Public-Cooperative Partnerships

Advancing Cycle Logistics with Mensakas

Photo by Arthur Guichoux, “Coopcycle Training at Mensakas, Barcelona, June 2023,” licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Bike messengers are defying Uber’s digital Taylorism and rejecting the precarity of algorithmic oversight. They’re hitting the streets and the courtroom to demand improved working conditions and recognition. Pushing the envelope, some messengers have even established their own cooperatives, seizing control of the technology that once governed them. My research explores these grassroots counter-platforms reshaping cycle logistics, fostering sustainable alternatives in the delivery market and examining the institutional catalysts behind this transformation.

My research kicked off with a year-long ethnography at Barcelona’s Mensakas cooperative, a member of the 60-strong Coopcycle federation. Alejandro Fortuna-Sicart’s article offers further details. Starting two years ago as a postdoc at the Casa de Velázquez, the work now progresses under a European Marie Curie grant at the University of Liège. As a ‘rider-sociologist,’ I immersed myself in Mensakas, committing to their mission and Coopcycle at large, through observation and interviews. I extended my study to Eraman and La Pajara, and attended in Coopcycle’s General Meetings, enabling a rich, longitudinal analysis of the network.

Past studies reveal that platform cooperatives grapple with hurdles like securing funding, attracting a substantial customer base, diversifying providers, and obtaining institutional support. Public authorities significantly influence these cooperatives’ local ecosystems, contributing financial and regulatory support. Key stakeholders include social economy entities, trade unions, businesses, and cycle logistics federations. However, garnering this institutional support demands substantial time and effort, often going unnoticed and underappreciated within the cooperative labor structure.

Adopting a cooperative model empowers riders to reclaim their trade. They share expertise and resources, like cargo bikes and crucial platform technology. The CoopCycle app, central to operations for order management and job distribution, operates on a Copyleft license, aligning its use with cooperative values. Evolving from a volunteer association to a structured federation since 2017, CoopCycle offers its members cost-saving benefits, training, and a platform for exchanging practices and expertise. In return, member cooperatives enhance the software by contributing field insights and addressing technical issues.

Mensakas is actively engaged in local inter-cooperation, choosing suppliers that align with its values over mainstream fast-food and supermarket chains like Uber and Glovo. Specializing in last-mile delivery, the cooperative partners with local cultural centers and businesses that sell a variety of products, from bread to newspapers. It also collaborates with key players in Catalan cooperativism, such as Coopolis in Can Battló, and is a central figure in the local cycle logistics sector. Mensakas is part of the second-degree cooperative Som Ecologistica, which unites bike delivery cooperatives in Catalonia to share resources and engage with large-volume transporters, thereby linking itself to both the SSE and the broader transport industry.

Mensakas also collaborates closely with political institutions, forming the third pillar of its ecosystem. It receives funding from the municipality and the Catalan government through the Singulars public action program, which supports projects in the cooperative sector. Another example of public-coops partnerships : during the pandemic lockdown, Mensakas distributed masks and food parcels in a municipal co-financed action. The city council oversees infrastructure policies like cycle paths and regulates the delivery sector, an area also governed by regional, national, and international institutions.

Mensakas originated from the Riders X Derechos platform in Barcelona in 2017, advocating for bike couriers and influencing the creation of Europe’s first sector-specific law, the Riders law, passed in 2021. The union extended its advocacy to European institutions, culminating in the 2023 directive for platform workers, facilitated by MEPs from The Left in the European Parliament group (GUE-NGL). This engagement with political bodies also enhances local urban distribution conditions, demonstrating Mensakas’s commitment not only to riders’ rights but also to shaping supportive urban policies.

The Barcelona-based cooperative not only applies for subsidies and public contracts but also actively lobbies through SomEcologisticas. Its intercooperation extends beyond handling large retailer volumes to engaging with political institutions, including advocating for cycle logistics in the Catalan Parliament. Arguments for this include cargo bikes’ efficiency, speed, urban decongestion, and decarbonization benefits. In 2024, Som Ecologisticas helped draft Barcelona’s Urban Mobility Plan, which includes setting up bike micro hubs to facilitate deliveries between trucks and the city.

While countries like France allow the expansion of uberization and the associated decline in working conditions, other public authorities support alternatives that ease urban congestion and create stable, decent jobs. Co-ops lead the “cycle logistical revolution,” but public authorities also play a crucial supportive role. This movement aims not only to decarbonize urban delivery and reduce traffic but also to prevent market dominance by capitalist platforms that often result in poor working conditions for self-employed deliverers. Cooperative platforms counter this by ensuring labor rights and enabling self-organization.

Public-coop partnerships are labor-intensive for small cooperatives like Mensakas, which has around a dozen employees. Beyond delivery, their work includes maintaining microhubs and bikes, managing dispatch and distribution, handling administrative tasks, sales, negotiations, recruitment, and workplace safety. Crucially, it also involves liaising with public institutions. Securing subsidies demands specific skills such as understanding bureaucratic language and public speaking. Mensakas faces the challenge of integrating these tasks into its labor division, which encompasses not just productive tasks like delivery but also reproductive tasks like facility maintenance and political activities like advocacy. This situation sparks ongoing debates within cooperatives about balancing political objectives with economic viability and improving working conditions.

The ambivalence of cooperatives between economic and political activity often blurs the lines between volunteer and paid work. Public relations tasks, requiring specific skills and resources to prepare documents, attend meetings, and travel, are demanding. Recognizing this work goes beyond fair compensation (these hours are partly paid in the coop); it’s about preventing the same individuals from consistently shouldering these tasks. This is a long-term organizational challenge that calls for spreading this specialized knowledge and promoting decentralization within the cooperative to enhance workplace democracy.

As we gear up for a sustainable future, Mensakas shows that robust public-cooperative partnerships can transform urban delivery. Let’s rally behind these innovative cooperatives—supporting them means supporting a fairer, greener urban landscape. 

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