Ken Lewis grew up on the island of GrenaÂda, and witÂnessed the proÂgresÂsive afterÂmath of its 1979 revÂoÂluÂtion. ?â€śI rememÂber the powÂer of coopÂerÂaÂtives, peoÂple getÂting land, turnÂing places that were barÂren into proÂducÂtive places,â€ť he says. That image stayed with him after he moved to New York City for grad school and startÂed driÂving a taxi on the side. Now, sevÂerÂal decades latÂer, Lewis is finalÂly getÂting a chance to put the powÂer of coopÂerÂaÂtives into pracÂtice, in serÂvice of the driÂvers he worked with for so long.
He is one of three cofounders of The DriÂvers CoopÂerÂaÂtive (TDC), which aims to realÂize a long-held dream of socialÂly conÂscious New YorkÂers in a hurÂry: a ridesharÂing app that you can feel good about. When it rolls out to the pubÂlic earÂly next year, TDC will become New York Cityâ€™s first workÂer-owned ridesharÂing platÂform?â€”?owned by the driÂvers themÂselves, rather than by big investors and execÂuÂtives. Its foundersâ€™ brazen idea is that TDC can actuÂalÂly gain a comÂpetÂiÂtive advanÂtage over Uber and Lyft?â€”?savÂing monÂey and funÂnelÂing those savÂings back to driÂvers?â€”?by doing away with the most exploitaÂtive pracÂtices of that domÂiÂnant duopÂoly. ?â€śThe way the [Uber] modÂel is orgaÂnized is extracÂtive. It takes out the monÂey and doesnâ€™t give back much. ImagÂine a comÂpaÂny that doesnâ€™t have any profÂits, but has creÂatÂed bilÂlionÂaires,â€ť Lewis says. ?â€śThat monÂey comes from drivers.â€ť
Erik ForÂman, a vetÂerÂan labor activist and orgaÂnizÂer, became intiÂmateÂly acquaintÂed with the dark side of that extracÂtive modÂel when he was workÂing as a staff memÂber at the IndeÂpenÂdent DriÂvers Guild, a union-affilÂiÂatÂed group that orgaÂnizes rideshare driÂvers in New York. ComÂpaÂnies that operÂate in the indusÂtry regÂuÂlarÂly push much of the risk of employÂment onto the driÂvers by clasÂsiÂfyÂing them as ?â€śindeÂpenÂdent conÂtracÂtorsâ€ť rather than employÂees. But they also push the costs of the job onto the workÂers, forcÂing them to pay for their own car and mainÂteÂnance (not to menÂtion things like healthÂcare benÂeÂfits). Instead of being paid to work, in othÂer words, ridesharÂing apps?â€”?like othÂer ?â€śgig econÂoÂmyâ€ť comÂpaÂnies?â€”?make peoÂple pay in order to work. When Uber launched in New York City in 2011, it was an attracÂtive alterÂnaÂtive for many who had preÂviÂousÂly been taxi driÂvers, with decent pay and litÂtle regÂuÂlaÂtion. But in subÂseÂquent years, Uber cut pay rates while the numÂber of driÂvers rose, leavÂing many who had takÂen out loans to buy cars for their job strugÂgling to meet their debt obligÂaÂtions and earn a living.
ForÂman, who has been through bitÂter union batÂtles with big comÂpaÂnies, realÂized that for the same amount of effort, workÂers could probÂaÂbly start their own venÂture?â€”?leadÂing him to help cofound the ridesharÂing coop. ?â€śThe indusÂtry seems uniqueÂly in need of a sysÂtem change based on workÂer ownÂerÂship,â€ť he says. â€ś[TDC] is not anothÂer comÂpaÂny tryÂing to get monÂey out of driÂvers. Itâ€™s the opposite.â€ť
In fact, the lack of exploitaÂtion is also The DriÂvers Cooperativeâ€™s finanÂcial advanÂtage. For one thing, the bilÂlions of dolÂlars that Uber has spent on marÂketÂing the conÂcept of ridesharÂing mean that TDC has litÂtle need for big ad budÂgets. Their plan is to grow by buildÂing a netÂwork of driÂvers, using press and word of mouth. And while Uber and Lyft take around a quarÂter of the monÂey from each trip (some of it to pay for all that marÂketÂing), the coop plans to take only 15%. By comÂbinÂing the purÂchasÂing powÂer of all the memÂbers, they hope to lowÂer expensÂes on costs like gas and insurÂance?â€”?expensÂes that Uber and Lyft driÂvers must hanÂdle on their own. They project that this should all add up to 8?â€“?10% highÂer earnÂings for driÂvers on every ride, even while being able to beat their comÂpetiÂtors on fare prices. And if the coop has any profÂits left at the end of the year, they will be paid out to driÂvers as dividends.
