A few weeks ago, I wrote an article in which I proposed that unions (or something like them) could exist as decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) on blockchains, potentially making unionization an option for many groups of people who previously had no effective way to organize. A DAO union would be well equipped to perform certain functions typical of their traditional counterparts, including holding votes, collecting dues, and conducting audits. Also, while some unions today rely on the threat of litigation to pressure management into honoring contracts, the contracts secured by these new decentralized organizations could be self-enforcing.
In the piece that follows I examine some of the shortcomings that may be inherent in such a system. Many of these came up during interviews with current union members and representatives, all of whom wanted to remain anonymous in order to avoid creating any strife within their respective organizations.
While some of their concerns may reflect a limited understanding of blockchain technology, others derive from a deep familiarity with the mechanics and architecture of traditional unions.
Before addressing these potential roadblocks, though, I share some thoughts on when we might expect to see DAO unions, and what they might look like when we do.
Are Decentralized Unions On The Way?
DAO unions, if they ever come into being, are probably close to a decade off, if not further.
I offer this estimate because I don’t believe that they will be worth building until the parties with whom they’ll be negotiating (employers, landlords, etc.) have adopted blockchain-based systems in many major areas of their own lives, from finances to communications.
Furthermore, it’s unlikely that anyone will be in a hurry to develop such a DAO before it’s practical to implement, because there’s hardly any money to be made in this concept: it’s a technology that would exist to serve the needs of users, not developers.
There’s also the question of whether the DAO union is socially feasible. One of my interviewees, who has worked as a representative for several unions, talked about the divide between “service unions,” whose members passively receive services but have little involvement with the union otherwise, and those whose members play a greater role in the life of the organization.
While it’s his experience that members of the latter type benefit more substantially, a DAO union would seemingly be much better suited to simply providing services than facilitating a sociopolitical awakening among its members.
This is in large part because, as one union member rightly pointed out, transplanting any institution into a novel technological paradigm inevitably privileges certain functions over others. For reasons I discuss below, a digital platform would likely quash some of the individual creativity that members pour into debates, to the detriment of the organization and those whose rights it protects.
Unless humans develop significantly better digital mechanisms for simulating the feeling of sharing a physical space with others, DAO unions are unlikely to ever amount to anything more than service unions. While this concern was universal among my interviewees, it may not be a showstopper for groups of people who want to organize, but for whom forming a traditional union has so far been logistically impossible, such as the workers in stunningly extensive garment supply chains who I mentioned in part one.
Potential Roadblocks Facing A DAO Union
Collective action: Among the people I interviewed for this story was a representative and organizer for a public employees’ union in the US. He explained that because companies cannot function without the input of employee labor, workers derive their power from the ability to withhold that labor. The strike is the ultimate expression of this power, but it can also be exercised in softer ways and on a smaller scale, like taking simultaneous bathroom or lunch breaks. The organizer worries that moving union activity out of centralized physical spaces might diminish workers’ abilities to organize these kinds of actions, and his concern is certainly a valid one, particularly in workplaces such as a factory or a government office. However, for contractors with a multicontinental ride-sharing app, organizing a coordinated sign-out action could be significantly easier via a DAO union than a traditional one.
He also expressed fears that data streams linked to a union’s executable distributed code contracts (EDCCs), e.g. one that verifies a laborer’s presence in the workplace, might be used to surveil those workers, effectively limiting their avenues for collective action. While I could not assure him with absolute certainty that his anxieties were misplaced, I would expect that DAO unions could protect their members from such scrutiny by programming privacy features into those data streams or negotiating agreements that forbid management from monitoring them.
Strategic non-enforcement: Interestingly, the union rep pointed out that in some cases, both workers and management benefit from flexibility in the enforcement of certain contractual terms. This is because single contracts often apply to laborers who work under a wide range of conditions. A certain provision might benefit graveyard shift workers but would be terribly inconvenient for someone working during the day. Under the current system, enforcing those terms only at night is easy. While it’s possible that algorithm-based EDCCs would be too rigid in structure to allow for this kind of wiggle room, DAO unions might meet this challenge by securing a series of related contracts that account for every variable, or by connecting certain EDCCs to an AI functionality that would decide when and how to enforce particular contractual terms.
Aspects of Traditional Unions That Might Be Impossible To Replicate
This section describes the functions of unions that my interviewees considered the most essential, and which, not uncoincidentally, are the least compatible with automation.
Coalition building through education, analysis, and strategy: The public employee organizer argued that a union’s most important function is building working-class consciousness by helping workers understand the power and importance of their labor. To him, negotiated contracts are “by-products” of this more valuable work.
Along these lines, I interviewed a member of the Los Angeles Tenant Union’s (LATU) media team who considers coalition-building to be among her organization’s paramount duties. As the LATU educates members about the housing landscape and helps them understand how their personal struggles relate to the housing crisis as a whole, she explained, they come to feel more empowered to contribute to the organization’s strategies.
This LATU organizer believes that people cannot build a functional collective without debate and conflict. She worries that members who have never met face to face may not feel invested in these dialogues. In her estimation, conversations among a disconnected membership are doomed to yield results that do not genuinely reflect members’ sentiments. Furthermore, she argued, it’s by listening to each other’s problems and offering moral support that members come to feel connected to one another, and thus to the struggle. Therefore, without this human connection, collectives cannot fully harness the power of their members’ determination to fight for their rights.
Outreach: It follows from LATU’s emphasis on coalition-building that the union does a lot of outreach, online as well as through door-to-door campaigns. Through the latter method, the LATU has acquired many passionate members. A decentralized union would obviously be ill-equipped to perform this kind of “meatspace” outreach.
Other forms of concrete action: One key way that the LATU supports its members is by intervening when their rights are being violated. For instance, if a landlord is trying to illegally evict a tenant, fellow LATU members may physically show up to protest and prevent the expulsion. The organization derives its ability to offer this kind of help in no small part from the leanness and solidarity of its local chapters, which may be comprised of as few as 20 or 30 members on the neighborhood level. Galvanized by a sense of camaraderie that has been reinforced by months or years engaged in shared struggle, members of such a union are relatively easy to mobilize. By contrast, a network of geographically disconnected people bound by a more abstract conception of the common good could grow apathetic over time or fail to deeply engage with the organization’s mission in the first place.
From this perspective, it seems unlikely that DAO unions will become the epicenters of political movements, but as communication technologies evolve to enable new types of remote interactions, even that could change.