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Trade Unions – Partner or Antipode of the Crowd?

05 April 2016| doi: 10.5281/zenodo.1346232

Working in the crowd on so-called virtual platforms is developing into a recognisable employment and business model on the internet. Despite their many differences, the platforms that have emerged over the last few years have one thing in common: the manpower and ingenuity of the crowd is used to immediately bring thousands of individual producers and their available capacities – in the form of infrastructure, accommodation and vehicles – onto the market, in order to thus compete with firms from the traditional industries.

This can create unique and disruptive situations on the market, since from one day to the next, both the peers’ working capacities and their thus-far commercially unused assets are brought onto the market (Uber, Airbnb, etc.) via platforms. These compete with existing providers in the transport, hotel and media industries quite successfully, since these platforms are often able to draw on the high commitment of the crowdworker, who has mutated into a micro-entrepreneur, as well as the lower overhead costs, high flexibility and innovative customer interfaces.[1]

For unions, engaging with platforms for independent producers does not seem to be easy. The target group, crowdworkers, is difficult to delimit, because these individuals are often still employees in traditional sectors who continue to pursue crowdworking as an additional activity.[2] Union strategies that seek to capture this phenomenon have to openly engage with both the heterogeneous character of crowdworkers and the differences in the organisability of this target group, as well as developing new, compatible strategies for these individuals.

A study by the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG), which is composed of a quantitative online survey and an ideas competition for crowdworkers, evaluates the life situations and motivations of crowdworkers as well as their expectations regarding unions. When crowdworkers think about trade union support, they often think of tasks like providing advice, which are already offered today.[3] The fact that trade unions are, however, trusted to adopt a neutral or conflict-mediating role by the majority of survey participants, may act as an incentive for the trade unions to extend their traditional range of services and skills.

What is initially surprising in this analysis is the finding that the respondents – and here again the IT crowd are a bit more supportive strongly favoured more transparency and a certification of algorithms of platforms. However, when one considers the central role of algorithms in the control of crowdworkers, this requirement is more than understandable. In order to take on these roles, unions have to understand and deconstruct the mechanics and algorithms of the platform in the same manner as they evaluate business processes and IT solutions of the firm today. These new skills, in turn, could then be used to provide certification for platforms by the union, an idea which is supported by nearly one-third of respondents. An emerging issue in the survey is pay for crowdwork and improved lobbying work. According to some of the respondents’ statements, a union should also contribute to the development of a system for determining a “fair” hourly wage or do public relations and lobbying work for crowdworkers.

Nearly a third of respondents does not expect unions to improve their working conditions at present. There may be different reasons for this: trade unions have not yet been aggressively and openly active in this field. Thus, the respondents may not consider themselves to be the “typical” clientèle of trade unions, which for their part do not present themselves as the authentic representatives of, or as a community for crowdworkers. In addition, most of the respondents had not been active on the respective platforms for very long: experience suggests that criticism and awareness of asymmetries only come after a certain period of time.

There is some evidence that crowdworking is acquiring ever greater relevance and that companies are starting to outsource workers to such platforms. Trade unions will continue to face up this topic. The results of the study show that there is a mutual awareness of both groups, crowdworkers and trade unions. It is now up to the unions to raise this awareness and to intensify the relationships to a new target group.

Also read our issue in focus: Work in the digital age


[1] Vgl. Manjoo (2015)
[2] So arbeiten etwa nach wie vor 31 Prozent aller Fahrer der Uber-Plattform auch noch in einem traditionellen Taxiunternehmen (Hall, J.; Krueger, A. 2015: 10).
[3] So organisiert ver.di seit 15 Jahren Selbstständige – darunter auch Crowdworker – und berät sie unter Aber erst seit 2015 adressieren die IG Metall mit Fair Crowd Work und ver.di mit speziell die Crowdworker. Eine Mitgliedschaft ist Selbstständigen (Crowdworkern) in der IG Metall ebenfalls seit 2015 möglich.


Al-Ani, A.; Stumpp, S. (2015): Motivationen und Durchsetzung von Interessen auf kommerziellen Plattformen. Ergebnisse einer Umfrage unter Kreativ- und IT-Crowdworkern. HIIG Discussion Paper Series No. 2015-05, SSRN.

Hall, J.; Krueger, A. (2015): An Analysis of the Labor Market for Uber’s Driver Partners in the United States. IRS Working Papers No 587, Princeton: Princeton University.

Manjoo, F. (2015): Uber‘s Business Model Could Change Your Work. In: New York Times, 28.1.2015.

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Stefan Stumpp

Former Associated Researcher: Innovation & Entrepreneurship

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