A Cooperative Uber?

Over at The Progressive Alternative, an initiative I co-founded to broaden the vision and restore the integrity of the Democratic Party, I just published a piece on how the Party should respond to the growth of the digital gig economy by supporting cooperative alternatives to corporate gig networks:

One under-explored answer to this challenge is the promotion of cooperative technology that replicates the consumer benefits of sharing networks like Uber, but rather than placing control of the networks in the hands of corporate managers, places control in the hands of each network’s workers. The decentralized structure of the digital gig economy is especially amenable to such a project. As The Nation’s Mike Konczal points out about Uber, for example, “almost all of the actual capital is already owned by the workers, in the form of cars that they pay for and maintain themselves.” Therefore, once the initial digital network has been built and popularized, the bulk of what corporate managers at companies like Uber contribute is advertising, lobbying for regulatory changes, and maintenance of their apps, which, as Konczal points out, are tasks that get “cheaper and easier by the day.” This is not a radical analysis. Digital gig startups pitch investors on the exact premise that they will be able to develop and popularize a decentralized network and then, with most moving parts and capital assets externalized to network participants, profit off of the increasingly simpler maintenance of the monopoly network.

Cooperative alternatives to these corporate networks could come in a range of forms. On one end of the spectrum are those that replicate the major elements of network technology but change the structure of the organization that maintains and promotes the technology. For example, one could replicate the Uber app–including its centrally managed pricing system, prescribed hiring process, and customer review system–but have the corporate management of the app’s network be replaced by cooperative management elected by its drivers and structured in a way to incorporate more network member input. Network management organized cooperatively would likely lead to a variety of benefits for members, including insurance, forums for dispute resolution, minimum workplace standards, pensions and health plans.

On the other end of the spectrum are empowering changes to the technology itself. For example, Airbnb is not cooperatively managed, but it lets users set their own prices, rules, and check-out times. Such are the signs of actual open markets–like eBay, Etsy, and Craigslist–as opposed to “networks” that centrally control the prices, rules, and network entry and exit processes (essentially, hiring and firing) of a decentralized workforce. By creating markets for gigs online that are more open, members are empowered to be entrepreneurial, using the technology for their own interests, rather than having the technology (and the corporate managers that profit from it) use the workers for its own interests.

Read the full essay — Open Economy Watch: Cooperative Alternatives to Corporate Digital Gig Networkshere at The Progressive Alternative.