Nobody underÂstands the funÂdaÂmenÂtal conÂtrast with Uberâ€™s busiÂness modÂel betÂter than the third cofounder, AlisÂsa OrlanÂdo?â€”?because she used to work for Uber. Her stint as the head of Uberâ€™s operÂaÂtions in East Africa left her disÂilÂluÂsioned with the companyâ€™s predaÂtoÂry conÂtrol over its driÂvers, embodÂied in the way it uniÂlatÂerÂalÂly cut earnÂings, deacÂtiÂvatÂed driÂvers altoÂgethÂer, or sadÂdled them with unsusÂtainÂable car loans, all while claimÂing they were workÂing togethÂer. ?â€śWe called driÂvers partÂners to the extent that it helped usâ€ť mainÂtain favorÂable regÂuÂlaÂtoÂry staÂtus, OrlanÂdo says, ?â€śbut they were nevÂer partners.â€ť
Now she is using her expeÂriÂence in venÂture capÂiÂtal and platÂform-based busiÂnessÂes on behalf of TDC, a scrapÂpiÂer job that allows her to sleep betÂter at night. MeetÂing with New York City driÂvers to recruit them into the coop, sheâ€™s heard countÂless stoÂries of the imposÂsiÂble choicÂes that driÂvers are forced to make?â€”?like the woman who said that a half dozen pasÂsenÂgers get into her car withÂout a mask every week, but if she objects, they give her a low ratÂing. ?â€śShe has to make this choice between ensurÂing that sheâ€™s safe, and the potenÂtial threat of deacÂtiÂvaÂtion,â€ť OrlanÂdo says.
MohamÂmad Hossen, a rideshare driÂver who serves on the coopâ€™s adviÂsoÂry board, says that the panÂdemÂic has actÂed as an accelÂerÂant for the urgency of the new project. His income from driÂving has fallÂen by two-thirds, to just $100 a day, and costs for disÂinÂfecÂtant and othÂer safeÂty meaÂsures?â€”?paid out of his own pockÂet?â€”?have gone up. The shared predicaÂment has allowed him to sucÂcessÂfulÂly recruit othÂer driÂvers, while they wait for hours at the airÂport to get a fare. ?â€śAt the end of the day, you have no life, no secuÂriÂty, no future,â€ť Hossen says. ?â€śWe realÂize that, and we suffer.â€ť
That could change when driÂvers are also the companyâ€™s ownÂers. The DriÂvers CoopÂerÂaÂtive is startÂing aÂ pilot project this month givÂing rides to workÂers for the Bronx-basedÂ CoopÂerÂaÂtive Home Care AssoÂciates, an examÂple of cross-coop coopÂerÂaÂtion. Founders hope to evenÂtuÂalÂly recruit sevÂerÂal thouÂsand driÂvers in the city, and say recruitÂment is going well. They aim to roll out their own app and open for busiÂness in the first quarÂter ofÂ 2021. Their evenÂtuÂal goal, they say, isÂ 10% of the $5Â bilÂlion New York City rideshare marÂket, and expanÂsion into othÂer cities. For now, though, they will be satÂisÂfied with makÂing aÂ good idea aÂ reality.
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is aÂ labor reporter forÂ In These Times. He has spent the past decade writÂing about labor and polÂiÂtics for GawkÂer, SplinÂter, The Guardian, and elseÂwhere.Â