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.

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