program

Aim of the project

This project aims to systematically identify the conditions under which worker-owned platforms are a resilient alternative to capitalist gig platforms and traditional worker cooperatives.

Theoretical background

Owned and collectively governed by its worker-members, platform cooperativism attempts to reconcile shareholder and stakeholder interests through rejecting the investor-controlled model which is currently dominant in the platform economy. This means that, in contrast to capitalist gig platforms, the drivers in a cooperative-Uber can democratically decide how surplus from taxi gigs is distributed and how algorithms that organise their work are configured. Existing worker cooperatives could also adopt an online platform to try to improve their social and economic interactions with customers and amongst worker-members. However, just as with worker cooperatives historically, their rarity in the platform economy raises questions about viability.

Dominant economic theories of the firm have often been used to stress the inefficiency of worker cooperatives as they would lack sufficient controls on opportunistic behaviour by workers (thereby decreasing cooperation) and coordination of production (thus decreasing value creation). Similarly to the arguments raised in the famous tragedy of the commons thought-experiment, these theories are typically used as an argument for private ownership on the free market or top-down state regulation to overcome such social dilemmas. Nonetheless, empirical research on worker cooperatives demonstrates that their rarity – as compared to capitalist firms and other forms of cooperatives – is not the result of some inherent inefficiency. Rather, there are fewer established in the first place due to a lack of individual motivation and/or structural constraints.

Large group size, social heterogeneity and geographical dispersion are historically considered factors that invoke costs on solidarity and democratic participation in worker cooperatives. By using platform technologies, such factors may increase resulting in larger, more heterogeneous and dispersed member groups. Does this limit the viability of worker-owned platforms? Or do platform technologies offer new opportunities for organising community, distributing interests and democratic member participation – thus reversing the effect? Indeed, some scholars suggest that the use of information technologies may cancel out advantages of small group size, social homogeneity and geographical closeness, which are typically considered essential for institutions for collective action such as cooperatives, to establish and keep them functioning in the long run.

Research design

The project combines historical analysis of worker cooperativism with a sociological research design. We will make comparisons on three levels. On the individual level, we look at platform workers. On the organisational level, we compare worker-owned platforms to traditional worker cooperatives. And on the structural level, we examine platform cooperativism versus platform capitalism. This allows us to test hypotheses about the effect of individual motivation, organisational use of technology and structural contexts on the resilience of worker-owned platforms.

The study will use survey and experimental data on platform workers to assess their motivation to join a platform worker cooperative. In particular, an online survey will be used for those already part of worker-owned platforms and a vignette or discrete choice experiment for those working on capitalist gig platforms. The latter allows us to test under which conditions they would be more or less likely to switch over. Next, qualitative comparative analysis will be used to examine the organisational implementation of technology by worker cooperatives. Through a within-sector case comparison of worker-owned platforms to traditional worker cooperatives, it becomes possible to tell whether information technologies reinforce or cancel out disadvantages of large group size, social heterogeneity and geographical dispersion. Finally, a multinational case of platform cooperativism will be used to explore the institutional response in different countries where it competes with capitalist gig platforms. By focusing on bicycle delivery platforms in varying contexts, we can study how political and economic factors incentivise or constrain platform cooperativism versus platform capitalism.

PhD

Damion Bunders

Supervisors

Prof. dr. Tine De Moor
Prof. dr. Agnes Akkerman
Dr. Sarah Carmichael

Location

Utrecht University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of History and Art History

Disciplines

History, Sociology

Period

November 1, 2018 - October 31, 2022

 

 

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