one can be moved forward—as long as those three people are willing to take on the responsibility for doing the work.

Regular meetings still matter, even if they’re not in person

For groups at the local level, it’s still important to make sure that they are meeting regularly. It’s equally important to make sure that they have something to meet **about**. If you are able to have in-person meetings, think about centering the meeting in both community-building (bring food!) and some kind of discussion that everyone—even non-experts—can participate in. Some groups will use their regular monthly meetings to help brainstorm around a problem that an individual or sub-group are having, or to think about their larger strategy and how to achieve goals.

Customizing specific technology can allow your overall resources to grow

Fair Coop, a global internet-based cooperative that has created a marketplace for selling products online, has created a crypto-currency of their own, called Faircoin. Every member gets an account with a wallet, and they spend a significant amount of time teaching their members how to use it. As the currency grows in value, the coop uses it to invest in cooperative development, including funds to help refugees or other historically disadvantaged groups to start coops of their own.

Make sure to tell your stories—especially about internal successes

Organizing national discussions or local ones that are mostly mediated online is challenging, and new to most of us. Make sure that you are using your platform not just to talk about your external successes (we won portable benefits!) but also about your internal ones (we had an important discussion using only the internet!). Ask people to tell a story about how being in this specific community has changed their life, or something new that they’ve learned from being a part of the group. It’s important to reinforce that being a part of an online decision-making process can be fun, or informative, or helpful.

Prison strike, pizza-making robots, and more.

Original Content

Here’s the second in my three-part series about designing platform unions.

Thanks to all our supporters who keep this site going. If you like the original content on this site, please kick in a small contribution ($1/mo?) to help us keep it up and running.

What’s Going on in the Workforce

Pizzas made by robots are coming your way. At least, if you live in Mountain View, CA. And if you thought that being a religious leader protected you from automation, think again.

The Uber driver organization in NYC is not interested in seeing self-driving cars come to the city any time soon. Or maybe, at all.

When is being on strike even riskier than average? When you’re a prisoner, who is being exploited by some of America’s largest companies. These folks are brave.

Organizing Theory

Mobilisation Lab takes an in-depth look at the success of the Fight for 15’s model of directed network organizing.

From Partners

The Union Communications Services have started putting Steward Updates online—here’s the first version—engaging younger union members.

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

Instacart is partnering with Costco and Walmart in an on-demand office supply delivery venture.

The co-founder of Lyft posits that private car ownership will be all but over by 2025—and that’s good for cities.

Reputation, reputation, reputation

So you blurred-out your photo before putting it online. Guess what? Machine learning means it might not stay anonymous forever.

Geeking Out

This robot can read a book without opening the pages (which is useful, when you’re trying to read an antique book that you can’t open).


In SF? Check out this talk on Thursday on how to use games to solve the world’s problems.

Designing 21st century platform unions—part 2

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what parallels—if any—exist between platforms and unions, and whether there are lessons that can be learned from platform design, that could benefit worker organizers who are looking for new models. This is the third in a series of three planned posts on the topic. In referring to companies as platforms, I am specifically talking about internet-based businesses that provide some kind of a marketplace for different kinds of users (called here in shorthand “buyers” and “sellers”—though of course, on some platforms a user can be both a buyer and a seller) to meet and exchange something of value (money for goods or services, ideas, advice, etc.). In this series, company platforms can refer to sites like eBay or Craigslist, as well as Mechanical Turk, Uber or Etsy. This series should not be read as an endorsement of any of the company platforms or unions mentioned. For the analysis of platforms, I am indebted to the authors of _Platform Revolutions_, and to MIT’s Sloan School for their online course of the same name, as well as Simone Cicero’s work, including this recent article.

What can we learn from platforms?

As we move into thinking about how to design platform unions in ways that incorporate best practices from the world of for-profit platforms, it is critical to realize that, just like Airbnb doesn’t fulfill all the functions of a hotel—we shouldn’t be focused on replicating the entirety of the 20th century labor union online. There are many functions that a 21st century platform union could perform—some of which will be things that were traditional benefits of unionization. But if we’re building an organization that is not centered around one physical workplace, we will need to find a different center of activity for our organizing work.

Remember metcalfe’s law, when designing the business model

Metcalfe’s Law says that the value of a platform rises as more people use the platform. The high “price” of entry creates major challenges for 20th century unions who are seeking to grow to scale. The advantage of the platform union is that it can experiment with business models to see which one works best. While some traditional unions have experimented with associate member models and other methods of getting non-union workers to see themselves in the union, their heavy dependence on their current, dues-based business model makes scalability difficult. If we want platform unions to grow into a high-value proposition for members, it must be possible for lots of people to join.

