Carolina Herrera pushes a stroller through the slushy city streets, propelling one-year-old Zavier, as well as her own two-year-old daughter, Mariana. Herrera is small, and the double stroller takes a lot of her strength—usually, it’s a single stroller, and Mariana is at home with a neighbor while Herrera’s partner, Marco, works long hours as a construction worker. Zavier’s four-year-old brother Toren walks alongside them. Herrera implores the kids to put on their tiny gloves: it’s another cold winter day in New York.
On the face of it, Herrera is a typical struggling immigrant, a 34-year-old nanny who emigrated from Mexico when she was very young, with few resources. But what could be a standard-issue sorry tale—a caregiver with a precarious job; a parent who must leave her own child to take care of other people’s—is actually cheerier. Herrera is part of a caregiving co-op in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, called the Beyond Care Cooperative, which the members run themselves. Beyond Care is composed of about 45 workers who are also "owners," as well as several hundred active clients, ranging from the politically sympathetic to those who simply need a good nanny. Members advertise their services together and pay co-op dues. Beyond Care is supported by the Cooperative Development Program at the Center for Family Life (CFL), which also develops cooperatives like Si Se Puede! Women’s Cleaning Cooperative, a co-op that has become a local symbol of worker empowerment.
But what is novel about CFL is not that it supports co-ops for poorly paid workers in a large American city. It’s that CFL, together with the Robin Hood Foundation, is creating a new online platform to help co-ops compete in the app era. The hope is that co-ops can provide a socially responsible challenge to the ruthless companies of the sharing economy.
The platform, named Coopify for now, will take the form of either an app or mobile-responsive site. It will be owned and used by co-op workers at Si Se Puede! and a number of other co-ops throughout New York City. The proverbial fine print is still being written, but the intention is that these workers, as owners, will be the ones making money if the app gets licensed. The developers also hope the app will give workers more flexibility and control over their schedules. And, maybe, they will also get some mastery over the gig economy itself.
The Coopify app was designed by researchers from Cornell Tech. Steven Lee, managing director of income security at the Robin Hood Foundation, explains that Coopify was conceived to give domestic workers access to more clients, as well as more of a purchase in the sharing economy.
When the platform launches, most likely next summer or fall, it will let users select the service they need—housecleaning or childcare or pet care. The developers are deciding whether users will then be assigned a particular co-op, since the platform will support several different co-ops working in the same field, or will have the ability to choose one themselves. Sean Ansanelli, the app’s 29-year-old developer, has been retooling the design and messaging: he and other designers wanted the app to be simple enough that workers could use it easily and quickly, so they’ve been holding focus groups in which co-op members are taught about the app and how to get paid through it. The app will include options for both online payments and cash. "The project stemmed from a general sense that co-ops needed to exist on a technical level as well, if they are going to be competitors with Uber or Handy or anything like that," says Ansanelli. Ultimately, the workers will be able to manage their schedules, find other workers to cover for them if they can’t make a gig, and see clients’ ratings.
Coopify’s back-end interface will eventually be available in many languages, to match its polyglot workforce. Herrera, for example, is not comfortable speaking English. She immigrated when she was 15 and never went to school again. (Her previous job was in a Brooklyn factory packaging dog clothing.)
Of course, the co-op workers already have it better than some of the employees of Uber or Handy—companies that sometimes use troubling business practices to gain the upper hand and, ultimately, a steroidal valuation. Much of the co-ops’ business already comes by word of mouth, and Emma Yorra, the co-director of the cooperative development program at CFL, hopes clients will find out about it through, say, parental playground chatter. But the CFL and Robin Hood are realistic about their ability to compete with huge, well-funded tech companies. "We’d like to get a decent chunk of money to do some marketing for it," Yorra says. "I read somewhere that Handy has like a $50 million marketing budget. Si Si Puede has a $500 marketing budget. But Si Si Puede is higher on Yelp than Handy because they’re doing a better quality service."
