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.

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