Some examples of business models that a platform union might adopt are:

    Platform takes a transaction cut from both parties

In essence, 20th century unions do this through the process of dues collection. The fundamental value proposition of a union has been—joining the union will get you a raise. Most unions bend over backwards to make sure that the dues that they collect from members are offset by raises, especially for newly-organized units. A platform union that adopts this model will need to make sure that the value that it is providing to workers is worth more than what they might command as solo actors, either through increases in wage rates, or some kind of benefits.

    Employers pay for access to specific kinds of workers

What the “specific” is will likely be different in different industries. While in some customer-facing businesses, having a large population of bilingual workers is important and hard to find, in others it is irrelevant. Employers who are struggling to fill a void in their workforce will appreciate an organization that helps provide stability in the face of that void. A deep understanding of the industry that workers exist in will be paramount to making this model work. A platform union that charges for access to specific workers will probably need to create some kind of certification, to affirm worker capability.

    Members pay for access to specific content or training.

Workers may, in certain industries, benefit from skills upgrades or information, and some professions require continuing education in order to be certified to practice. A platform union could create a business model that brings in members through an education program, and then organizes them to demand power later.

    Members pay for access to tools.

In the new world of work, the tools we need to perform are not always provided by employers. Can we envision a world in which a platform union of Uber drivers collectively own a car (a practice which is, of course, already in effect in both the traditional and coop taxi industries)? Or where a platform union of Task Rabbits share ownership of a set of tools?

    Monetizing user data.

Platforms will have access to user data, which in some instances, will have value to third parties (for example—a labor lawyer might pay for access to a list of workers who have suffered wage theft, or workplace injuries). Obviously, members will need to decide what are appropriate situations in which user data can be sold, and what should remain proprietary to the platform.

    Pick one or two major functions, and perfect them

Most of what we consider to be the gold standard of unionization wasn’t built overnight. The future of the labor movement may look much more like the pre-Industrial era workers’ movements than it resembles the unions that were built in the 20th century. Platform unions may not be able to hold all of the functions that current labor unions do—although they may be able to create new ways of building power for members.

Some examples of functions that a platform union might provide are:

    Training and certification of workers.

Some kinds of craft unions (particularly those in the building trades) have historically made this the bread and butter of their organizing success—creating an apprentice/journey/master system allows unions to provide value to members over the course of a career.

    Provide a virtual hiring hall.

Coupled with a training function, this can be a particularly compelling organizing model. A hiring hall is basically a method of finding unused resources (in this case, both skilled labor and access to jobs) and putting them to work.

    Create a system of portable benefits that is specifically designed for those with multiple employers.

Some 20th century unions have done an expert job of aggregating their gig workers’ income streams into a way to buy affordable health care and retirement savings. SAG-AFTRA, for example, provides a way for actors who have multiple income sources (commercials, TV shows, movies, audiobooks, etc.) to be eligible for health insurance and a pension, even if their work from one gig might not be enough to qualify them for a pension.

    Reputation management

As more and more workers get rated for every job they do, issues around reputation management are coming to the forefront as a workers’ rights issue. A successful platform union could be focused on protecting workers’ reputations—both for groups (in the form of bargaining about algorithms) and for individuals who are removed from access to work.

    Data aggregation.

Platform unions will have the ability to perform both data-based and anecdotal analysis for their members. Coupled with reputation management, this could provide a powerful tool for helping redistribute power between the employers and the members.

    Reducing information asymmetry.

Some gig economy worker communities have built success by collecting information about the consumers of their apps/services, and sharing it with each other. No one wants to walk into a house, after being hired to do six loads of laundry, to find that there isn’t a washing machine, and the contracted time now needs to involve a trip to a laundromat—sharing information about customers makes it possible for members to reject jobs from chronic abusers of gig workers. Turkopticon gives Turkers the ability to see which Requesters have previously rejected completed work without paying for it—which could lead a Turker to avoid working for them in the future.

    Brand damage/customer awareness.

20th century unions have certainly engaged in brand damage campaigns—primarily through work stoppages and in-person actions. 21st century platform unions will have the ability to make their brand damage campaigns go viral in ways that won’t work, when you’ve just got an inflatable rat.

Other things to think about

    Price to drive adoption.

For all of these models to succeed, a platform union needs scale. Thinking about the pricing structure must include a theory of how the price point will encourage adoption at a level that will make success more likely.

    Stoke the fires of activity.

If an important part of the platform union is community discussion where users exchange tips or , then make sure that you and others are participating by posting and responding to other users’ comments. No one wants to keep coming back to a platform where they are the only poster.

    Free can’t be both sides of the coin.

