Can Co-ops Disrupt the New App-Based Economy?

[A]mid the enthusiasm for this new economy, we should remember that, as in the old economy, we risk putting ourselves, our dollars and our communities in the service of big companies that typically are based far, far away.

Cities, after seeing banks and factories decamp to distant parts, now watch as local businesses are undercut by outside app-based companies. Workers struggled for decades to get employer-backed pensions, health care, vacation time, sick days, family leave and other traditional benefits. Employment through an app doesn’t appear to be a route to important benefits like these.

Clearly, someone is getting very rich on this new model. Uber, which takes a 20 to 30 percent commission on ride-sharing fares all over the world, is valued at $50 billion. That’s a torrent of money for a company that doesn’t have to supply cars, radio dispatchers or mechanics. “What’s remarkable about this new generation of platform-based companies is that beyond the initial creation of software, what are they really providing?” asks Stacy Mitchell, author of Big Box Swindle and co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. “Yet they take an enormous cut of the revenue stream.”

Is there a way for local communities to take advantage of these new technologies while keeping control of them? Is there a way for workers to produce new jobs and new income while also retaining control over their working lives and, not incidentally, keeping a greater share of the revenue for themselves?

There is. It’s a very old way, begun in the mid-19th century by weavers in England’s mills, an industry then on the cutting edge of technology and social disruption. Now this way includes both small businesses such as grocery stores and huge companies like Land O’Lakes. It’s called the co-op.

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