Facilitating collective action in the collaborative economy through new interaction models, report from the Democracy and Participation Conference in Lisbon July 2017

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The Democracy and Participation in the 21st Century conference was held in July 2017 in Lisbon, Portugal, organised by the International Sociological Association. Conference participants engaged with the issues surrounding democracy at a time of technological change, including the collaborative, or platform economy. The platform economy is where a software platform facilitates matching of freelance workers to short-term work. Justin participated in the ”Democratic participation in the platform economy” session organised by Åke Sandberg from the University of Stockholm and Justins presentation drew on the work he has been doing with Åke in the past year. This session explored the impact digitization has had on the nature of work and on traditional forms of collective action. In particular, unions in many countries are losing members as their worker base increasingly finds employment as freelance workers and in the platform economy rather than in traditional firms.

David Peetz’s presentation focused on how firms still maintain a core of employees, offering a way in for unions, however unions will need to embrace on-line media such as the Our Walmart app. Todd Wolfson was unable to attend, but his presentation would have highlighted the importance of collective identity for platform economy workers, which is different from that of regular workers. Bela Galgoczi’s presentation asked the questions what makes an employee and what makes an employer in the digital economy and what are the implications for trade unions. There is the potential to create new structures such as platform co-ops but they still need to compete with mainstream platforms such as Uber.

Our presentation offered ”a new producer-consumer interaction model for facilitating collective action in the collaborative economy”, based on our exploration of how guild-like cooperatives and trade unions could work in an economy where growing numbers of individual freelance workers interact with their employers via online platforms. We presented the Software Review Alliance Board, a model that brings together union members, software programmers, workplace managers and researchers to enable collective action.

Åke Sandberg brought the session to a close, highlighting that the platform economy has led to a rise in self-employment, which is an opportunity for unions to engage with self-employed workers and negotiate on behalf of them. In the UK, the Taylor Report on working practices suggested a new category of workers, but the unions are resisting the report’s recommendations. One possibility is that workers could create their own platforms, our proposed Review Alliance model indicates how such platforms could work in practice.

The conference highlighted how human-computer interaction has changed in recent years, to play a more central role in society. Software platforms are now increasingly governing how people work, creating a new class in the process, the ”precariat” working in the ”gig economy”. However, the ideas and research presented in this session and during the rest of the conference shows that it is possible to use this technology to create new mechanisms for workers to take collective action.

/Justin Larner and Åke Walldius

 

The Taylor Report:
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/good-work-the-taylor-review-of-modern-working-practices

Abstracts from the Democracy and Participation conference:
http://pascal.iseg.utl.pt/~socius/eventos/ISA-RC10/programa.shtml

 

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