If you’re giving something away to one pool of users, you need a network effect that is so strong it pulls in a different pool of users, who will pay enough to overcome the cost of the subsidy.

The third post in this series, which will be up next week, will propose some best practices around governance, for platform unions. Have thoughts about this post? Please leave a comment.

“The companies hiring minimum wage workers…act as if they are managing herds.”

Original Content

I’ve been spending a bunch of time lately thinking about how to build worker organizations for the changing face of work. This is the first in a series of three posts about designing 21st century platform unions.

Thanks to all our supporters who keep this site going. If you like the original content on this site, please kick in a small contribution ($1/mo?) to help us keep it up and running.

Reputation, reputation, reputation

“The companies hiring minimum wage workers…act as if they are managing herds.” Great piece by Cathy O’Neil on how algorithmic predictors are keeping people from getting entry-level jobs.

What’s Going on in the Workforce

Countries that compete on low-cost labor are most exposed to the risk of automation.

“They can master in a matter of hours things that take us 20 years to learn.” Sure, machines are coming to a job near you. But rest assured, you can always become an Urban Shepherd (or perhaps, for at least one of my readers, Stoop God Keeper will be a new profession).

“…by weakening unions, technology has changed the balance of power between labor and capital, and allowed the owner/investor class to claim a larger share of income.” How will we rebuild the labor movement in the age of machines?

I’ve talked to several folks recently who are working on apps around scheduling for shift workers. Looks like they’ve got competition from Microsoft.

Too much management is costing the US $3T per year. (Is there a way to remove managers and get that $3T to workers, instead of CEOs?)

Geeking Out

Pulled over by motorcycle cops and taunted by pedestrians—what’s it like, in the town where Google tests self-driving cars?

Organizing Theory

Can we take social change organizations off auto-pilot, when it comes to their digital organizing strategies?

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

How residents in four rural Minnesota counties banded together to form a consumer owned internet service provider that’s building them high-speed broadband access.

The Freelancers’ Union is making progress on educating city council people on why gig economy workers and freelancers deserve the same wage protection that W-2 employees get.

“It’s a high-trust network. We don’t try to optimize for low-trust situations.” Great piece by Nathan Schneider on a cooperative freelancer network.

MIT’s Jonathan Gruber proposes a new kind of savings account that would match workers’ short term and long-term needs to reach financial stability.

Designing 21st century platform unions—part 1

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what parallels—if any—exist between platforms and unions, and whether there are lessons that can be learned from platform design, that could benefit worker organizers who are looking for new models. This is the first in a series of three planned posts on the topic. In referring to companies as platforms, I am specifically talking about internet-based businesses that provide some kind of a marketplace for different kinds of users (called here in shorthand “buyers” and “sellers”—though of course, on some platforms a user can be both a buyer and a seller) to meet and exchange something of value (money for goods or services, ideas, advice, etc.). In this series, company platforms can refer to sites like eBay or Craigslist, as well as Mechanical Turk, Uber or Etsy. This series should not be read as an endorsement of any of the company platforms or unions mentioned. For the analysis of platforms, I am indebted to the authors of _Platform Revolutions_, and to MIT’s Sloan School for their online course of the same name, as well as Simone Cicero’s work, including this recent article.

Unions and platforms—what overlaps?

One thing to keep in mind is that, at a pretty basic level, unions and platforms are both about disrupting power in an entrenched system. The point of a union is to decentralize power in a workplace, and to put more power in the hands of union members. The point of a platform is to decentralize power in an industry, and to put more power in the hands of users. Of course, both unions and platforms can be guilty of redistributing power in ways that are non-democratic, and sometimes power just gets moved to people who already, as a group, have status or influence in our society.

Let’s look at some of the qualities of a successful platform:

Discovers unused resources & puts them to work

Platforms that have achieved success have largely done so by tapping into markets for unused resources. Whether it’s Airbnb convincing people with an extra bedroom to rent it out occasionally, Etsy tapping into the desire for artists to sell their work to a national or global audience, or Josephine finding people who love to cook for others—successful platforms have figured out ways to sell things that largely weren’t sold **at scale** before.

Combines low cost of entry with a governance model that protects users.

The beauty of most platform businesses is that anyone with a device that connects to the internet can sign up for them, and there is not generally a high cost to staying on the platform. I might sell something on eBay only once a year—but my account stays active, without costing me anything. Because eBay employs a robust rating system, where both sellers and users rate each other, buyers can see that I’m an “honest” seller, even if I don’t sell frequently.

Uses network effects to grow (but needs rapid growth on both sides, early)

Platforms that grow best grow quickly. Uber isn’t worth much to me as a rider, if when I sign up there are too few drivers for me to ever get a ride. And it’s certainly not worth my time to drive for Uber if I have to wait for hours between ride requests, because not enough riders have joined. Uber and other successful ride-sharing companies have figured out that they need to concentrate on expansion of both sides of their user experience, and cannot merely open a new market with only riders signed up.