Yorra first wondered about the possibilities for a co-op app when she saw an ad for Handy on the subway. Handy lets users book maids and handymen—they call it the Uber of home care. But Yorra was immediately suspicious, given Handy’s swollen valuation (it is reportedly worth $500 million). Sure enough, eight months ago, a Boston woman sued the company, saying she was paid less than minimum wage for her work, and had to use some of her pay to cover her costs. Handy workers have spoken of severe penalties if they missed jobs and pressure to get impossibly high ratings from customers. Co-op workers, on the other hand, determine their own wages and working conditions, since they own the co-ops themselves.
Workers like Herrera are part of a grassroots co-op movement. But they also are case studies in a more heady new phenomenon called Platform Cooperativism. That’s a mouthful of a term: It is in vogue, as you might imagine, among academics. The phrase is the brainchild of Trebor Scholz, an associate professor of culture and media at the New School, but the general idea is growing, having spread internationally since it was first defined two years ago. Platform Cooperativism takes the tools of traditional for-profit online platforms and tries to direct them to more collaborative and democratic ends. "Let us apply the power of our technological imagination to practice forms of cooperation..." Scholz wrote in 2014. The aim has a utopian flavor: once app-enabled, "worker–owned cooperatives," Scholz wrote, could "speak truth to the new platform capitalists."
Though still in its beta phase, Platform Cooperativism is growing. It includes Stocksy, a successful stock-photo collective that ensures photographers are paid for their work, and Loconomics, a new San Francisco co-op that hopes to compete with TaskRabbit. The dream is for tech-savvy co-ops to empower workers; otherwise, they might be ordered up like pizzas rather than people. In other words, be treated like objects.
When you talk about the gig economy’s most mammoth companies, their workers often seem to exist in the abstract, as if TaskRabbit’s workers really were like the cartoon bunny on the logo. Platform Cooperativism seeks to be an antidote to Uber, Handy, and TaskRabbit—gargantuan outfits that offer short-term, cheap services from "independent" contractors. These companies have become hugely successful by trading labor across platforms over which workers have little to no say.
Scholz says Platform Cooperativism uses "the traditional toolbox" of plain-old Cooperativism—a movement founded in the 19th century on precepts like "one worker, one vote," mutualism, and collective ownership—and adds in social media, online markets, and apps. He sees Platform Cooperativism as "the anti-virus to Ayn Rand." In the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn, every third worker is now a freelancer. Contingency and contract work have become the norm for the middle class as well. Advocates of Platform Cooperativism want to make this harsh, unpredictable labor market a little more humane.
One day this winter, the Beyond Care Cooperative met in an overheated room with posters of Pope Francis taped to the walls. The collective’s 40-odd members sat behind school desks. They didn’t seem to mind the cramped conditions; after all, they were voting on issues essential to their well-being, like whether they would together establish a cooperative day care (they decided against it). The women talked about what they’ve learned at Beyond Care, including how to organize: a Domestic Workers United rep once came in to teach them.
Beyond Care only started in 2008; its sister organization Si Se Puede! (We Can Do It!), the cleaners’ co-op, is much more organized and visible. The hope is that Coopify and similar apps will help co-ops compete, as well as protect workers better than Handy and its ilk (here’s one that seeks to cut down wage theft). Of course, neither co-ops nor apps can fundamentally change the difficulty of low-income work. But what if the hoary phrase "there’s an app for that" could be applied to improving economic equality?
"It makes me feel important, because everybody is an owner, everybody has a voice," Carolina Herrera says of the co-op. "We worked very hard to get where we are. Every day, we try to get better—to get new clients, new jobs, and create a better quality of life for our families." Once the technology is there, the hope is that consumers—maybe the type who drink fair trade coffee, or simply care about others—may use it to support co-ops.
This will be a change from gig-economy business as usual. Yorra has called cleaner apps a "faceless yellow dismembered hand that cleans your house for you," and this surreal horror-movie image often seems right. After all, most of these platforms train consumers—that is, users—to simply look for the cheapest service and the highest ratings. Coopify and the cooperative movement wants to give workers like Herrera greater dignity and autonomy. "If we are all producing value," says designer Ansanelli, "why shouldn’t we all share the benefits of that value?"
This photo essay and story were supported by the journalism non-profit The Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
All Photos: Alice Proujansky