Contesting the Platform Economy


The platform economy has been widely studied, and has frequently been problematized as a source of insecure and low-paid work. In response, there have been growing calls for the re-regulation of labour markets and increased employment and social protections for workers. However, there has so far been little focus on the agency of those working within platform situations to contest their conditions and build alternatives. In various literatures, there is an interest in cooperative organisational forms, as well as new methods of union organising. These insights have not yet been applied in a systematic comparative way to platform work, despite influential calls for “platform cooperativism” and the undeniable emergence of labour unrest among platform firms. To date, empirical investigation of these phenomena has not led to significant theoretical development, having rarely gone beyond descriptive accounts of particular instance of labour conflict. Consequently, there is a clear need for more systematic research in this area. 

We are well-placed to address this gap. Our proposal builds on a number of recent CERIC research projects. One lead author (Vera Trappmann) has recently conducted a comparative study of worker mobilisations against precarious work, while another (Charles Umney) has just completed a transnational investigation of platforms in live music including data from three of our chosen country studies (the UK, US and Germany). Several team members were also involved in the recent CERIC study for the European Parliament on social protections for platform workers, which examined platform work in 8 European countries. While all of these studies raise the empirical prospect of mobilisations to contest platform work, none of them aimed to systematically theorise the conditions under which specific types of worker organisation emerged. This experience means that the team has a good understanding of both the practical and intellectual challenges of researching platform work.  

This body of research has been developed to lay the foundations for a larger research project, which would address the following objectives:

  1. To develop a theoretical understanding of the nature of the employment relationship in platform settings, including: identifying both the distinctive characteristics of platform work and elements of continuity with more established forms; understanding the links between platform work and the wider political economy; examining the extent to which platform work represents a novel dynamic within employment relations.
  2. To conduct an empirical investigation of the conditions of platform work, including: a comparison between corporate and non-commercial platforms (such as municipal and cooperative models) in terms of worker experience and job quality; an evaluation of non-commercial platform models as a viable and potentially progressive alternative; an examination of how different models emerge as responses to varying institutional and market conditions.
  3. To conduct an empirical investigation into worker mobilisation in platform settings, including: the conditions under which mobilisations can occur and can be successful; emerging forms of non-union platform worker representation and contestation organisation, such as social media groups, worker cooperatives, and more informal networks; responses of established trade unions to the challenge of platform work.