Immerses staff in data about users

Because platform business is by its nature conducted online, platform designers need to (and are able to) constantly immerse themselves in user data. Anecdotal information doesn’t cut it, when thousands of transactions are happening in an hour. And because it’s possible to “serve” different versions of a website to a segmented audience, it’s possible to run experiments on user engagement that track whether a new design will change the way users interact with the site.

Mono-homing versus multi-homing

The concept of mono-homing is one way that platform businesses seek to keep users on their platforms. Basically, mono-homing means “I have one home for this particular interaction or practice.’ It’s pretty easy to switch from one airline to another for different trips (ie–multi-homing)—so airlines have developed reward miles, to keep you ‘loyal’ to their particular airline (hence, mono-homing). Smart phone platforms have generally adopted this tactic—it’s hard to switch from an iOS device to an Android one, because you have to replace all your apps, and learn new methods of interacting with your phone. Other platform businesses have grown through multi-homing—there is no barrier to being a driver for both Instacart and Postmates, for example, or for customers to order food delivery through both GrubHub and Yelp Eats.

And some of the parallels, of a successful union:

Reduces information asymmetry between workers and bosses

An effective collective bargaining process has the great advantage of giving workers the same information that bosses have, about both the financial health of a company, and to some degree, the strategy the employer plans to employ to grow the business. Workers with more information have the advantage of being able to make better decisions—which might involve deciding to put more of their total compensation package into retirement savings, or to request skills training, to learn to use a new technology the company is implementing.

Has a high cost of entry, combined with a democratic governance model

For most US workers, the choice to join a union comes with peril. It can involve the risk of getting fired, or having to risk going without pay for some period of time to win a strike. In some parts of the country, bosses have successfully framed unions as a polarizing force, and potential members may face social pressure from friends or family if they join a union. And finally, the actual cost of dues (and sometimes, initiation fees) are much higher than in most other social movements. (The financial cost can, of course, be offset by gains made at the bargaining table.) Unions, at least in theory and often in practice, have a democratic governance model that allows for all dues-paying members to have a vote—usually outlined in bylaws that are ratified by members.

Uses network effects to grow value

There is a fairly clear relationship between the rate of union density in the US, and the level of income inequality: as union density has declined, inequality has increased. More union members in a particular industry in a particular market (say—hotel workers in Los Angeles) will inevitably push up wages in that industry, in that region, as they bargain better contracts. However, more union members will also cause anti-union employers to raise wages, as they seek to avoid unionization. In the best times in our history, unions have also leveraged their political power and social pressure to raise wages for millions of non-union workers through minimum wage legislative or ballot initiative campaigns.

Holds data as proprietary (sometimes even within organization)

Unions have not, historically, been great users of data either for member outreach or for making a public case for why they are necessary & socially useful organizations. While most unions are committed to meticulous upkeep of their seniority list, they do not tend to track as assiduously things like average wage rates, family size, number of member children who are able to successfully attend college, or other pieces of information that might be a boon to labor economists, academic researchers, or public policy makers. In addition, many unions hold tight their member contact lists (sometimes even restricting their own staff from being able to see them). The high cost of member acquisition forces unions into this defensive crouch—but the crouch itself can provide an additional barrier to fully serving members’ needs.

Mono-homing is the default

It’s difficult to belong to more than one union. Not impossible, of course—especially in the performing arts where recent years have seen the merger of SAG and AFTRA, acknowledging that many of their members were doing work in both film and TV. There is no institutional barrier in becoming a member of UNITE HERE as, say, a school cafeteria worker and a member of SEIU as a home health aide—but the high cost of dues may prohibit part-time low-paid workers from joining two unions, if the benefits largely accrue to full-time work in both cases.

What’s the market? (where the analogy fails, but we still have something to learn)

Unlike platforms, which mostly deal in single seller/single buyer transactions, unions are generally aggregating the selling power of a large group–in this case workers in one particular worksite or industry—to one particular buyer—the company for whom they work. That transaction is conducted through the collective bargaining agreement, and is enforced by a group of members (aka union stewards and officers) combined with paid staff (of both the union and the company).


As the rate of US unionization has declined, employers have done more and more offloading of their employment to third parties. Many workers who seem identical to full-time employees on their face, are ineligible for traditional unionization because they are employed by temp agencies or other kinds of labor brokers.

For those of us who are interested in seeding new types of worker organization, or evolving some part of our current organization to be more platform-like, the next post in this series will look at how we can design them using best practices from platforms.