The Gig Economy Needs Worker-Owned Apps

Platform co-ops could cut out the Silicon Valley middlemen

In These Times Editors

ILLUSTRATIONS BY Terry Laban

plat·form co-op

noun

1. An internet-based business controlled by the worker-owners who run it

So, like Uber for worker power?

That’s the idea! Presently, the so-called sharing economy often evades employee and consumer protection regulations, which is bad news for workers. But the underlying technology has its advantages: By cutting out the Silicon Valley middlemen, platform co-ops are putting a 21st century spin on worker-owned enterprises. 

The Drivers Cooperative, for example, began offering rides through its Co-op Ride app in New York City in 2021 and redistributes profits back to its driver-owners with an annual dividend. It also assists with auto loan refinancing. 

Hosts on Fairbnb, meanwhile, each rent out a single vacation property and direct 50 percent of booking fees to community projects.

Why not just regulate Uber, Airbnb and the others?

We need to! One of the most sinister aspects of the gig economy is the way companies have deployed their deep pockets to circumvent (or openly flout) existing laws. In 2020, for example, Uber, Lyft and DoorDash spent $200 million on a campaign to roll back a historic California state law — passed only the year prior — that would’ve classified gig workers as employees (with benefits!) rather than contractors. 

And the gig economy’s impact stretches beyond its workforce. Airbnb has contributed to rapid gentrification in tourist destinations and Uber is even pitching itself to replace parts of public transportation. Checking these behemoths will require both regulation — through antitrust, labor and consumer protections— and building up alternatives. 

"Through the platform co-op model, individuals can wear both hats of worker and business owner. This model allows them to aspire for greater income equality, dignified labor [and] democratic decision-making."—From “Policies for Cooperative Ownership in the Digital Economy,” A report by Dr. Trebor Scholz et al.

Can little co-ops really compete with Silicon Valley?

Cooperative enterprises do have some reputation for struggling, or even being accused of self-exploitation. There’s also a danger of co-op movements becoming siloed away from the broader struggle to transform the economy. 

While these challenges are no less present in platform cooperatives, the Covid-19 pandemic provides an especially compelling reason to give the model a chance, creating an opening for public investment. In Bologna, Italy, platform co-op Consegne Etiche (“Ethical Deliveries”) launched with help from the city to provide bicycle couriers for local businesses and residents. The workers earn more than what’s on offer from apps like Uber Eats and are covered in case of accident or illness. 

The past two years have forced a societal recognition that some of the most precarious, lowest-paid work — delivering food and packages, providing rides in transit deserts — is essential. So why shouldn’t workers be in the driver’s seat?

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