Navigating Political and Economic Realities Through Governance at CoopCycle

Coopcycle Annual General Assembly 2023, August 2023. Photo by the author.

Since the onset of the last financial crisis, a fresh wave of precariousness has swept across numerous countries globally. These crises have catalyzed the emergence of novel forms of instability, some ostensibly offering enhanced autonomy and freedom to laborers. Termed the “uberization of work,” this phenomenon is epitomized by digital platforms acting as intermediaries, centralizing and exerting control over user interactions. However, with the passage of time, it becomes evident that these platforms fall short of their proclaimed commitments, instead perpetuating opaque, convoluted, and irresponsible working conditions, all while masking the absence of labor rights advocacy. As an ICDE 2024/2025 fellow, this post outlines the paper I will work on during my fellowship, aiming to research these critical issues.

Since then, as I stroll along the streets, one of the most conspicuous manifestations of this trend is the presence of food delivery drivers. In numerous cities worldwide, these delivery workers can be seen stationed with their personal bicycles or motorcycles, awaiting orders at various locations throughout the city. What’s noticeable is the discernible patterns in the recent profiles of these workers, indicative of the escalating erosion of their status. They’ve become emblematic of the most vulnerable worker archetype, with instances of immigrant workers resorting to renting the accounts of other delivery personnel to operate as pseudo self-employed individuals. It’s increasingly apparent that, rather than providing a genuine solution to unemployment and precariousness, these platforms primarily serve to augment the incomes of already precarious workers or perpetuate substandard working conditions for those grappling with the challenges of making ends meet.

Instead of leveraging technology to facilitate novel exploitative labor schemes, platform cooperatives aspire to establish a platform governed democratically, serving the societal purpose of platforms in a manner that’s more transparent, equitable, and participatory.

Recognizing the deteriorating working conditions faced by platform workers across various nations, platform cooperatives have emerged as supplementary approaches to combat and mitigate the issues linked with platform labor.

CoopCycle, a prominent cooperative delivery platform, has garnered recognition amidst the backdrop of social mobilization spurred by a new neoliberal wave and labor reforms. Its inception aimed at reinstating platform work within the ambit of labor rights by offering a platform where riders can self-organize and participate in democratic governance. Since its establishment in 2017, CoopCycle has evolved from a volunteer-driven association advocating against the growing trend of labor uberization to a well-structured federation comprising 70 cooperatives and collectives worldwide, demonstrating a transition towards professionalism and organization.

Subsequently, CoopCycle has developed an alternative platform designed to empower delivery drivers to operate independently of multinational corporations notorious for neglecting their working conditions. By establishing a platform and fostering a growing network, cooperatives from various corners of the globe, predominantly from France and Europe, have united under their federation. These cooperatives actively engage in governing and advancing the software infrastructure critical to their operations, ensuring collective ownership and accountability in their endeavors.

Its democratic governance manifests through various decision-making bodies. Firstly, the annual assembly convenes, inviting members from all cooperatives to participate in crafting and endorsing an annual roadmap. Each cooperative holds equal voting rights, irrespective of size or economic influence within the federation. The 2023 assembly transcended mere resolutions and voting, fostering exchanges and learning on diverse topics pertinent to cooperatives and collective dynamics. These discussions encompassed software development, enhancing commercial skills and business models, mitigating burnout risks, incorporating a gender perspective, and refining cooperative governance. Secondly, the board of directors, elected from different cooperatives during the annual assembly, ensures representativeness based on geographic and gender criteria, thereby guaranteeing federation-wide representation. Lastly, local collectives or cooperatives are encouraged to uphold democratic internal organization principles.

CoopCycle is experimenting with cooperative principles at different levels. Firstly, it devises a Copyleft license, restricting commercial usage solely to cooperatives or organizations aligned with European Law on Social and Solidarity Economy. Here, employee status takes precedence over the self-employed norm prevalent in capitalist platforms. Secondly, it fosters a federation promoting inter-cooperation and training. Through shared opportunities, practices, and knowledge exchange, members collectively tackle challenges. Thirdly, CoopCycle prioritizes democratic governance and transparent reporting, ensuring inclusive decision-making and platform development. Nonetheless, existing within a broader economy, CoopCycle navigates diverse values and coexists with digital platforms. Balancing varied member expectations across projects, contexts, and legal frameworks, it sustains democratic governance and participatory software development.

My forthcoming research centers on the persistent pursuit of political and democratic objectives alongside economic sustainability within CoopCycle. This investigation extends from my ongoing PhD research, which commenced two years ago. Initially, I interviewed the coordinator and president, and spent a week immersed in a cooperative of the federation, initiating a continuous engagement with the network.

Over the past two years, I’ve conducted a comprehensive study within the CoopCycle federation, engaging in both participant and non-participant observation. This involved active involvement in formal decision-making bodies, including translating training sessions, board meetings, and the annual general assembly. Additionally, I visited and interviewed numerous members and cooperatives within the federation. My research methodology encompassed interviewing a diverse sample of CoopCycle federation members across various historical stages and levels, ranging from association volunteers to board members, federation employees, and members of the local delivery cooperatives. These interviews spanned different geographical contexts, including France, Europe, and Latin America. The aim of this extensive study is to provide an in-depth analysis highlighting both the potentialities and challenges encountered by these platforms in a global context, where they must navigate varying expectations and resource constraints.

Drawing from prior research on platform cooperativism, it’s evident that challenges related to participation and paradoxical tensions arise during their development. We approach cooperatives as continuously evolving entities, subject to ongoing transformations and tensions. Our goal is to offer empirical data from a longitudinal perspective, exploring the concealed potential of the cooperative movement within the digital economy, alongside the emerging challenges they confront.

The report I will compile during my fellowship will provide insights into the following questions:

  • How do cooperative platforms balance their political, democratic and economic expectations?
  • What are the challenges faced by such an international and complex self-managed cooperative platform?

If you have similar inquiries to those I plan to address in my examination of this remarkable cooperative platform, feel free to reach out. Let’s collaborate to deepen our understanding of how these platforms put their ideals into practice.